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Doyle stopped at the foot of Spicey Hill, her spirits and the tip of her fly rod sinking in tandem when she saw the fisherman.
What rotten luck... not only had some Johnny-come-lately commandeered her favorite spot at the river's bend, but, judging from the way his line just went taut, he'd also caught her Christmas dinner!
He played it so perfectly, though, even reeling backward at times, that she couldn't help but admire his skill.
And when the trout made a futile attempt to turn downriver against the toughest rod pressure she'd ever seen applied, Dovie had to admit that the man could probably fish rings around her, four days out of seven.
"Careful," she cautioned softly when he started down the steeply sloped bank toward the water's edge.
She didn't want to distract him; a trout that big could break free in the blink of an eye. But the riverbed was so littered with rocks this time of year, he'd be well advised to look before he leaped. She couldn't swim, and the closest doctor was in Richmond--an hour's drive away.
Surely he'll see them, Doyle thought, frustrated because she suddenly couldn't see a blessed thing from where she stood.
Curiosity killed the cat, she reminded herself glumly as she took a few cautious steps forward. But satisfaction brought it back! She rejoiced as she got a better grip on her fly rod and broke into a run toward the riverbank. Heckfire. She'd landed that trout a thousand times in her dreams, and she sure wanted to be front and center for the real thing!
All at once the trout turned and streaked upstream, stretching the fisherman's line as long and straight as hot, sticky taffy being pulled. The tip of hisrod snapped down past his knees, bending in a thin fiberglass horseshoe, and Dovie knew he had a bona fide fight on his hands.
He brought the rod tip up and tightened the drag of his reel. Then he lunged into the cold, churning water and began stalking the trout with a savvy that seemed born of experience. Surprisingly, he never looked down. He simply tested the riverbed for rocks with the toe of his wader boot before taking each step.
Around and round they went. And it was exhausting yet exhilarating to watch. Two worthy opponents linked in a life-and-death struggle that came to a stunning conclusion.
Dovie watched transfixed as the trout jumped high in the air. It shook the lure embedded in its mouth while flinging drops of liquid silver water against the somber December sky, then jackknifed back into the water.
A lesser fisherman would have lost it then and there.
But when this man reared back and reeled hard, she suddenly became aware of how strong he must be, how the muscles in his arms and shoulders tautened like sinuous thongs beneath his chamois-cloth shirt.
In the tremulous winter light Dovie could almost see him three hundred summers ago: the noble savage, naked but for a loincloth. Leading his warriors into battle at the crack of dawn. Bedding his woman by a brilliant Shenandoah moon.
She laughed self-consciously at her own imagery.
The object of that imagery turned his head, as though he'd heard her laughing over the trill of the rapids, and she found herself really looking at him for the first time.
His windblown black hair framed a face that had weathered fortune's hurricane with flint and style.
The high, spare cheekbones bore a few faint scars; that machete of a nose had been broken at least once; and the wide mouth mocked convention in a way that both frightened and fascinated her.
Doyle couldn't tell what color his eyes were behind the large opaque sunglasses he wore, but she would have bet her bottom dollar they were blue. She didn't know why she felt so certain about it, or, for that matter, why she should even care. But she did.
Without so much as a "how do you do" he turned his attention back to the trout. She stood on the bank, mulling over a tiny stab of--what? Disappointment? How absurd! He was a stranger, for heaven's sake. Chances were she'd never see him again. And yet something within her craved his notice.
"Atta boy," he crooned as the trout began swimming in small, tight circles directly in front of him, fanning its tail as though admitting defeat. "Come on home."
His vibrant baritone voice enveloped her as gently as an embrace. Doyle shivered despite the warm woolen shirt she wore, and wondered if she was getting addlepated in her old age.
Not that she equated turning thirty-five on her next birthday with being over the hill. It was just that there were times when she would have loved to share the joy of the simpler things in life with someone special. Her joy at finally seeing the trout, for example.
"Okay, big fella..." He urged the trout toward shore, and it was finally tired enough to go along. And when he dipped his arms in up to the elbows and lifted it out of the water, Doyle couldn't take her eyes off it.
A beautiful rainbow--five, maybe six pounds? with a thick, streamlined flank. Its gills moved in and out, feeding its strength, as the fisherman cradled it in his large, capable hands.
He took the hook from its mouth, his supple fingers working swiftly but tenderly, and tears clustered in her throat when a trace of blood trickled from the corner of its jaw, to be carried away by the current.
It was more magnificent than any trout she'd ever even hoped existed in these icy waters...its iridescent body contrasting with a belly the color of fresh cream...its velvety sides heaving in exhaustion. And more than anything on God's good earth, she wanted him to let it live.
As if he'd read her mind, the fisherman laid his fly rod on the bank and waded out into the river. And when he lowered the trout into the water and opened his hands, it shot away like a bullet.
He threw his head back then and laughed, a mellow sound that made her think all the fun in the world had lodged in his chest and was trying to break free...and she was smitten on the spot.
Doyle stood dumbfounded. His laughter had touched a part of her that she'd thought had atrophied from disuse a long time ago. But as she stared at his powerful body, silhouetted against the steely sky, that same part of her suddenly ached to be touched again.
He wheeled and started back to the bank, still testing the riverbed for rocks with the toe of his wader boot.
Frantically she racked her brain for something reasonably intelligent to say to him by way of introduction.
He stopped, whipped off his dark glasses, and dried his sun-bronzed face on his shirt sleeve. The wind tossed his black hair, making him look wild and reckless and totally male.
Frustrated by the small delay, she stamped her foot. The bank was slick and damp and steep. She slipped and, too startled even to scream for help, fell into the freezing water.
His head snapped up as if the trap door of a gallows had opened beneath his feet.
Right before the river of darkness engulfed her, Doyle saw his eyes. Blue as water. Bleak as winter.