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The South Carolina sun bathed the young girl in light, bringing out the unusual color of the long silky hair she wore in a ponytail.
Jazz Lenox forgot about the stitch in her side, the need to watch the packed earth for rocks and exposed roots, and her determination to run two circuits around the trail circling Ashley Greens Park in less than thirty minutes.
The girl was about seven or eight years old and wore black shorts, high blue socks and a bright blue shirt shot through with yellow lightning bolts. She was beneath the crossbar of a soccer net with her back to Jazz, on the balls of her feet, her weight slightly forward. Her ponytail swished back and forth as she moved to catch a ball careening toward her.
Her dark red ponytail.
The shade was unusual but not unique. In the three years since Jazz had moved into her one-bedroom apartment in South Carolina, a few miles outside of Charleston, she'd spotted the hair color a dozen times on people of various ages. A middle-aged man. A teenage boy. A toddler girl.
This Sunday morning was the first time Jazz had stumbled across a redhead who appeared to be the right age. Jazz realized, of course, that she could be overreacting. Maybe this child hadn't even been a redhead at birth. It could be a coincidence that the girl's particular shade matched not only the wispy tufts that had been on the newborn, but also Jazz's grandmother's hair.
"Good job! You made the stop!" A man's deep voice cut through the warm August air.
The path of the trail brought Jazz even with the net, which was about thirty feet away. Off to one side of the girl stood a tall man with golden-brown hair wearing a T-shirt and athletic shorts. Probably the girl's father. He clapped his hands.
"Be warned, Robbie," he cried. "The girl in goal is a beast!"
"Boys are beasts, not girls!" The girl was dancing in place, making it appear as though the lightning bolts on her shirt were poised to strike.
"Give me the ball, Brooke." The third voice belonged to a young boy. "I'm scoring on you this time!"
Jazz had been so focused on the girl, she hadn't noticed the boy. Jazz kept running, putting one foot in front of the other by rote, craning her neck as her progress took her past where the boy stood.
He was about the same age as the girl with the exact shade of dark red hair.
The toe of Jazz's running shoe caught on something, and she pitched forward. She reached out her arms to break her fall and slammed down hard on her right side. The breath squeezed out of her and for a moment she couldn't breathe. She sucked at the air, finally feeling it reach her lungs.
Pain seared her shoulder and the forearm that had taken the brunt of the fall. It was of little consequence. What mattered were the redheaded boy and girl. Were they the twins she sometimes found herself searching for no matter how determined she was to remain out of their lives?
She'd gotten such a brief look at the boy, she could have been mistaken about how old he was. Even if he were roughly the same size as the girl, that didn't mean they were twins.
The ground in front of her yielded no answers.
Praying the children and the man hadn't seen her fall, she got to her feet gingerly. The trio on the soccer field was laughing about something, immersed in their own little world that didn't include Jazz. The man was now standing in goal beside the boy, who gripped the soccer ball with both hands.
Drawing in a deep breath, Jazz wiped at the dirt on her scraped arm and brushed at the twigs and grass on her running clothes. Thankfully nobody had seen her fall. As it got later in the morning and the August temperatures rose, the trail became less populated.
"Go deep, Robbie!" the man yelled, waving his arm to indicate a point roughly even with Jazz. "Brooke's got a good punt."
The man bent his head to say something to the girl, probably instructions. He watched as the girl took three long steps, dropped the ball and punted.
The black-and-white ball arced into the sky and flew down the field. It must have careened off the side of the girl's foot because it didn't travel in a straight line, instead landing and bouncing not far from Jazz.
The redheaded boy was running toward the ball, arms and legs pumping. Jazz told herself to resume her workout before the boy closed the distance between them but she craved a better look at him. With her heart hammering, she left the trail and headed for the rolling ball. She bent down, picked it up and raised her eyes.
The boy slowed, then stopped. His cheeks were red, she wasn't sure whether from exertion or exposure to the sun. Freckles sprinkled his nose. His expression was open and earnest, something about it striking a note of familiarity she both searched for and feared noticing.
"Can I have that?" the boy asked.
Jazz stared at him, her mind a blank.
He pointed. "The ball."
She looked down at her hands, almost surprised to see what they held. "Oh. Of course."
