Authors: Darlene Gardner
Tags: #Return To Indigo Springs
Dan rose slowly, reluctant to abandon the job he’d finally gotten around to tackling. Almost a year after he’d moved into the small, two-bedroom house, the cabinet was still coming off its hinges.
“Starsky! Hutch! Quiet!” he commanded.
The two mixed-breed dogs kept barking, completely in disregard of the fact that he was a vet with a reputation to uphold.
“You’re going to give me a bad name,” Dan told the dogs as he nudged past them to the door. Their tails wagged in double time while they panted with undisguised anticipation. “It’s also uncool to give the impression that nobody ever visits us.”
Starsky barked, almost as if to say they hardly ever did get visitors.
“Point taken, smart aleck,” Dan muttered, then swung open the door to a surprise.
“I’m sorry to stop by like this,” Jill said in a rush, “but I need you.”
The last three words could have been straight out of his fantasies if the delivery had been different. She was out of breath. A slight sheen of perspiration dampened her brow and her curly hair was disheveled.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“There’s a goat in the woods. I think its leg is broken.”
“A goat?” The dogs were barking enthusiastically. Dan positioned his body so they couldn’t get out of the house and lick her to death.
“The poor thing could really use your help.” Her expression was pleading, as though she feared he might say no. Even if he were capable of turning away from an animal, no way could he refuse Jill.
“Sure.” He regained his equilibrium, his mind racing as he thought about what he needed to do. “Just give me a minute to gather some supplies. You can wait inside.”
The dogs erupted into a cacophony of even louder barks before he could move aside to allow her entrance. She stepped backward.
“They’re harmless, I promise you.” He grimaced, feeling a telltale flush of embarrassment start up his neck. “They’re just overly friendly.”
“It’ll be easier if I wait for you out here,” she said.
He swallowed the urge to tell her the only pets he had trouble getting to behave were his own. There was no time for that. He closed the door, careful to prevent the canines from escaping, then transferred supplies to his backpack from the bag he used for house calls. He added some PVC pipe and a high-powered flashlight and he was ready to go.
They reached the goat in minutes, with Jill setting a breakneck pace. Her haste was more in keeping with someone worried about an injured pet rather than a stray farm animal.
The reason soon became apparent.
The goat wasn’t alone.
A young boy of about nine or ten with wavy brown hair was cradling the animal’s head in his lap. He gazed up at Dan out of big eyes shaped like Jill’s.
Stanley was right, Dan thought. He really had been working too hard if he’d lived in Indigo Springs for nearly a year without realizing this boy existed.
Although with tourists swelling the population, the town wasn’t as small as it appeared. Up until a few weeks ago, Jill herself had barely been on Dan’s radar screen.
“Please help him,” the boy pleaded.
Was he Jill’s son? If so, she’d given birth as a teenager. Where, then, was the boy’s father? Was the father the reason Jill wasn’t in the market for a relationship?
“That’s why I’m here. By the way, it’s a her, not a him.” With the goat lying on its side, Dan could clearly define the sex. “She’s not a farm animal, either. She’s a pygmy goat.”
“You mean she’s not a baby?” Chris asked.
“I’d say she’s about a year old, so she won’t get a whole lot bigger than she already is,” he said. “My name’s Dan, by the way.”
“I’m sorry,” Jill cut in. She was standing a shoulder’s length from him, yet he was acutely aware of her every movement. “Dan, this is Chris, my brother.”
Her brother. Ah, that made more sense. The boy was probably visiting her.
The animal emitted a low noise that sounded almost like a moan. Dan focused on the goat, his need to alleviate the animal’s pain overriding everything else.
“Did either of you see what happened?” He did a visual exam, noting the matted blood on the goat’s coat. The scrape on its body, though, was superficial. More worrisome was the way the goat was holding her leg, which indicated a simple fracture.
“I found her right here,” the boy said. “Jill thinks she got hit by a car.”
“That’s a good guess,” Dan said. “Lots of people keep pygmies as pets. Either she got loose or someone dumped her on the side of the road.”
“No!” Chris cried.
Dan was about to point out dogs and cats were abandoned every day, but the boy needed reassurance more than enlightenment. He could also use a job to help him feel useful.
