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"Tiff, come on. Just a mile more." Brian McMath's voice echoed through the early-morning fog a moment before he appeared. Brown eyes keen, he watched as Tiffany approached, then resumed his own quick jog as she drew up beside him.
"You're doing great." Brian's words were followed by a glance in Tiffany's direction. She had little doubt he had taken note of her slick skin and damp clothes. He hadn't broken a sweat.
"I really . . . don't think . . . I can make it."
"Of course you can. It's only a mile. We've already done three."
"That's . . . one more . . . than I've been . . . doing. I've got . . . to stop." With a groan of relief, Tiffany did just that. Muscles quivering, she leaned forward, rested her hands on wobbling knees and struggled to catch her breath.
Brian stopped beside her and despite Tiffany's desperate need for oxygen she didn't miss the quick glance he cast at his watch. Nor could she mistake the pinched look around his mouth for anything other than the impatience it was. She forced herself upright. "Look Brian, I know you're anxious to finish the run. Why don't you go on ahead? I'll meet you at the diner."
"No, we agreed we'd do the jog together this morning. Just take a few deep breaths. I can wait another minute."
If Tiffany hadn't been so out of breath she might have laughed. As it was, she shook her head and tried to speak without panting every word. "It's going to take more than a minute for me to recover. Go on ahead."
Brian hesitated a moment and Tiffany knew he was torn between the desire to stay with her and the need to maintain his Saturday morning routine. In the end, routine won over affection and he nodded. "All right. If I get moving I'll still have time for breakfast before prayer meeting."
Tiffany smiled to hide her disappointment. Though she hadn't expected him to, a small part of her had hoped Brian would walk to the diner with her. "I shouldn't be more than fifteen minutes behind you."
Brian nodded absently and leaned forward to plant a kiss in the region of Tiffany's ear. "See you then." With a jaunty wave, he was gone, swallowed up by the fog.
"Don't worry. I'll be fine." Tiffany muttered the words aloud as she stretched the kinks from her strained calf muscles. Two ravens responded, cawing loudly from their perch on an unlidded garbage can a few feet away. With a sigh of frustration, Tiffany wiped sweat from her forehead and wondered how she had gone from spending Saturday morning with her boyfriend to talking to a couple of mangy-looking birds. As if sensing her thoughts one raven flew from the garbage can, his heavy body swooping close to the ground before he disappeared from sight. The other bird remained, its bright eyes following Tiffany's movements.
"I guess I'm not the only one being abandoned this morning."
The bird ruffled its feathers and cawed again before flying off to find its partner. Tiffany figured she'd better do the same and set off at a brisk walk.
The sun had already begun to burn away the fog and Tiffany reveled in its bright warmth and in the summer colors it revealed. She breathed deeply of rose-scented air, her pace unconsciously slowing as she caught sight of the lake. Eschewing the sidewalk, Tiffany made her way across an expanse of grass to Lakeview's public beach.
Smith Mountain Lake stretched out like blue-and-green dappled glass, the last vestiges of fog drifting across its smooth surface. Fishing boats speckled the water with color as die-hard fishermen cast lines and lazily reeled them in. In a few hours summer residents and vacationers would crowd the water and beach, bringing noise and activity with them, but for now the lake's tranquility called to Tiffany.
Making her way across reddish soil and sand, Tiffany climbed onto the dock and walked to the end. The sun had yet to warm the wooden planks and she shivered as she lowered herself onto the smooth wood. With her feet dangling over the water, Tiffany stared out across the lake. For as long as she could remember, her soul had been stirred by its beauty, her mind awed by the power and artistry of the Creator who had made it. Often, in the earliest hours of the morning, she would come to pray and to listen. More often than not, she left feeling renewed and at peace.
Today, however, would not be one of those days.
The ebb and flow of the lake seemed to mirror Tiffany's life -- steady, placid, even keel. She supposed she should feel thankful that she could make the comparison, but somehow the knowledge stoked rather than soothed her irritation.
The past year had brought a boom in her computer maintenance business, a solid relationship with Brian and the loss of most of the thirty pounds she'd put on since college. It seemed to Tiffany that there wasn't a whole lot more she could want out of life, yet she couldn't shake the feeling that she was missing out on something important, something vital to her happiness.
With a disgruntled sigh, Tiffany rose to her feet. Discontent had been her unwelcome companion for more months than she cared to admit. She refused to dwell on it; refused to admit that the cause could be anything other than frustration with her failure to lose the last stubborn pounds of her postcollege weight. Besides, Brian was waiting and if Tiffany didn't hurry, he'd be late to his prayer meeting. As Lakeview's newest physician, he had a reputation to uphold. Or so he'd told Tiffany on more than one occasion.