Jazz tossed him the ball. He caught it easily, but stood his ground. His eyes dipped. "You're bleeding."
She gazed down at herself and saw blood trickling down her right leg from a gash on her knee. "I tripped over a root."
"It looks like it hurts."
"It's nothing." She felt numb to the injury, her entire focus on the boy. Like the girl, he wore long socks that she now saw covered shin guards. Even at his young age, he had an athletic build, and was wiry rather than muscular. As far as Jazz knew, nobody in her family was an athlete. Was that relevant?
"Well, bye." The boy pivoted and dashed away.
She opened her mouth to call him back, then closed it. She shouldn't prolong their encounter. To the boy, she was a stranger who'd happened to retrieve his ball. Maybe that's all she was. She didn't know how old the children were, whether they were twins or if they'd been adopted.
She could probably concoct a story, approach their father and get some answers. But what purpose would that serve? Even though she couldn't help keeping an eye out for redheaded twins wherever she went, she would never consciously search for them. If they were happy, as this boy and girl seemed to be, she had no intention of disrupting their lives.
The boy appeared smaller and smaller as he retreated into the distance, finally stopping next to the man and the girl. The two children were virtually the same size, like twins might be. Jazz's throat thickened. She tried to swallow but couldn't manage it.
The boy said something to the man, then extended his arm and pointed to Jazz. The man patted the boy's shoulder before he took off in a slow jog, heading directly for her. The children followed.
Jazz told herself to move, to rejoin the path and continue her run. Her feet didn't cooperate, remaining as motionless as if they were glued to the grass. The man kept approaching, growing more substantial with every powerful stride. His coloring was nothing like the children's, his hair a sun-lightened medium brown, his skin lightly tanned. He reached her a few seconds before the children.
"Hey, are you okay? " the man asked. "Robbie said you were bleeding."
"She said she fell over a root," Robbie added helpfully. The boy had come up behind him, arriving a few seconds before the girl. Up close, she looked remarkably like the boy.
The girl made a face. "Oh, gross!"
"Blood isn't gross, Brooke," the man said before addressing Jazz. "You look a little pale. You should sit down."
With Brooke's hair pulled back from her face and Robbie's short haircut, it was easy to see their hairlines were identical, down to their widow's peaks. Also the same were their oval faces, their green eyes and the freckles dotting their noses.
"Did you hear me? You're not in shock, are you?" The man was talking again. To her. Jazz yanked her gaze from the children and focused on him. She placed him at somewhere around thirty, not much older than she was. With a slightly crooked nose and wide mouth, a combination that worked surprisingly well, he didn't resemble the children facially, either.
"Sorry." Her head was still spinning with possibility but she attempted a smile. "No, I'm not in shock. I'm fine."
He frowned, his brows drawing together. "You should clean that cut so it doesn't get infected."
She attempted to rein in her scattered thoughts. "I will when I get home."
"I have a first-aid kit in my bag," he offered. "It's over there by the goal."
"Oh, no." She immediately shook her head. "Thanks, but I couldn't be a bother."
"No bother," he said. "Name the injury, and I've probably had it. I'm darn near an expert."
She felt herself wavering. If she went with him, she could find out more about the children. What would it hurt to possibly verify these were the twins she'd given up at birth? She'd know for sure they were healthy and happy, all she could wish for.
"I don't want to take time away from your kids," she said, still undecided.
"They're my niece and nephew," he said.
"Uncle Matt's not married," Robbie added. "He doesn't even have a girlfriend."
"Mom says he has lots of girlfriends," Brooke chimed in.
"Nuh-uh," Robbie said. "I never met one."
"Not serious girlfriends." Brooke sounded years older than she was.
"Thanks for sharing, kids, but you're not helping," the man said with an exaggerated grimace. He moved close enough to Jazz to extend a hand. "I'm Matt Cami-netti. And these blabbermouths are Brooke and Robbie, my sister's children."
"I'm Jazz," she said, deliberately omitting her last name. She had a vague impression of warmth when his hand clasped hers. Her mind whirled even as she greeted the children. Would it be a mistake to spend more time in their presence?