“I’m pretty sure her leg is broken, but she’ll be okay if we all work together,” Dan said. “Chris, can you follow directions?”
The boy appeared wary.
“You can be my assistant.” He turned the flashlight on and handed it to Chris. “Shine the light on us. This is very important. Be careful not to shine it in the goat’s eyes. Can you do that, Chris?”
“I’ll try.” He sounded unsure of himself, but stood up and did exactly as Dan instructed.
“That’s perfect. I’m going to give her a mild sedative and then put some antiseptic on this scrape.” Dan worked as he talked. When the goat was breathing more easily and he’d cleaned the abrasion, he looked at Jill. “I need your help, too, Jill. Place a little pressure on her neck with your elbow. That’ll keep her still.”
Jill’s face might have paled, but she nodded and lowered herself next to the goat. The animal bleated. She jerked backward, took a shaky breath, then in one quick movement placed her elbow in exactly the right spot. Her eyes were closed.
“Good.” He hid a smile. “After I wipe down the leg, I’ll get the bone back in alignment and put on a temporary splint until I can get her in the office. She won’t like this part, so keep the pressure steady.”
“Okay.” Jill’s voice cracked.
He took firm hold of the animal’s injured leg, digging his fingers into its flesh so he could gauge the severity of the break. A simple fracture, just as he’d expected.
He pulled on the leg as slowly and gently as he could, manipulating the bone until he had it in alignment.
“This next part’s going to be tricky. Chris, see my bag there. I need you to get me a roll of cotton. I’m going to use it for padding. Can you do that?”
Chris didn’t answer. A few seconds later, however, he handed Dan the cotton, then got back into position with the flashlight.
Working quickly, Dan wrapped cotton from the top of the goat’s hoof to about a half dozen inches above the break.
“Now I need that blue stretchy tape to hold the padding in place,” Dan said. Chris rummaged in the bag, came up with the tape, but dropped the flashlight in the process.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Chris bent and grabbed for the flashlight, then dropped it again. He sounded miserable.
“Relax, Chris.” Dan gentled his voice. “It’s not a big deal.”
“You’re doing fine,” Jill added in the same soothing tone.
Dan couldn’t take the time to puzzle over the boy’s reaction. When the light was back in place, he started the wrap, working as efficiently as he could. Despite the sedative, the goat twitched and keened. Without being told, Jill increased the pressure on the animal’s neck. Jill’s face was in shadows, but he thought her eyes might still be closed.
“Easy, girl,” he said.
Jill’s head rose. “She’s doing good.”
“I was talking to you.” He winked at Jill, just in case she could see him.
The rest of the job was easier. The final step involved creating a temporary splint, which he did by securing two halves of PVC pipe with duct tape. The goat tried to stand up as soon as Dan instructed Jill to stop applying pressure. Dan helped it to its feet. It was able to put weight on all four legs but wobbled, still feeling the effects of the sedative.
“How are we going to get her out of the woods?” Jill asked. “She looks pretty shaky.”
“I’ll carry her.” Dan talked while he was gathering his supplies. “Pygmy goats are good-natured, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Dan scooped up the goat, careful not to jostle its injured leg. It squirmed so much he nearly dropped it, then butted his shoulder with its nose and bleated.
“I thought they were good-natured,” Jill said.
“They are.” He withstood another nose butt. “She associates me with pain.”
“I think she likes me,” Chris said in a hesitant voice. It was the first remark he’d made since dropping the flashlight.
Jill ruffled the boy’s hair. “Of course she does. You found her. You’re her hero.”
Darkness was quickly approaching, making it necessary for Chris to keep shining the flashlight, this time to illuminate their path. Dan walked as fast as he dared with approximately thirty pounds of goat in his arms.
He almost cheered when they reached the clearing and he could put down the goat, at least temporarily. Chris knelt beside the animal, murmuring soothingly to it.
“You’ve got a way with that goat, Chris,” Dan remarked. “You got any pets?”
Now that they were out of the woods, the crescent moon gave off enough light for Dan to see Chris shake his head. “No.”
“Well, you’re a natural with her, although I don’t imagine you see many goats back home in South Carolina.”
Chris didn’t look up from where he was petting the goat. “I’m from Georgia.”
