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Alex Gray didn't know the woman who was staring so intently at him from the far side of the Bagel&Bean coffee shop. All he knew was that she made him nervous, in a not-so-good kind of way.
"Sabrina," he murmured to his longtime tracking partner and fellow member of Port Renegade's Search and Rescue team. "You know her?" He indicated the woman with a slight tilt of his head subtle, if he did say so himself.
Sabrina Adelante took her customary latte from the barista and turned toward the redhead seated several feet away from them. The woman swiftly jerked her head to look out the window, but not before Sabrina had seen her watching them.
"I don't." Sabrina took a careful sip of her latte and considered the woman over the lip of her cup. "But she seems to know you."
Swallowing his reflexive denial, Alex pretended to be absorbed in reading the specials on the chalk-board over the woman's head while he checked her out once again. She was pretty, in a non-knockout kind of way, her most standout feature being the brownish-red and undoubtedly natural curls that she'd piled atop her head. A few had escaped to frame her oval face, emphasizing a delicately pointed chin and a pair of large dark eyes. She may have had the looks to blend in with the crowd, but he had to admit, there was also something about her, something that made him sure he would have remembered her if they'd met before. Especially those eyeswhen she'd been staring at him, it was as if she knew everything, all of his secrets, his darkest thoughts, down to the bone.
Her head swung around, and he was caught again by her dark gaze. This time, she didn't look away.
"Ah, crap." Alex spun around and headed for the door. Anything to get away from that too-intense woman, because he wasn't sure he wanted to find out why she was so fascinated with him. That definitely wasn't a casual "hey, you're kinda hot" stare, and anything else probably meant trouble.
Sabrina pushed out the door a few seconds later, her hands wrapped protectively around her latte, likely trying to leach warmth out of the cup as the cold air hit her. Port Renegade, Washington, never got all that much sun, but the November day was even grayer than usual, with the sharp biting feel of an impending storm in the air. "So what was that all about? Should I be on the lookout for some guy with a shotgun who wants you to make an honest woman out of his daughter?"
He raised one gloved hand, the stiff outer fabric of his waterproof parka making swishing sounds as he moved. "Swear to God, I've never seen her before in my life."
Sabrina took a careful sip of her coffee while glancing back toward the shop. "Well, better start running, Casanova, because she's coming outside." She leaned forward, straining to see through the gray-sky glare on the shop's front windows. "And she looks seriously unhappy."
A smattering of snowflakes started to fall, the light, airy kind that looped and danced in the air like miniature pixies before they finally hit the ground. Alex watched them as he curled his toes into the cushioned soles of his hiking boots and quashed the urge to bolt. Whatever she wanted, he'd let her have her say, and then they could both move on. Even with his obscured view of her through the glass double doors, he could see she wasn't much over five feet tall. He could take her.
Another Bagel&Bean customer strode past him, a little too closely, and Alex shifted his weight to avoid getting pushed over. The man yanked the door open, and there she stood, still aiming that scary-intense look right at Alex. She didn't even seem to notice when the man jostled past her, obviously feeling an urgent need to get some caffeine into his system.
She wasn't rail thinprobably about a size twelve or fourteenbut she had the most amazingly small waist, emphasized by a fitted green sweater, from which her generous hips flared in a way that practically invited a man to put his hands on them and hold on. As the door closed behind her, Alex could see she'd left her coat hanging on the chair she'd just vacated. But that didn't stop her from heading his way, an expression of firm resolve on her face, acting as if the cold didn't bother her in the least.
Once she got within a couple feet of him, however, she planted her boots on the wet cement walkway and sucked in her cheeks, her expression morphing into something less confident. In fact, it was almost a wince, as if she expected him to get angry at her mere presence. But why the hell would he be angry? He'd told Sabrina he'd never met this woman before, and up close and personal, he was still positive that was true. But the way she reacted to him threw him, all the same.
They stared at each other for what seemed like a very long time, playing a strange mental game of chicken. Naturally competitive,Alex dug his heels in and refused to be the first one to speak. Behind him, Sabrina muttered something under her breath, and he heard her hiking boots clunk across the pavement as she moved a polite distance away. When the silence had stretched out for too long, his natural concern drove him to finally break it. "Are you okay?"
Her hand floated up to toy with the neckline of her sweater. She had the most perfectly shaped rosebud of a mouth, dotted with the occasional freckle like the rest of her pale skin, and it turned upward in a small self-deprecating smile. "Sorry. I just" Covering her mouth, she cleared her throat. "Are you a tracker?"
Lacing his gloved fingers together, he cracked his knuckles, buying some time before he answered. Sabrina and he were on Renegade Ridge State Park's lead search and rescue team, a group that had gotten lots of media attention locally and nationally both for their rare dedication to old-fashioned footprint tracking and the resulting successful searches for lost hikers. He loved his job, and it wasn't beneath him to play up the details of what he did to try to impress a woman here and there. But he never knew how to react when people seemed overly starstruck by the ideasomething that tended to happen when the local cable access channel reran the series of interviews they'd done with the trackers a little over a year earlier. "I"
"Do you find missing people?" The intense look was back, telling him she definitely wasn't an admirer.
"Yes," he replied. "You didn't lose someone in the park recently, did you?"
The tension that had suddenly built up in his body drained away at her denial, leaving him feeling half relieved that there wasn't a lost hiker in need of rescue and half disappointed that he wasn't going to get called in on a search this morning.
But though he waited, she didn't volunteer any further information, instead becoming strangely preoccupied with tracing the square toe of her impractical, clunky black boot along a crack in the sidewalk. Living in the mountains and doing what he did for a living, he'd made it a habit never to go out without a pair of shoes he could run and climb in. With that gigantic heel on hers, he wondered how she could even walk.