A motor purred to life in the distance. The deep throb of heavy metal music followed close behind, a hostile intrusion on the tranquility of the morning. Surprised, Tiffany scanned the water and spotted a red speedboat as it rounded a curve in the lake. Several people stood in the helm of the boat, something large and black wiggling between them. She squinted, trying to make out the details, and decided they had either a large dog or a small horse on board. Whatever it was, it didn't want to be there.
Apparently the people in the boat didn't want it there, either. As they approached the center of the lake they heaved the struggling animal up and over the side. A terrified howl rent the air and was abruptly cut off as the dog hit the water. Shocked, Tiffany watched as the boat U-turned, disappearing the way it had come.
In the wake of the retreating vehicle the dog sank beneath the water, then surfaced again. Though it was quite a ways out, Tiffany figured the animal could make it to shore. At least she hoped it could. Still, she couldn't bring herself to abandon it. She stood on the dock, watching the dog's progress and silently cheering it on.
It only took a minute to realize the dog couldn't swim. His head bobbed for a moment, slid beneath the surface of the lake, then popped back into view. Tiffany watched as his paws paddled frantically against the water, the black head sinking again and again. Unwilling to let him drown, she kicked off her shoes and dove into the water.
Sheriff Jake Reed bit back a curse and slammed on the brakes, bringing his truck to a screeching halt yards from where the woman had disappeared into the water. Adrenaline lent speed to his movements as he threw open the truck door and raced across the grassy slope to the dock. He'd seen rescue attempts like this one before; seen good-hearted people trying to save a life only to find themselves in trouble.
Jake had no intention of letting that happen this time. Not if he could help it. He ran across the dock, shouting a warning to the woman as he went. She didn't pause, just continued her swift, steady progress toward danger. Jake marked her location, and dove into morning-cool water. The rhythm of the swim came slowly, Jake's muscles protesting the cold. He ignored the discomfort and forced himself to greater speed, the urgency that propelled him forward warning him that time was running out.
Tiffany circled behind the thrashing animal, grasped him under the forelegs and attempted to tug him toward shore. He strained against her hold, the force of his movements pushing Tiffany beneath the surface. Coughing, gasping for breath she struggled back up for air only to be pushed down again. Darkness swirled behind her eyes and she fought against it, pushing against the dog, against the water, and against the strange lethargy that made her want to sink deeper into the lake's cool embrace.
Then something snagged the back of her shirt, pulling her up and over. She gasped and choked, coughing up water and sucking in air as an arm snaked around her waist and tugged her upright.
"Don't struggle. I've got you."
The deep voice penetrated Tiffany's panic, pulling her from the edge of darkness. She let herself go lax; let herself lean against the hard chest of the man who held her. Tiny shivers coursed along her spine as she struggled to calm her frantic breathing.
"Are you okay?" The words rumbled against Tiffany's hair and she nodded, forcing herself to respond though she barely had the energy to move.
"Good. Let's get back to shore."
"What about the dog?"
The man stilled, his arm tightening a fraction around Tiffany's waist. She thought for sure he'd lecture her, tell her how foolish she was. Instead he sighed. "Do you think you can tread water for a minute?"
"Yes." Tiffany hoped she sounded more confident than she felt.
"Good. I think we can use my belt to tow the dog in, but if he tries to use you as a raft again we let him loose and he fends for himself."
The arm around Tiffany's waist slid away and she slipped deeper into the water, barely keeping herself from going under. A few yards away, the dog splashed and wailed, his heavy body sinking again and again. Tiffany shuddered as she watched, picturing her own struggle just moments before.
Water lapped at her back, but Tiffany didn't have the energy to turn and face her rescuer. Instead she waited, her movements clumsy and disjointed as she tried to stay afloat. When a hard arm wrapped around her waist, she sighed with relief, leaning into the support that was offered.
"Okay. We're set. Hold this."
A belt slithered over Tiffany's shoulder and she grabbed it, eyeing the thin leather skeptically. "Do you plan to lasso him?"
"No. I'm hoping to use it as a tow line. If we can get the mutt to bite down on it, we might be able to haul him in."
"Call the dog. See if you can get him closer. Then toss the belt out."
Tiffany did as she was asked, whistling and calling the panicked animal. Somehow he seemed to sense her intent and moved toward them, velvety brown gaze fixed on Tiffany. With a whispered prayer she tossed out the belt, reeled it back in and tossed it out again. The third time the dog surged forward, biting down on the belt and tugging with enough force to pull Tiffany against the arm that heldher. She swallowed down a fit of coughing and held on tight. "Got him."
