Authors: Darlene Gardner
Tags: #Return To Indigo Springs
Funny how life worked. If Penelope Pollock hadn’t mentioned mountain biking when he ran into her before she left for her second honeymoon, he might not have gotten the notion to take up riding again.
It had all started when Dan made an offhand remark about seeing Jill lunching with Chad Armstrong. Penelope emphatically maintained the two were not dating, a piece of information that fit. Somebody as honest and upfront as Jill wouldn’t have fed him a line about her resolve not to get involved with anyone.
Penelope was sketchy on the details but did know the lunch had somehow involved cycling. Chad didn’t ride, but Jill did. In fact, on Sunday mornings when she wasn’t on the water Jill biked the very trail Dan was about to take.
Dan had parked his Jeep in a small lot near the entrance to the trail, which happened to be among the most popular in the region. A sensible choice for a cyclist aiming to get back into the sport.
He swatted at the pesky gnats again, which only seemed to make more of them appear. The sun beat down, getting warmer by the minute. A bead of sweat trickled down his face.
He really should get moving.
When he didn’t budge, he finally had to admit to himself he’d been hoping Jill’s ride would coincide with his. Although, come to think of it, the woman was a bartender. His chances of being in the same place at the same time she was would have been infinitely better at the Blue Haven.
Brother, was he out of practice when it came to male-female relations.
He blew out a breath, then sucked in a bigger one, along with what must have been a half dozen gnats. He coughed, trying to clear his throat. He doubled over to spit out the insects, peripherally aware of a soft crunching noise.
He straightened in time to see the back of a mountain bike entering the trail. Jill’s black curly hair stuck out from under her bike helmet, while her strong, lithe legs pumped at the pedals.
“Damn,” Dan said aloud.
The trail entrance was a few miles from the town center, most of the route uphill, all of it on a narrow, twisting road. It hadn’t occurred to him to bike to the trail entrance.
He swung one leg over the crossbar before remembering bike safety and disembarking. Snatching his helmet from the bed of the pickup, he shoved it on his head. Jill had been traveling at a pretty good clip. With her head start, it was possible he wouldn’t catch up to her.
The trail appeared to follow a wide loop to the right before bending back around. To his left was a forest consisting mostly of tall oaks interspersed with evergreens.
He took off for the forest, steering his bike between an uneven row of spindly tree trunks. The bike’s thick tires flattened the underbrush. Branches and twigs slapped at him. He shielded his face with one hand, navigating the shortcut with relative ease.
The path soon came into view, and he gave himself a mental high five. The going was bumpy, but he and the bike had held up beautifully. They were both made of sturdy stuff, able to withstand a rugged ride.
The thick, low-lying branch came out of nowhere. Dan jerked the handlebars to the left. The wheels stopped spinning, propelling his body weight forward. He squeezed the hand brakes, desperately trying to keep his balance as the bike skidded through the leaves and the dirt.
Then, just shy of the path, it came to a jarring stop.
His heart hammered faster than the beak of a woodpecker against a tree. It seemed incredible that he was upright and in one piece. The bike, though, had taken a hit. Lodged in the spokes of the back wheel was a stick of wood. The chain had come loose.
Sighing, he got off and dislodged the stick. To better assess the damage, he needed to move the bike out of the brush. Before he reached the trail, Jill Jacobi came into view, dressed in black mountain bike shorts, a purple sleeveless shirt and a black helmet decorated with red lightning bolts. She slowed, then stopped, planting her feet on either side of her bike.
“Dan!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing over there?”
Not exactly the scenario he’d envisioned when he’d taken off through the woods to catch up to her.
He slowly wheeled his bike onto the path. “I was about to put the chain back on.”
“But how did you…” Her voice trailed off and she tilted her head. Her pretty face scrunched up. “Did you just ride through the woods?”
“Isn’t that what we’re both doing?”
“I’m on a path,” she pointed out.
“I, um, took a shortcut.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said.
Her gaze dropped to the dislodged chain. “Not your best move. You haven’t done much mountain biking, have you?”
“Can’t imagine why you’d think that,” he deadpanned. Her laugh was a pleasant rumble. “Believe it or not, I used to ride all the time in Ohio. Looks like we have something in common.”
“Don’t tell Penelope,” she said in a teasing voice.
“Actually, I ran into her a few days ago and your name came up,” he said.
“Did you mention me or did she?”
“I did,” he admitted. “I said I’d run into you at lunch with the pharmacist and she assured me you weren’t dating.”
“That explains why she was trying to reach me before she and Johnny left on their trip.” She didn’t contradict her friend about Chad Armstrong. “Her message said it was a matter of my dating life or death. I’m telling you, you have to watch what you say around her.”
“We could give in and become friends.”
That was what he wanted. A friendship that could slowly build into something deeper and richer. Maggie had hurt him badly by keeping secrets behind his back. Jill was the perfect counterpart: open, honest, uncomplicated.
He was finally ready to move on.
“Penelope would never accept there was only friendship between us. No. Better to play it safe.” She kept smiling at him, her cheerful expression at odds with her firm rejection. She nodded to his bicycle. “You need any help with that?”
