The Small Town Boy’s Secret Romance

Chapter 1

 

When Thad Truax wanted something, he wasn’t usually shy about going to get it.

So when he saw the slender woman with her arms steepled above her head, one leg bent with the foot resting above the knee of her other, the setting sun shining behind her hair making a halo around her head, and the river sparkling in the background, he didn’t hesitate.

He turned his hog around and idled it down into the parking lot for the Riverside Trail.

Peach Bottom wasn’t exactly a hotbed of crime, even though it wasn’t that far outside of Richmond, Virginia, so if he’d been wearing a helmet, he’d have hung it over his handlebars. As it was, he didn’t even pocket the key. 

Thad swung a leg over and walked in his work boots, jeans, and T-shirt along the trail in the direction that he’d seen the woman, noting the three sedans in the parking lot, along with a canary yellow, low-riding sports car.

He did take a few seconds to admire the car. Who wouldn’t?

But he didn’t think about it too much. Because his focus was on the woman. He assumed it was a woman – not a girl. His family had long since learned a lesson about females and what age was way too young. Thad wouldn’t have any trouble turning around and walking away if this one looked like she was anywhere near high school.

When one’s brother spent three years in prison after getting caught with an underage girl, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong, it had a tendency to teach a man a lesson.

Thad wasn’t too worried about his work boots. So what if she knew he was walking down the trail just to see her? He didn’t have anything to hide.

Yeah, he was working pretty hard with his brothers to make their shop, the Richmond Rebels, a success. They were doing legitimate business rather than stripping exhausts, like they used to, and making motors run hot, mostly for street racing. Some to circumvent emission standards.

But they had the opportunity to get a contract that could change the direction of their shop. He wanted it just as much as his brothers. So, while they’d been completely legitimate for a while, they were working even harder to prove they could handle the extra work the contract would bring in.

So, yeah, he’d been working late almost every day. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have time for a little romance.

And there had been something about this girl. Thad snorted to himself. It might have been the sun and the halo. Although women weren’t angels. He knew that much anyway.

But he also knew he craved companionship. He’d been alone for a long time, never really sticking with one girl, not after Amber had died in high school.

He supposed, if he’d spent any time thinking about it, he would’ve said he wasn’t expecting this girl to be the one that he “stuck” with, but she definitely intrigued him, and he had time.

She was in a different stance when he came around the bend and she came into view posing on the big, flat rock that was just above the river. Local kids had used it as a hangout sometimes before the trail became popular.

The sun hadn’t set fully, and it was still pretty light out, although the couple people he passed were heading out, not coming in as he was.

Now that he was here, he wasn’t sure what to say. Of course, he never usually had too much trouble getting words to spill out of his mouth, but he didn’t want to seem like a stalker or some kind of weird, staring jerk. He didn’t want to stand there looking at her, even though now her pose had morphed to one foot on the ground along with one hand, with her other leg and arm in the air.

He supposed that should have looked ridiculous, but she looked graceful and somehow strong.

He was hard-pressed to keep walking, wanting instead to stop and gape. There was something about her that drew his eyes and stirred the inside of him. 

He supposed it was born in every man to want to admire feminine beauty. And there was no doubt she was beautiful. Not that he could see her face, just the lines of her body. Still.

He kept walking. As much as he wanted to stop and say something, it was obvious she was deep in concentration and wasn’t paying attention. He didn’t want to interrupt. And he didn’t want to be a jerk.

He definitely wanted to talk to her, but he also didn’t believe in forcing the issue. She had to be from around Peach Bottom, and he’d almost bet that if he saw her face, he’d recognize her. Or at least she’d look familiar. Although she’d hardly run in the same circles as he did.

He walked to the one-mile mark before turning around, doubting that the girl would still be there when he passed by on his way back but hoping that she was.

Maybe tomorrow, he’d not work quite so late. And if he was going to be walking, maybe he’d wear the appropriate footwear.

He was still pretty far away when he saw that she was still there, but had apparently finished her exercises, and was sitting on top of the rock with her legs hanging down, facing the river.

There were a hundred things he wanted to say to her, but for some reason, he didn’t want to use any of his normal lines. So as he got closer, before he went behind her on the trail, he determined that he wouldn’t say anything.

However, she must have heard his footsteps on the gravel, because her head turned just slightly, and she looked at him.

