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Jill Jacobi had managed to follow that simple rule since she'd stumbled across the evocatively named Indigo Springs on a Pennsylvania map and headed there. The scenic Pocono Mountain town had turned out to be a fine place to hide. It was out of the way, yet full of interesting, stimulating people.
No wonder she'd let down her guard.
"It was real sweet of you to invite me over." Jill spoke to Penelope Pollock in a whisper on a Friday night in July. "Even though I haven't known you long, I already love you to death. I might change my mind, though, if you're aiming to fix me up with the vet."
Penelope transferred four bottles of beer from the refrigerator to the sleek granite countertop of the island in her kitchen, then rummaged in a drawer until she pulled out a bottle opener.
"Of course I'm fixing you up." Penelope spoke without a trace of shame. "It's what I do."
Jill would never tell Penelope the truth of how she and Chris had ended up in Indigo Springs. So why hadn't she been more cautious when she'd gotten a dinner invitation from the woman who fancied herself a matchmaker?
The answer was simple, yet complicated.
Jill, who could afford to trust no one, was too darn trusting.
"You should be thanking me." Penelope popped the top on one of the beer bottles. "Dan's a great guy. On the quiet side, but animals and kids love him. When are they ever wrong about a person?"
On the wooden deck visible through the sliding glass doors, Penelope's husband, Johnny, tended the grill as Dan Maguire bent to pet a huge dog. The beast's thick tail wagged vigorously as the dog tried to lick his face. Dan straightened, teeth a dentist would admire flashing as he laughed, his hand still buried in the dog's white-and-mahogany coat.
"I'm sure he's a nice guy," Jill began.
"Nice doesn't begin to cover it," Penelope retorted. "After he started working for Stanley Kownacki, all I heard about him were good things. Now that we have a puppy, I wouldn't dream of using any other vet."
Puppy? That monstrosity of a dog was a puppy?
"Not many nice guys are as good-looking as he is," Penelope continued without taking a breath. "Just try to tell me he's not hot."
A breeze rustled Dan's black hair, which fell almost to his collar. Jill knew from the few times she'd happened to see him around town that his eyes were a startling blue, but they weren't his best feature. Neither were his long interesting nose, lean high cheekbones or wide full mouth.
Her eyes dipped to his legs, left bare beneath his khaki shorts. Lean and lightly sprinkled with brown hair, they had excellent calf definition.
Yeah, she was a leg girl, all right.
"Oh, he's hot," Jill said, "but I seem to remember you saying no when I asked if anyone besides you and Johnny would be here."
Wielding the bottle opener in her right hand, Penelope methodically popped the rest of the beer-bottle tops.
"So I lied," Penelope said. "Would you have come if you knew I thought you should get busy with the hot vet? "
"No," Jill replied. "I don't want to get busy with anyone."
"Why is that exactly? " Penelope tossed back her long light brown hair and gazed at Jill out of big dark eyes. "You don't even date."
The response that sprang to mind was that a life on the run with a ten-year-old left no room for romance. Jill swallowed the words for a version of the truth. "Between work and Chris, I don't have time."
"Nonsense," Penelope refuted. "Your landlady treats you and Chris like her grandchildren. You said she doesn't even consider it babysitting to stay home with Chris."
"Then maybe I'm not in the market for a man."
"What kind of talk is that? " Penelope's hand flew to her throat. "The only acceptable reason not to be looking for a man is if you're gay. And in that case, I know a woman I can set you up with."
Jill laughed despite not even being close to getting her point across. There was something endearing about a recent bride wanting everyone else to be as happily in love as she was.
"Not that there's anything wrong with it," Jill said, borrowing a line from one of her favorite sitcoms, "but I'm not gay."
"Then give the vet a whirl, see where things lead. As far as I can tell, Dan doesn't date either, but how can he resist you?" Penelope nodded toward the deck. "See. He's checking you out."
Jill's eyes locked with Dan's through the glass door. She recognized a familiar trapped look and broke the gaze.
"You didn't tell him I'd be here, did you?" Jill accused.
"What difference does that make? " Penelope avoided looking at her. "You have no idea how hard it is to get that man to accept a dinner invitation."