He hadn’t required assistance in putting on a bicycle chain in probably twenty years. “If I said yes, you might figure out it was a ploy to keep you around.”
“If I didn’t know better,” she countered, “I’d think you were flirting with me.”
“You don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
She stayed perfectly still, her expression frozen somewhere between shock and an emotion he couldn’t identify. A squirrel scampered up a nearby tree, chattering as it went. A bird chirped. The gnats found him again. None of those things could pull his attention from Jill.
A sliver of sunlight was shining on her through a break in the trees, but her light seemed to come from within. Why hadn’t he realized until this moment how truly lovely she was?
The moment lengthened until he thought he could hear her breathing. Or maybe those shallow breaths were his own.
“I should get going,” she said, shattering the silence.
She balanced one foot on the ground and stepped on a pedal with the other, propelling the bike forward. She shot past him faster than a competitor in the Tour de France.
Now that he’d decided to change her mind about dating him, he needed to figure out how to get her to give him a chance.
Unfortunately that didn’t look as if it would happen any time soon.
Both Jill and Felicia set down their coffee mugs.
“Come quick!” Her brother’s thin chest heaved up and down. His breathing was ragged, his face red.
“Tell me what’s wrong, Chris.” Jill’s heartbeat accelerated, her mind conjuring up all sorts of reasons for his behavior.
Foremost among them was the fear that the private eye had found them.
“Just come.” He grabbed her hand and gave a tug that was surprisingly effective given he was only three or four inches over four feet tall and weighed about sixty pounds. He headed for the back door, practically dragging her with him.
Felicia followed, the landlady’s complexion almost as gray as her hair.
“Are you okay, Chris?” Felicia’s voice trailed them down the back porch’s wooden steps and past the row of azaleas to the patch of woods behind the house. Dusk had fallen, muting the colors of the flowers and lending the early evening a murky quality.
“I’m okay,” Chris answered, then said in a voice only loud enough for Jill to hear. “He’s not.”
“Who’s not okay?” Jill demanded.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Chris muttered, then broke into a run before Jill could refute him. Not that she didn’t realize Chris had a habit of stretching the truth. She just didn’t believe he lied about important things.
His desperation told her this was something important.
Imagining someone in distress, Jill kept up with him even as the muscles in her legs protested. She felt every inch of the twenty-mile mountain-bike trek she’d taken that morning, but she kept going. At least she’d had the presence of mind to grab her cell phone. She could dial 911.
Chris took a shortcut through some tall pines to reach one of the walking trails a local hiking group maintained. She allowed Chris to venture into the woods as long as it was light out and he stayed close to home.
The past few nights he’d been eager to go outside after dinner, hoping to catch a glimpse of the family of deer that sometimes appeared at dusk. He’d vowed to find out where they lived.
Had he stumbled across something while following the deer?
“There!” He broke into a run down the narrow trail, his thin arms and legs moving faster than she’d ever seen them.
Jill squinted, and her breath clogged her throat. Something small that she couldn’t quite make out was lying just off the path. Oh please, she prayed, don’t let it be a child.
She increased her pace, getting a clearer view as she came nearer. No. It definitely wasn’t human. Chris crouched next to an animal of some sort. Light caramel in color, it had four legs, yet its body was too thick to be a fawn.
Was it a stray dog? She immediately thought rabies and had opened her mouth to shout a warning when she heard a…bleat?
The sound came again. Yes, it was definitely a bleat.
“Why, that’s not a dog.” Jill reached her brother’s side and examined the animal’s long droopy ears and short, wide face. “It’s a goat.”
“A baby goat.” Chris smoothed his hand over the animal’s coat in a rhythmic, calming motion. “That’s why I said you wouldn’t believe me. Something’s wrong with him.”
The goat was injured, not sick. Blood matted its coat and it held one of its legs stiffly. She heard the faint roar of a motorcycle engine, a reminder that this section of woods adjoined the two-lane thoroughfare leading to and from downtown Indigo Springs.
“The poor thing. It looks like he might’ve been hit by a car.” The goat could have limped into the woods before it collapsed. But where had it come from? Farms dotted the countryside, but she didn’t know of one nearby. “I think his back leg is broken.”
“We need to take him to a vet!” Chris cried.
Although the goat measured about two and a half feet from head to hooves, it had a thick, muscular body and probably weighed thirty pounds.
“He’s too big to carry,” she said.
The animal made a soft, keening sound that tore at Jill.
“Somebody has to help him!” Chris sounded close to tears, stabbing at Jill’s heart. On the other hand, she wasn’t surprised. Her brother cried while watching lions attack their prey on the National Geographic channel.
Jill placed her hand on her brother’s back, feeling his body trembling. “I didn’t say we wouldn’t help him, honey. Only that we can’t move him.”
“Then what are we going to do?” Chris wailed.
Jill quickly ran over options in her mind. She could phone a veterinarian, except nightfall was quickly approaching and she didn’t know how late vets worked or whether they took after-hour calls.
Or she could fetch one.
“I know of someone who can help.” She handed her brother her cell phone. “Stay here and I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
She took off at a trot, hardly noticing the leaves and small twigs that slapped at her arms and legs. She did, however, recognize the irony in the situation.
She was running toward the one man from whom she should stay far away.