"Good. You hold the belt. I'll do everything else."
Tiffany didn't argue. She didn't have the energy to. Instead she allowed herself to be tugged toward shore.
Moments later cool lake water was replaced by warm air, and Tiffany was unceremoniously dumped onto prickly grass and sand. Coughing, still trying to ease her frantic breathing, she rose onto wobbly knees. A few feet away the dog stumbled onto shore, shook water from thick, black fur and collapsed onto the ground.
"Looks like the dog will be fine. How about you?"
Tiffany pushed tangled hair from her eyes and turned to face her rescuer. He knelt beside her, dark hair glistening with moisture. Even on his knees he looked tall. Broad-shouldered and strongly built, the man had a presence about him that Tiffany felt sure made people take notice when he entered a room.
He seemed familiar, though Tiffany wasn't sure where she'd seen him before.
"Are you all right, ma'am?"
A blush heated Tiffany's cheeks as she realized she'd been staring. Flustered she turned away, focusing her gaze on the dog. "Yes, I'm fine. Thanks."
"I know. Thanks for coming to the rescue."
"No problem. Did you get a look at any of the kids in the boat?"
"No. They were too far away. I think there were four or five of them, though."
"That's the impression I got as well."
"I don't understand why they'd throw the dog into the lake. It's cruel."
"People are cruel sometimes."
Tiffany couldn't argue the point. Instead she shrugged, gesturing to the dog. "Well, at least he's okay."
No thanks to her own foolish efforts. Tiffany's face heated again as she thought of the reckless impulse that had sent her diving into the lake. If not for the man kneeling beside her she might not be alive to regret her foolishness. Tiffany shuddered and turned to meet his assessing gaze.
Jake eyed the sodden, pale-faced woman beside him and bit back the recriminations that hovered on the tip of his tongue. No doubt she was doing a fair job of berating herself. He didn't need to add wood to the fire. Instead he stood and ran a hand through his hair. "I'll call animal control and have them bring the dog to the SPCA."
"Animal control? Forget them, I'll take care of the dog. What we need is the police. Why aren't they ever around when they're needed?"
"Actually, ma'am, I'm the police." Jake offered the woman a hand, clasping her slender fingers and pulling her up as he introduced himself. "Jake Reed. County Sheriff."
Heat stained her cheeks, bringing color back to her too pale face. "I'm so sorry, Sheriff Reed. I thought you looked familiar, but without a uniform --"
"Don't worry about it."
"I hope I didn't offend you."
"Not at all. This has been an unsettling experience. I don't blame you for being upset."
"Being upset isn't a good excuse for being rude. I am sorry." She tried to smile the apology, but it fell flat, the curve of her lips not reaching her eyes.
Eyes, Jake noticed, that were amazing. Deep green, shimmering with flecks of gold, and fringed by thick, dark lashes, they were striking against the woman's alabaster skin. For a moment he felt caught in her gaze, compelled to keep looking. Then she spoke and the spell was broken. "I hope you find the people responsible. They need to be held accountable for their actions."
"I agree, Ms. . . . ?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Tiffany. Tiffany Anderson."
Tiffany. Jake had known one other Tiffany in his life. She had been petite and blond. A cheerleader, if he remembered correctly. The woman before him was more substantial. Long-limbed and well curved. Womanly in a way that some might consider out of style. Personally, Jake preferred it to the boyish look of today's fashion models. Not that it mattered. He wasn't in the market for any kind of woman.
Relationships were for people with the time and patience to indulge in them. Jake had neither. He'd learned that the hard way and had no intention of repeating the mistake. He'd get the dog and Tiffany Anderson home safely and get back to the first day of his vacation. The sooner he did both, the better. "Do you need help to your car?"
"No. Thanks. I walked."
"How about a ride home?"
At his words, Tiffany's eyes widened. "Home? Oh, no! Brian's waiting for me at the diner."
"My boyfriend. I was supposed to meet him for breakfast."
"Becky's Diner, right?" It was the only diner in town, one Jake had become familiar with in the year since he'd moved to Lakeview.
"Yes. Poor Brian. He must be worried sick."
Jake didn't comment. Another lesson he'd learned young -- people who should care, often didn't. He didn't say as much to Tiffany, just nodded and pointed to his truck. "I can give you a lift. The dog can ride in the back if you can get him to move."
Worry eased from Tiffany's face and her mouth curved into a half smile. "Thanks. That would be great."
Copyright © 2004 Shirlee McCoy