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The Real Allie Newman
By Janice Carter
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAllie lowered her head, tucking her chin in until the strap of her helmet bit into her skin. The wind still carried with it the nip of winter, even though April had just arrived and summer was more than a promise away. She figured she was crazy to go cycling on such a misty morning - the streets were slick and the ground was saturated with a week's worth of torrential rains - but she hadn't trained once that week and the triathlon was drawing closer.
Her feet eased on the pedals as the cycle whizzed around the bend of the paved bike and footpath that bordered the east side of the Cataraqui River. Allie raised her head just enough to view the stretch of path ahead and swore. The dim outline of a man walking his dog appeared out of the swirling mist scarcely a hundred yards ahead. To make things worse, the man was on the outer edge of the path nearest the riverbank. She'd have to slow down or risk nudging him off the bank. It meant losing time and writing off her goal for the cycling part of her session that morning.
She began to apply the brakes, slowing down as gently as possible to avoid skidding on the wet asphalt, keeping her eyes on the man's back as he plodded into the plumes of vapor wafting up from the river below. Allie rang her bell, but the sound seemed muted in thedamp, heavy air.
The distance between her and the figures shortened. She was just thinking that any second she'd call out a warning and skim past the pair when a rumbling vibration beneath her caused her to brake hard. A section of the riverbank and footpath ahead suddenly broke loose. Allie stared in shocked horror as the man and his dog slid silently down the embankment and disappeared into the shroud of fog blanketing the river.
The bike skidded to a stop inches from the jagged tear of mud, tree roots and broken asphalt. Allie leaped off. She couldn't hear any shouts for help above the roar of the brown, frothy river, but in the first panicked seconds of the disaster, she shouted for help herself before plunging down the mucky slope into the freezing water. When she surfaced, Allie fought to catch her breath. The man was thrashing in the water just feet away and she kicked hard, propelling herself toward him.
The current had pushed him into the crook of a partially submerged tree and was pummeling him. Allie shouted for him to hang on, but from the way his head kept bobbing back and forth, she doubted he'd heard. She managed to grab on to the collar of his overcoat just as the branch he was caught on broke loose and was carried downstream.
His arms shot out at her touch, clutching at her, pushing her down. Allie swallowed a mouthful of water. The Styrofoam lining of her helmet kept her head up, but the dead weight of his body threatened to send them both careening along with the current. Using all her strength, she pushed his hands up and off her shoulders, grabbing onto his coat again before he could be swept away. She pulled herself closer to him, shouting into his ear to relax, that she was going to try to get him ashore.
He understood then and stopped struggling as she pulled him slowly to the riverbank. Then Allie stretched out her free arm, digging her fingers into the muck where land met water, and pulled. And pulled again for what seemed an eternity of slipping, gouging again and again into the thick, claylike mud until at last she heaved herself and the man onto the narrow strip of shore at the base of the embankment.
He collapsed face forward, gasping for air. Allie rolled onto her back beside him, registering for the first time that he was elderly, his white hair slicked with mud and bits of leaves and other debris. He raised his head and turned filmy eyes in her direction.
The pounding in Allie's head intensified. The man was blind.
"Jeb?" he asked, his hoarse voice pitched with fear. "Jeb?"
The dog. A Seeing Eye dog. Allie sat up. Less than fifty feet downriver she could see the animal's small dark head.
"Where's Jeb?" the man cried.
"It's okay," Allie said, "I see him." She jogged along the shore, slipping and sliding all the way. The closer she got to the dog, the more she could hear its frantic yowling. It seemed to be caught on something, too, which had saved it from speeding down the river and out of sight. Fortunately, the dog was only a few feet from the shore and Allie was able to reach it by wading into the river up to her waist. The leather inverted U handle attached to the dog's harness had snagged onto the forked tip of a deadhead, and the dog, struggling to keep its head above water, was treading water in a futile effort to reach shore.
It was a young chocolate-brown Lab, and Allie almost wept at its grateful whimpers as she struggled to release the handle. Her fingers were stiff and numb with cold, but after three attempts, she managed to disengage the handle from the end of the deadhead.
The dog barked twice and began paddling toward shore. Allie held on to the handle and was half-pulled along as she and the dog finally crawled up out of the river. Jeb leaped against her as if to thank her, shook himself briskly and then bounded along the strip of shore to his master.
By the time Allie reached them, she could hear the distant whoop of a fire-department rescue unit. Someone, she thought, must have spotted the commotion, probably from the condominium complex on the other side of the river. Exhausted, she fell back onto the muddy slope, half-aware of the dog's excited yelps and licks as it leaped from master to rescuer, expressing an uninhibited gratitude that Allie sensed she'd likely never experience again.
She unclasped her helmet and let it fall to her side, sucking in deep, calming breaths as she wondered distractedly if she could count this unexpected incident as her workout for the day.
* * *
Allie pushed open the screen door of Evergreen Natural Foods and paused, scanning the store for her stepmother, Susan. When she saw her bent over one of the flour bins, Allie headed straight for her.
"That fifteen-minutes-of-fame thing is highly overrated," Allie said, waving the rolled-up People magazine she held. "No sane person would want more than five." Then she realized that Susan was struggling with a ten-pound sack of flour. "Want some help with that?"
The sack thudded onto the hardwood floor. Susan tried to straighten, groaning audibly. Allie dropped the magazine to help. Susan clutched at Allie's extended forearm, pulling herself to a vertical position, and let Allie lead her to the stool behind the cash counter.
"You really should go to the doctor and talk about that back surgery again," Allie murmured. A twinge of guilt that she hadn't really been noticing Susan's difficulty colored her face. She should have been more observant, instead of going on about the People magazine.
What was there about seeing yourself in print in an international magazine, anyway? she wondered. And how could she justify her own self-indulgence after badmouthing the phenomenon of instant celebrity ever since she'd pulled Harry Maguire and his dog Jeb from the Cataraqui River? The shameful truth was that she'd been irresistibly drawn to the magazine blurb about her rescue of the blind man and his Seeing Eye dog. Even if it had only been one paragraph in the sidebar of a larger article on heroic acts.
"Susan, why don't you take some time off and stay at home to nurse your back?" Allie asked. "As soon as I've finished marking the last of my exam papers, I'll be a free agent. Beth and I can run the store."
Susan Matthews grimaced. "I hate to put you out, Allie. You've got that triathlon and all the training. And you deserve a break, too. You've been working hard this year, especially since your dad ..."
Susan's voice dropped off. A lump rose in Allie's throat. She and Susan had seldom mentioned Rob Newman since his death ten months ago. It was too painful a subject for either of them, Allie supposed, though there'd been many times when she'd wanted to talk about him with the woman who'd been his constant companion for the past twenty years. Allie may have referred to Susan as her stepmother, but she was, in fact, the only mother Allie had really known.
Allie dropped to her knees in front of her. "Look, the papers will be finished by the end of the week. Beth can manage on her own with the high-school kids when I'm training. Take two weeks."
Excerpted from The Real Allie Newman by Janice Carter Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.