Dan turned questioningly to Jill. He was certain Penelope had said she was from South Carolina.
“Chris still thinks of Georgia as his home state because he was born there,” Jill said, “but he only lived there a few years.”
“Where do you live in South Carolina, Chris?” Dan asked.
“Chris lives here.” Jill answered for her brother. “With me.”
So Chris wasn’t visiting, as Dan had originally thought.
“And with Felicia,” Jill added.
“Our landlady,” Jill said, which cleared up the mystery of why she lived in such a large house. “Felicia’s a sweetheart, but I’m not sure how she’ll react when we show up at the house with a goat.”
“My backyard’s fenced and I have a shed I can empty out. The goat can stay there tonight,” Dan offered.
Jill’s response was immediate. “I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Why not?” He smiled at her. She was wearing shorts and tennis shoes, but had given the generic outfit some personality with a tie-dyed T-shirt. “That splint’s temporary. I need to get her into the office in the morning anyway so I can put on a cast.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely sure.” He repositioned the backpack on his shoulder and reached for the goat. “I’ll take her, Chris.”
Chris held tight to the goat, saying nothing. He didn’t need to. He’d clearly developed an attachment he wasn’t ready to break.
“Why don’t you help me get her settled?” Dan asked.
“I don’t think—” Jill began.
“Please can I go, Jill?” Chris interrupted, stark longing on his face. “Please.”
“I’d love to have you join us, Jill,” Dan was quick to add. “You’re not working at the bar tonight, right?”
“I have Tuesday nights off,” she confirmed. Her chest rose and fell. Her answer was slow in coming. “Okay.”
“Then let’s get this goat show on the road,” Dan said, and lifted the animal. He hadn’t taken more than two steps when the goat’s nose butted him one more time.
Considering that the out-of-sorts pygmy goat was providing an in with Jill, he wasn’t about to complain.
“Yuck! I’d want an ice cream cone.”
A laugh erupted from Dan.
“I wouldn’t eat hay and oats, either.” Dan’s voice held a chuckle. “But that’s what Tinkerbell likes.”
Chris had named the goat after the tiny fairy in his favorite book, gaining approval from Dan. Her brother offered the goat the carrot. She sniffed at it, then took it and nibbled.
“You sure she’ll be okay out here?” Chris sounded dubious.
“I’m keeping my dogs in the house as a precaution,” Dan said, obviously referring to the two champion barkers Jill had seen earlier tonight. “The fence is high enough that nothing can get in or out, but I’ll lock the shed tonight just in case.”
The three of them had already created space inside the shed by transferring a lawn mower and assorted tools to the garage.
“What if Tinkerbell’s afraid of the dark?” her brother asked.
As Chris was, Jill thought.
“Tinkerbell?” Dan shook his head. “Nah. She stares into the face of darkness and knows there’s nothing out there scarier than she is.”
Chris giggled. “She’s a pygmy goat!”
“She doesn’t like to be underestimated because of her size,” Dan said.
Chris’s giggle became a full-fledged laugh, a noise Jill didn’t hear often and hadn’t expected to tonight. Her brother was slow in warming up to strangers and typically said little to anyone except her.
She backed away, sinking onto a bench situated under an oak tree, wishing she hadn’t learned Dan was as good with kids as he was with animals.
She’d rather have avoided coming to Dan’s house altogether, but she couldn’t trust Chris alone with him after her brother had slipped up and said they were from Georgia.
Dan straightened, patted Chris on the back and walked toward her, his gait leisurely and self-assured. He wore jeans, but she could see the play of muscles in his long, leanly muscular legs as he moved. She dragged her gaze upward, over his trim waist and broad shoulders to the compelling features of his face. Darn it. There was nowhere safe to look.
“How’s it going over there?” Jill kept her expression neutral so he wouldn’t catch on that she’d been ogling him.
He sat down next to her, close enough that she could smell the warm, pleasant scent of his skin. “I might have an idea about why Tinkerbell was dumped. I’m pretty sure she’s blind in one eye.”
“Surely someone wouldn’t abandon her for that!” Jill cried.
“People have discarded pets for less,” Dan said. “Not people like your brother, though. He won’t leave her side.”