"Come on, Jazz. Let's get that first-aid kit." Matt took the decision out of her hands, turning back toward the grassy field and heading for the soccer goal. Brooke and Robbie skipped along beside him. After a moment's hesitation, Jazz followed.
"Race you!" Robbie called to his sister and took off at a dead run.
"No fair!" Brooke complained even as she raced after him, gaining steadily with every stride.
"Wow," Jazz said to Matt, "she's fast."
"It's tough on Robbie having a sister who's so athletic. She could beat him at just about anything if she tried. Except half the time she lets him win."
Jazz's heart pounded even faster than it had when she was keeping up her seven-minutes-a-mile pace. "They look a lot alike. Are they twins?"
"Yep," he said. "Makes the whole competition thing even harder for Robbie."
She tried to keep her voice from trembling. "How old are they? Seven? Eight?"
"Eight," he said. Jazz's heart squeezed. The twins she'd given away would have been eight last month. "I think," Matt continued. "Or maybe they're seven. I see them all the time but I lose track."
Ahead of them, Brooke put on a burst of speed to draw even with Robbie, then slowed down noticeably. Brother and sister ran alongside each other for a few strides before Robbie stumbled, his arms windmilling as he righted himself. Brooke reached the goal inches ahead of her brother.
"You only won because I tripped!" Robbie cried.
Brooke settled her hands on her slim hips in a pose Jazz had seen females use countless times when dealing with a difficult male. "Whatever."
"Let's go again!"
"What are you?" Robbie got right in her face.
"Guys, stop! You'll scare away Jazz," Matt yelled to them good-naturedly, as though he'd heard it all before.
Matt continued walking to an athletic bag lying behind the goal and crouched down beside it. He looked up at Jazz with eyes that were a light brown instead of green like his niece and nephew's. "Is Jazz short for Jasmine?"
She wanted to ask the questions, specifically whether his sister had adopted Brooke and Robbie and the exact date of their birth. Except she couldn't think of a way to work those topics into the conversation.
"It's just Jazz," she said. "My mother liked the music."
"I like the name." He smiled at her before digging into his bag and pulling out the first-aid kit. "My sister gave this to me for a Christmas present when I started spending lots of time with her kids. She's kind of overprotective."
"Is she a redhead, too?" Jazz ventured, although that wouldn't tell her anything definitive. The gene for red hair was recessive.
"Nope." He opened the kit and pulled out antiseptic and a cotton swab. "Come closer and I'll clean that for you. The bleeding's stopped but this could smart."
She complied, the sting of the antiseptic barely registering while she tried to figure out how to extract more information. Her head started to pound when nothing occurred to her. She'd make a terrible investigative reporter.
"The cut's not too bad, but it needs a bandage." He took one out of his bag, tore off the packaging and positioned it over her skin. "How's the shoulder? You're holding it like it hurts."
She concentrated on his question instead of Brooke and Robbie kicking the soccer ball back and forth a few feet away. The throbbing had subsided to a manageable level. "It's okay."
"You should probably see a doctor," he said. "At the very least, ice it and take some ibuprofen."
"Are you done yet, Uncle Matt?" Robbie called. "You said we'd work on my corner kicks next."
"Just a sec," he called, then peered at Jazz. "Do you need a ride home? My car's just over there in the parking lot. It's getting too hot to stay much longer anyway."
She fought the temptation to accept and gestured vaguely to the trail. "Thanks, but I don't live far from here."
He seemed about to protest, but then said, "Okay. Just remember to ice your shoulder. Nice meeting you, Jazz."
"You, too." She drank in the sight of the children who might be hers, assuring herself she was doing all of them a favor by cutting off the acquaintance. "Bye, Brooke, Robbie."
"Bye!" the children said in unison, but Robbie was already picking up the soccer ball and running to his uncle. Brooke was humming a pretty little tune.
Jazz turned away, feeling an ache that had nothing to do with her injuries.
She'd taken maybe ten steps when Matt Caminetti called to her, "Hey, Jazz."
"We'll be here Sunday mornings after church until fall soccer starts and probably even after that, too," he said. "Stop by and say hi."
She raised a hand in acknowledgment before turning her back and walking out of their lives. She wouldn't accept his invitation no matter how tempting.