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She noticed him right away. That wasn't a good sign.
It was his chest, really. How broad and strong he looked. The way the sun caught the gold stubble of his buzz-cut hair as he stepped off the parking lot. The fact that he wore enough layers of wool and polypropylene to insulate a small army. The way he shouldered his thick pack as though it weighed nothing.
She looked away before he saw her.
The sky was overcast and the air punishingly cold. Dannie breathed in gratefully. The world out here was blissfully simple in its total indifference to her. And she was sick to death of complicated things. Here in the mountains there was one goal only: try not to die. She tightened the laces of her boots and joined the group.
Dr. Stevens gathered the hikers in a loose semicircle. As the head of her department, he'd been leading monthly mountain hikes for staff and friends for as long as she could remember. Dannie joined in on the occasional free Saturday.
Not that she was the typical joining type or particularly social. Other hikers rarely attempted to strike up a conversation with her. And if they did, she'd offer only marginally polite monosyllables in response to their chipper small talk. Eventually they gave up and talked to someone else.
She couldn't abide chitchat on the mountain. There was enough noise in her regular life. Up here she preferred silence.
Parking Lot Guy quietly joined the group. The hair rose on the back of Dannie's neck. She didn't recognize him from the hospital, and he'd never been on any of the hikes before. She wondered who he was, and then shoved the thought away, irritated with herself.
She wasn't here to meet a man. She was here to get the hell out of the city. To see some damn nature and relax. To hike until she was too exhausted to think.
"It's a pretty straightforward hike to the cabin." Dr. Stevens stared at each of them in turn, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "I hope you appreciate the fact that I'm allowing you cretins to enter my little getaway. Don't tell the others or they'll all be banging down the door. Lee, you got the map?"
Behind Dannie a deep voice answered, "Yep. Got it."
She turned as he looked up and caught the full force of his green eyes.
Briefly he nodded in her direction. He held her gaze a little too long, and when he smiled, she looked quickly away.
"Good. Lee here's a fine man to have around on the mountain." Dr. Stevens checked his watch. "Should take two, maybe three hours to get up there. We stop, have lunch and then head on back before the storm moves in. Stick together. No cell reception up here and the trail's not marked. If you get separated from the group, you're in trouble. Lee, bring up the rear, all right? I'll lead."
Dannie hastened to the front of the line.
There were six of them this time, including the doctor. At their Brooklyn hospital they called him Dr. Waldo. His uncanny resemblance to a certain perpetually missing cartoon character was a source of unending amusement to all the staff. The name lent a certain extra charm to the nature hikes he led. The cloud of red frizz on top of his head shined out like a beacon, even when clamped under a hat. Dannie kept her eyes on that frizz and set out on the trail.