In a Heartbeat (Re-release)

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 “I suppose there’s no harm in letting you off the leash.” Angela looked out the window, verifying there was no one around to object. “Looks like we’re all alone.”

She opened the car door, barely escaping before twenty pounds of black and white fur bounded out. Oreo raced ahead, stopping every few feet to sniff at the ground. Just in case it was needed, she retrieved the dog leash from the front seat before closing the car door.

They walked through the woods, Angela lost in her thoughts over the past week, Oreo lost in the titillating smells of leaf mold and wild animal. The dog trotted ahead of her, sniffing at rotting logs and upturning piles of brown leaves with her nose before chasing a surprised chipmunk or squirrel. Accustomed to Oreo’s forays, Angie paid little attention until Oreo’s mad dash through a low clump of bushes generated a very human, and very male, cry of alarm.

“What in the…” She chased after the dog. “Oreo!”

Her foot caught an exposed root. She propelled forward, flying head first into a blur of flannel.

Suddenly she stopped, landing face down in a warm, firm swatch of denim.

“Don’t move!” A strained voice, forced and breathless, warned from above.

Good Lord! She was laying in a man’s crotch, breathing the deep, musky scent of his most intimate parts. Her cheeks heated in embarrassment. Oreo would be so proud.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, but her words were lost in the stream of obscenities overhead. If only her limp body could somehow dissolve into the muddy ground, she wouldn’t have to face him. But that was unlikely. He took a deep breath, inadvertently causing her head to sink deeper into the warm nest of his thighs.

“Jesus.” His voice regained some control and depth, and for an instant, sounded vaguely familiar. “Are you all right?”

Soothing fingers gently pulled at her hair, exposing an ear and part of her cheek to the air and the searching thrust of Oreo’s cold, wet nose.

“Shoo!” He pushed the dog away, before his voice softened. “Did you hurt anything?”

My pride, she wanted to scream.

She turned her head, acutely aware that her chin dragged up the inside of a very muscular thigh. She pushed her hand against the ground intending to sit, until a sharp pain stopped her cold.

“My ankle,” she groaned.

“Don’t move,” he commanded again. She froze as his thighs jostled beneath her. A steady hand cradled her chin briefly. “Here, rest your head on this.” The synthetic lining of a jacket replaced his hand. He slipped out from beneath her.

She saw retreating denim, then the muddy bank of the reservoir, then his shadow stretching over her. She gulped. It must be a trick of the light that his shoulders spanned that impressive width. The shadow doubled over, hands on knees.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Catching my breath.” His voice still sounded shaky. “For a little bit of a thing, you sure pack a wallop.”

She turned her head from side to side, but she couldn’t see him. Surely he wouldn’t have left her alone like this.

“Which ankle?” His voice sounded in the vicinity of her feet.

“The right,” she said, relieved that he’d stayed.

He worked the laces of her hiking boot and gently tugged it free. Oreo pressed her furry body tight against her side, working her nose under Angie’s arm.

“Stop that,” Angie scolded. “You’re going to be a mess, scooting along the bank like that.” Oreo responded by inching further.

“What kind of dog is that?” the man asked, peeling back her sock.

“A mutt,” she answered, trying to keep her lips clear of the advancing dog nose.

“Well, that mutt scared the crap out of me, bursting through the bushes like that.” Strong fingers gingerly touched her ankle. She stiffened in reflex. “It’s pretty swollen,” he said. “Could be broken, or maybe a bad sprain. Can you wiggle your toes?”

She complied, but hissed as pain radiated though her ankle.

“I think I’d better take you to have this checked.” He carefully returned the injured foot to the ground. “I’m new in town. You’ll have to tell me the best place to take you for an x-ray.”

The voice clicked. She rolled to her back and pushed up on her elbows, ignoring the throbbing pain. The friendly gray eyes, the dimple in the right cheek. She gasped.

“You!” Her head dropped back onto his jacket. “Tell me this isn’t happening.”

“Angela?” Recognition drained the warmth from Renard’s smile. “What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?” She pushed Oreo away from doing a happy dance on her chest. “Why are you here? You shouldn’t even know this place exists.”

“Fishing.” He stood then walked toward the water’s edge. “At least I was until your dog jumped me.” He picked up the remnants of a fishing pole from the bank.

“Fishing in October?” she repeated, bewildered.

“It helps me think,” he snarled, examining the broken halves of his pole. Slapping the skinny sticks against his open palm, he marched toward her.

“Look,” he said. “Is someone paying you to make my life miserable, or am I just lucky where you’re concerned?”

 

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