"Okay, do I know you?" he tried again.
"No. Not even slightly," she said to her shoe.
"Thennnnnnn, can you tell me what this is about?" This was like trying to get his ex-girlfriend Trina to tell him what he'd done to make her angry on way too many occasions. Hence the whole ex-girlfriend thing. This woman didn't look like a drama queen like Trina, but you just never knew .
"There's a trail you'll be on today," she blurted out suddenly. "It's beautifulruns by a two-tiered waterfall with a small fence at the bottom where the water pools and a really tall pine tree on the far side." She finally made eye contact with him, making circular motions with her hands. "The path there makes a loop."
Her eyes were pretty, a deep, dark blue, not brown as he'd originally thought, which reminded him of the ocea Focus, dude. "Sounds like Dungeness Falls." He cleared his throat and focused.
"Okay." Her eyes flicked to the ground and back up at him. "Don't take the kids to the far side of the water."
"Don't take the kids to the far side of the water." She ducked her head again and mumbled, "Don't ask me how I know that." After imparting that strange bit of wisdom, she pivoted back toward the coffee shop, obviously wanting to make a quick escape. He stopped her by grabbing her elbow gently, so as not to scare her, but firmly enough to keep her from bolting.
"What does that mean?" he asked. "What kids?"
"Generally speaking, all of this will make sense later." The strange half smile was back. "Unless I'm wrong, and then it'll just be embarrassing. But right now, that's all I can tell you."
"I don't have kids." Frustration and confusion warred for dominance inside him, and he tightened his grip on her arm. She probably was a drama queen after all, what with the cryptic messages and the big, pretty, I'm-so-lonely-come-save-me eyes. And all he knew was that he needed to stay far, far away from that type. History showed that he didn't do well with drama queens.
"And could you please make sense for maybe five minutes? How do you know who I am? What kind of message is that?"
Now the smile was gone, replaced with the look of someone who'd had her puppy kicked too many times, which made him feel like a huge jerk. But then again, that was what drama queens did. They manipulated you into feeling sorry for them, and thenBAM! They hit you while you were vulnerable, just so they could fight and make up.
But instead of hitting him, literally or figuratively, she reached down and calmly peeled his hand off her elbow. "Trust me, you don't want to know." With that, she headed back inside the coffee shop, leaving him to wonder at her bizarro-world way of holding a conversation. Pulling his Mariners ball cap out of one of his jacket's oversize pockets, he jammed it backward over his head and turned toward his truck, hoping that getting her out of his sight would exorcise her from his brain.
But, of course, he had no such luck.As he slogged across the parking lot to where Sabrina was waiting for him, he found that any attempt to turn his thoughts away from the woman, her strange words and her cartoon-character eyes proved futile. She'd gotten stuck in his craw, and he wanted her out of his craw and as far, far away from it as possible.
Sabrina reached over and opened the driver's-side door for him, making a big show of shivering and chattering her teeth once he'd gotten inside.
"Sorry. I know you're cold." He got in and started the truck, cranking the defrost to clear the windows, which were nearly covered by a thin layer of moisture.
"I thought you might be a while, so I got your coffee." As soon as she'd handed him the small paper cup she'd been holding, she rubbed her bare hands vigorously together, then replaced her gloves.
"By the way, you are so going to hate me."
"Okay, enough with the mysterious commentary. Just tell me straight what's going on." It took a major effort not to snap at her after she'd been nice enough to get the drink he'd forgotten, but his words still came out sharper than he'd intended.
Sabrina reared back in surprise. "Whoa, Mr. Grumpy Pants, who tied your boxers in a knot this morning?"
He sighed, leaning back in his seat and taking a sip of his coffee, which was already lukewarm from waiting in the frozen truck. Of course, Sabrina had also probably sucked all the heat out of it with her perpetually icy hands while he'd entertained the crazy woman in the parking lot. "Nothing." He made an effort to bring his voice back to a normal conversational tone. "So why am I going to hate you?"
She tried to smile at him, but it quickly turned to a toothy grimace, as if she expected him to start shouting at her once he figured out what the hell she was talking about. "Because I forgot to tell you that we have a bunch of fifth graders coming out to the park today to learn about tracking, and you get to take them on a hike."
"Excuse me, your what hurts?" he asked calmly.
Sabrina completely ignored the sarcastic nonsequitur. "I'm sorry, Al, but Jessie is mapping out the road closures for the winter with Skylar, and I promised Aaron I'd take Rosie in to the doctor today. She has a virus she can't shake." Aaron was Sabrina's new husband of six months, and Rosie was his teenaged daughterwho, come to think of it, hadn't been coming around to watch her stepmother work as often as usual lately. The girl was fascinated with tracking.
"Yeah, just a fever and a nasty cough. We think it might be bronchitis, but I don't want to put off taking her in."
The truck finally warmed up, and he took that as a cue to turn on the windshield wipers to finish clearing the windshield. "No, don't do that. I can take the kids around, no problem."
That earned him a real smile from Sabrina as she clicked her seat belt into place. "You are fabulous, and I adore you."
"I know, but we must never speak of this again. Aaron would be mad at me, and I might have to kick his ass to defend myself," he said, referring to her husband, a police detective and good friend.
"Right." Sabrina laughed, holding her gloved hands in front of the heater vent. "Poor kids, they probably didn't expect snow today.Well, as you know, they'll want a demonstration from the big, bad search-and-rescue tracker, so I left some footprints last night down by Dungeness Falls for you to read for them."