"He probably smelled a setup."
"If you're so against being set up," Penelope said, handing two of the beers to Jill, "why did you just suck in your stomach and stick out your boobs?"
"I did no such thing!" Jill denied before her inherent honesty got the best of her. "Okay, maybe I did suck in my stomach, but I sure didn't do anything with my boobs."
Penelope giggled. "I knew you liked him!"
Jill couldn't help but laugh. "I like everybody," she said. "Even you."
She followed her friend over the kitchen tile, pausing when Dan slid the door open, so she could check where the dog was. The "baby monster," thankfully, was amusing itself in the yard.
The outdoors smelled like freshly mowed grass and grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, yet as Jill handed Dan one of the beers she caught the scent of soap and clean warm skin.
"We come bearing great gifts," Penelope announced, walking straight into her husband's arms. Johnny's grin lit up his entire face, transforming his average looks. He kissed her soundly while the smoke from the grill swirled around them.
"I was referring to the beers," Penelope said when they broke apart, handing her husband one of the cold brews, "but save that thought for later."
Johnny chuckled and went back to tending the food on the grill. "So Penelope tells me you two are dating," he remarked casually as he flipped a burger.
"What?" Jill asked, a question echoed by Dan.
"We don't even know each other." Jill looked fully at Dan. He shuffled his feet, as though he was considering making a run for the hills. "Although I have seen you once or twice at the Blue Haven."
"Of course. You bartend there." It couldn't be more obvious that he'd just put it together why she looked familiar.
"Jill also works at Indigo River Rafters as a guide." Penelope's smile was almost blinding. "I can't wait for you two to get acquainted."
"Penelope." Johnny gestured to his wife with the stainless steel flipper. "You need to stay out of—"
Penelope was close enough to Johnny to plant another kiss on his lips before he could finish the sentence.
Jill edged closer to Dan, shielded her mouth with her hand and whispered, "I truly am sorry. Believe me, I had nothing to do with this."
"I figured that." His answering whisper came through clenched teeth. In ventriloquist fashion, he barely moved his lips. "It doesn't look like Johnny did, either."
Jill kept her hand in place. "Any ideas on how we can thwart her plans?"
A corner of his mouth quirked. This close to him she could make out the beginnings of his five-o'clock shadow and the thickness of his black eyelashes over those blue, blue eyes. The man really did have dramatic coloring. "We shouldn't make eyes at each other at dinner."
She laughed aloud.
"What's funny?" Penelope asked. She and Johnny were no longer locked at the lips, although Jill wasn't exactly sure when that had happened.
Dan hesitated. "It's a private joke."
Jill widened her eyes and gave him what she hoped was an imperceptible shake of her head. She could tell by his blank look he couldn't decipher her silent message.
"Oooh," Penelope said. "That sounds intimate."
Dan winced. Now he understood.
They ate outside on the deck at a picnic table that overlooked a small backyard bracketed by trees and infused with the lush green that characterized the mountain town in the summer months.
The meal started favorably enough, with Johnny telling an amusing story about a do-it-yourselfer who called his construction company to the rescue after remodeling his own kitchen. The space he'd left for a refrigerator was six feet high—and eighteen inches wide.
"You want construction humor, I've got a true story for you." Dan had a deep, velvety voice that would have been perfect for the radio, making him a pleasure to listen to. "A couple back in Ohio live in a one-room log cabin with a quarter horse. They even set a place for him at the table."
"That sure doesn't sound sanitary." Jill made a face. "I mean, what happens when nature calls?"
"They claim the horse is housebroken. Even lets himself out when he gets the urge."
Everybody laughed, then tried to top each other with increasingly outrageous stories. Before long, Jill let down her guard and started to enjoy herself.
"So, Dan," Penelope said during a rare lull in conversation when they were nearly through with dinner, "I'm sure Jill would love to hear how you became a vet."
Johnny sent his wife a pointed look. "We all would."
"Sure you don't want to hear more about the house-broken horse?" Dan took a handful of purple grapes from the bowl on the table and popped a few into his mouth. "He's really quite amazing. When it gets hot, he turns on the ceiling fan."
"You're just as interesting," Penelope said.