“Oh, gosh. We’re keeping you from something, aren’t we?” She half rose. “I’ll just go tell Chris we need to leave.”
“Hold on.” He put a hand on her arm, the first time he’d touched her since their kiss. Her nerve endings came alive, awareness spreading under his fingers. “That wasn’t a hint for you to go. I’m enjoying the company. Your brother’s a great kid.”
“I agree with you there.” Jill sat back down, not sure whether she felt bereft or relieved when his hand dropped away. She silently admitted she wasn’t ready to leave yet, either. She just thought she should be.
“How old is Chris?” Dan asked.
“Ten. He looks younger because he’s small for his age.”
“As the shortest boy in his sixth-grade class, I know all about that,” Dan said.
“You’re kidding me. You must be six-four or six-five.”
Dan’s laugh was smooth and rich, as deep and attractive as his voice. “I guess I must seem that tall to you, but I’m only six-one.”
“Only?” she said.
His laugh got even deeper. “I guess height’s relative. Everybody was taller than me when I was Chris’s age, even the girls. I didn’t get my last four or five inches until I was in college.”
“I never would have guessed that,” Jill said. “It just goes to show you can’t jump to conclusions about people.”
“Then maybe you won’t mind me asking why he’s living with you?”
She did mind, although it would cause him to wonder why if she said so. “My parents divorced when I was eight. Chris and I have the same father, but different mothers. His mama died three years ago of breast cancer.”
“That’s rough,” Dan said. “How about your dad? Is he still alive?”
This was the toughest part of the story for Jill to pull off. Her stomach cramped, as it always did before she lied. “No.”
She waved a hand and delivered the second part of the carefully crafted reply before he had a chance to respond.
“I’m sorry. It’s hard to talk about.” That, at least, was the truth. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention his father to Chris. Either of his parents, really.”
“Sure.” Dan’s voice was compassionate, making her feel even guiltier, although circumstances had forced her into the lie. “You can count on me. And if you ever want to talk about it, I’m a good listener.”
He was also the right kind of man. Not only did she admire his character, she liked him. If her situation were different, she’d seek out his company.
“What’s a nice guy like you doing living here in Indigo Springs all by yourself?” She blurted out the question uppermost in her mind.
He cocked his head, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Do you mean why am I single?”
“Never mind.” She tried to backtrack. “It’s none of my business.”
“I moved to Indigo Springs after my fiancée left me,” he said, staring at the hands in his lap instead of her. “We’d been dating for almost two years, living together for about half that time. One day I came home from work and all her things were gone.”
Jill tried to summon the willpower to dissuade him from confiding in her further and failed. There was too much about him she still wanted to know. “Didn’t you see it coming?”
“Nope.” His tone was self-deprecating. “She’s an interior designer. She’d talked about how cool it would be to work in New York City. I could never see myself living in a big city and told her so. I thought that was the end of it.”
“But it wasn’t?”
“Not for her. She lives in Manhattan with her new husband. He’s an actor who does off-Broadway plays. They got married six months ago.”
“I sure am sorry,” Jill said.
“I’m not.” He shrugged, his half smile not reaching his eyes. “Well, not anymore. It hit me pretty hard at first. It’s probably even the reason I accepted the job in Indigo Springs. I can finally see it was for the best.”
“I found out she’d been planning to leave me for a month, yet she never let on. If she could keep that big of a secret from me, she wasn’t the person I thought she was.”
Jill understood exactly what he meant. For a relationship to work, the two people involved needed to be open and honest with each other. The way she’d tried to be with her boyfriend in Atlanta before he’d used her confidences to betray her.
The way she’d learned she could never be with anyone as long as she was on the run with her brother.
“I’m making you uncomfortable,” Dan said. “Sorry.”
“Not at all.” Another lie.
“I’m not sure why I told you all that.” He let out a breath and shook his head. “Maybe so you’d understand why I thought I wasn’t ready to date anyone.”
Yet he was now.
It didn’t matter that he hadn’t said so. Jill heard him loud and clear. Something had changed in the week and a half since the cookout, something that made him amenable to the idea of dating again.
Of dating her.
