Her eyes flew open as recollection of her circumstances collided with instant fright. A dog, a very large black dog, stood not three feet away from her, fangs bared in a ferocious growl.
Jessica’s breathing constricted. All lucid thought evaporated as she slowly lurched to her feet and pressed her back against the tree trunk. Her fingernails clawed into the smooth bark as the dog growled again and took a threatening step towards her. She squeezed her eyes shut, vividly recalling another place, another dog, and her father warning her not to move. Stay still, Jess, and he won’t hurt you. Too late. She’d remembered the words too late. Already she felt the animal’s hot breath, sensed its body crouching, ready to pounce at any second.
Her eyes opened to narrow slits as the commanding male voice cut through her fear and panic. The dog angled his head towards the sound and wagged his tail but stood his ground in front of her.
“Come on, Brutus. We don’t have time for chasing squirrels.”
Through the low branches and a blur of waxy green leaves, she watched the stranger approach. He was tall and lean with the broad shoulders of an outdoorsman. He wore a white polo shirt over faded jeans. There was an air of confidence and purpose in his easy gait that immediately reassured her. Glad to see another human being, she released a shaky sigh of relief.
The tree branches parted. Blinking his eyes from the transition to shade, it took a moment before the man saw her. He stared at her, startled, and stood still. Jessica’s eyes widened. She forgot the dog as she returned the stranger’s look, her gaze skidding across his features. His hair was brown with sheens of gold where the sun had touched it. The strong column of his throat, rising from the open collar of his shirt, was tan, as was his lean, hard face. His eyes were the color of pennies, a warm, copper brown.
He, for his part, saw a young woman with upswept dark hair, vivid blue eyes shaded by long lashes, a pale, classically cut face, a red mouth parted on a quickened breath. He saw her cheeks suddenly flame with color, watched the color die away. For a long moment, they stared at each other, the air silent around them.
Then he said, a slow smile breaking the hard line of his jaw and the firm set of his mouth, “You are real, aren’t you?”
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