"Not by a long shot." Dan rubbed the back of his neck. "Let's see. I grew up in Ohio in a family of Irishmen. Make that Irishwomen. My dad was a salesman who wasn't around much and I've got three older sisters. Even our dog was female."
"And?" Penelope prompted when he stopped talking.
"And we lived near a farm that had a couple boys my age," he continued. "I loved it there. At first just hanging around the boys, then for the animals, and my interest grew."
"Stanley and Dan don't only treat house pets," Penelope announced.
"We're equal opportunity." Dan smiled. It was a nice smile, warm and inviting. "Horses, cattle, sheep. We've got them covered."
"Why did you leave Ohio?" Jill asked.
He hesitated. "It was a good career opportunity."
He took another bite of his burger. He wasn't comfortable talking about himself—that much was clear. He especially didn't want to discuss why he'd moved to Indigo Springs. Jill could relate.
"Does your family still live in Ohio?" Penelope had either failed to pick up on his evasiveness or was having none of it, probably the latter.
"Yes," he said after a pause. "My parents live in the same house where I grew up. My sisters and their families aren't far away."
"You're the only one who isn't married?" Penelope asked.
Dan shifted on the picnic-table bench. Jill fought not to squirm, too. Who knew what Penelope would ask next? The other woman leaned forward, as though about to pounce with a particularly juicy question.
"Dan's true mission on earth leaves him no time for a relationship," Jill announced.
"Excuse me?" Penelope spoke up, but three pairs of eyes regarded Jill curiously.
"Dan seems like an average guy, a simple vet going about his business." Jill lowered her voice. "Except that's only a cover."
"Oh, really?" The corners of Dan's mouth quirked.
"Really." Jill looked over her shoulder, then let her gaze roam over the yard. She returned her attention to her audience, quieting her voice even more. "Did you ever wonder why we don't see much of him in town?"
"I work a lot," Dan said.
"And not just at being a vet. It all stems, of course, from those five world-changing words spoken to you in high school by that stuffy British librarian." She paused for effect, then called upon her most dramatic delivery. "'You are the chosen one.'"
Dan's dark eyebrows lifted.
"This is getting good." Johnny put both elbows on the table and leaned forward. "Chosen for what?"
"To stand alone against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness," Jill finished, and drained the rest of her beer, setting the bottle down with a plop.
"Hey, that sounds familiar," Penelope said slowly, then brightened. "I know where I've heard it before. On TV at the beginning of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns. Buffy's the one girl in all the world who can do that stuff."
"What's to say Buffy doesn't have a male coworker?" Jill asked flippantly. "You've got to admit it explains that tall, dark and enigmatic thing Dan has going on."
"Enigmatic? " A dimple appeared in Dan's left cheek. "No one's ever called me that before."
"That's what you get for not chatting up the bartender at the Blue Haven." She put up a hand so he wouldn't get the wrong idea. "Not that I'm complaining. Most people talk my ear off."
"That's how Jill and I became friends," Penelope said. "A girlfriend stood me up when Johnny was out of town. I sat at the bar all night talking to Jill. She's an excellent conversationalist. You should ask her to tell you about herself, Dan."
"No need," Dan said as Jill was trying to mentally unearth one of her practiced scripts. "I already know her secret."
Jill heard blood pounding in her ears but forced herself to smile. Dan couldn't possibly know anything about her. He was simply having fun by following her lead.
"Ever wonder why she tones down that Southern accent of hers?" Dan asked. "It's because she doesn't want anyone to know exactly where she's from."
Jill hid her shock that he'd hit the mark even as Penelope said, "Jill's from South Carolina."
"That's what she wants you to believe. The truth is that Jill—" he gestured toward her with his index finger, making his captive audience wait " is hiding out here in Indigo Springs."
The blood rushed from her head. She clutched at the lip of the picnic table, feeling as though she might pass out. How had Dan figured out her secret? Did he know about Chris, too?
"What's she hiding from?" Penelope asked in an amused, playful voice.
Jill's lungs squeezed, making it impossible to draw in air. She fought not to react under Dan's scrutiny as she waited for his reply.
"Some serious bad guys," he finally answered.