“Chris and I really should be going.” She scrambled to her feet so fast the blood rushed to her head. She fought the light-headedness and moved toward her brother, who was still crouched beside the goat. “Chris! Time to go.”
“Just a couple more minutes,” Chris called back.
“You heard me,” she said more sharply than she’d intended. “We need to go. Now.”
“Was it something I said?” Dan’s voice trailed her.
She turned to answer and found him standing just inches from her, tall and dark but not at all imposing. Because she wanted to move forward, she took a giant step backward.
How could she explain that keeping her distance was for his good as well as hers? Even if she could risk getting close to someone, it couldn’t be Dan. Not when she was even more secretive than his ex-fiancée.
“Oh, no. Not at all.” She smiled to punctuate her denial. “It’s just getting late, is all.”
“It’s nine o’clock,” he pointed out.
“Chris goes to sleep at nine-thirty.”
“Not in the summer.” Chris trudged up to them. “That’s only when we’re having school.” To Dan, he said, “We start at seven-thirty.”
“I thought classes at Indigo Springs Elementary started later than that,” Dan said.
“I don’t go to school there,” Chris said. “I do school with Jill.”
Yet another nugget of information Jill would rather Chris had kept to himself. “I homeschool him.”
Before Dan could even think about quizzing her over why a woman working multiple jobs didn’t send her brother to public school, she said, “We owe you a great big thank-you for helping us with Tinkerbell. Isn’t that right, Chris?”
“Yeah.” He cast another longing look at Tinkerbell. “Thank you, Dan.”
“Any time.” Dan spoke directly to her brother. “I’m going to reset Tinkerbell’s leg tomorrow. If you like, you can stop by the office and see her.”
“That’d be great!” Chris said, his mood instantly improved.
Her brother repeated that sentiment so many times on the brief walk back home that Jill accepted the inevitable. She might be able to avoid Dan, but she couldn’t keep her brother away from him.
“Do you think Dan will really let me help tomorrow?” Chris asked, chattering the way he often did when it was only the two of them. “He didn’t seem mad when I dropped the flashlight.”
“Of course he wasn’t mad.” Jill tamped down a surge of dismay that her brother was still wrestling with insecurities. “Everybody makes mistakes, honey. I’ve told you that a hundred times.”
“I’d try real hard not to do anything else wrong,” he said.
“Mistakes are normal,” she repeated. “Nobody tries to make one, but we all do.”
“Then you think he’ll let me help?” Chris actually skipped a few steps, something he hadn’t done even when she’d driven forty miles last weekend to a go-kart track. “That would be so cool.”
“You like Dan, don’t you?” she asked while she thought about how to introduce the next subject without dampening her brother’s excitement.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation.
“I like him, too.” She took a deep breath, then glanced around even though the street was quiet and they were the only two people on the sidewalk. “But we need to be even more careful around the people we like. It’s important nobody knows we’re from Atlanta.”
Chris gasped and covered his mouth with his hand. “I said we were from Georgia! I’m sorry, Jill. I’m so stupid. I forgot.”
stupid.” She put her arm around him in a half hug. “You’re a smart, brave boy. Don’t you ever forget that.”
They walked a few more steps before he asked in a small, scared voice, “Are the police going to come get me and take me back?”
“No, of course not.” Her chest ached at his childish conclusion, which wasn’t as far-fetched as it should have been. “The police don’t have reason to suspect anything. It’s our job to keep it that way.”
“How?” he asked in a voice so quiet she hardly heard him.
“By being careful,” she said. “Remember what you’re supposed to say if anyone asks why you’re living with me?”
“I’m supposed to say it’s the best place for me.”
The answer was vague enough to dissuade further questions. “That’s right. But it’s best not to say anything at all about Georgia. Or South Carolina.”
Asking him not to talk about homeschooling would be piling it on too thick. She hadn’t enrolled Chris in public school in case the P.I. had a way of searching enrollment.
“Can you do that, Chris?” she asked.
He nodded silently, the enthusiasm he’d been brimming with a moment ago gone, his steps slower.
She hated having to remind her brother to be careful, even more than she regretted being the antithesis of the kind of woman Dan should date.
It couldn’t be helped, however. Their father was looking for Chris, and she would continue to do her damnedest to make sure he didn’t find him.