A small shock went through him as their eyes met. Her dark brows rose over intelligent blue eyes, as though she felt it too.

The sun had sunk behind the mountains, and the world had gone from glowing orange to fading gray.

It seemed like it was pretty late for a woman to be out alone. And he was a little worried about her. But she wasn’t any of his concern, and he had enough experience with women that he knew the stranger probably wouldn’t appreciate his suggestion that she might not be safe out here by herself.

He planned to keep walking, except he heard a growl.

His footsteps slowed. He didn’t think he imagined it, but he listened closely to see if he heard it again.

He didn’t hear the growl again, but he saw a shadow in the bushes move.

He stopped.

If the woman hadn’t been there, he would have continued on. Whatever wild animal that was was probably more afraid of him than he was of it. But he didn’t want to have a headline pop up on his phone tomorrow about a woman who’d been mauled to death down by the river by a rabid coyote, or someone’s stray dog, or even a cougar, which were not supposed to be around these parts, although he had buddies who claimed they had pictures of them on trail cams.

No, he couldn’t have that on his conscience.

Not to mention he was looking for an excuse to talk to her. He grinned. He liked it when God gave him a little hand.

Thad searched the bushes where he’d seen the shadow move.

There. He saw it again. And just after he saw it, he heard the growl.

He could be wrong, but it sounded like a dog, and one that wasn’t too old. Not quite a full-on puppy growl, but it didn’t sound quite like a ferocious, full-grown dog, I’m-going-to-eat-you growl.

He could probably leave. The woman would be safe.

Honestly, at this point, his concern was more for the animal.

“Did you lose something?” Her voice was sultry and confident; it sounded like the way she moved, graceful and smooth.

He spoke without taking his eyes off the bush where he’d seen the movement. “No. I heard a growl, and I couldn’t keep walking without making sure you were going to be safe.”

“A growl?” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her hands fist on her hips. “That’s the craziest pickup line I’ve ever heard.”

He snorted. He wanted to call her on her arrogance, but he had been racking his brain for a pickup line. A woman who looked like that was probably used to it.

His grandma, before she died, had told him it didn’t matter what a woman looked like and had encouraged him and his brothers to look for beauty that was deeper than the skin. He supposed it was a hard lesson for a man to learn. Or maybe he just didn’t want to. Not after Amber.

Surface beauty didn’t hit his heart.

“So, did it work?” He couldn’t keep the flirtatious grin off his face, even though he couldn’t really see her from that distance in the gathering dusk.

She snorted. “No.” He thought she rolled her eyes. “Growling? Really?”

Maybe it was the sound of her voice, but she’d no sooner finished speaking than the growl came again.

She cut off mid-laugh. “You were serious.”

He wasn’t sure if that was a little note of fear in her voice, but he had to admit to feeling a little nervous himself. Even though the animal didn’t sound that large, it could probably see better than he could in the dark. Not that he thought he was in any danger of being attacked. Not unless it had rabies.

“Yeah. I was. But it’s good to know that line doesn’t work. I need to think of a new one.”

“It couldn’t possibly be hard to come up with a better line than that.” She spoke to him, but her eyes were on the bushes where the sound was coming from.

The growl stopped and turned into a whine.

She cocked her head to the side. “I don’t think it sounds very old. Not quite a puppy.”

“That’s the conclusion I had come to. Still, it could be dangerous.”

Setting one hand flat on the rock, she jumped gracefully down to the ground, then turned and grabbed her mat, leaning it against the rock.

He had one piece of jerky left, and he figured the sacrifice might be worth it. So he pulled it out of his pocket and hunkered down. What was the worst thing that was going to happen? Whatever it was didn’t sound big enough to hurt anything.

The woman knelt down beside and slightly behind him. Thad breathed her scent. Clean and fresh, it seemed to shimmer with energy. He’d never smelled anything quite like it. Odd how he wanted to breathe in more, and how his stomach curled.

He broke off an inch of jerky and carefully tossed it toward the bush. He waited, quietly, without moving.

The woman did the same. He kinda liked that. A woman that didn’t feel like she needed to talk all the time. Not that he didn’t enjoy a good conversation, because he did.

But sometimes it was nice to be quiet, too.

Or necessary. Like now. Maybe he shouldn’t want to be coaxing whatever was in the bush out, but after hearing a whine, he was pretty sure it was a puppy—a half-grown one probably. Maybe one that was lost, one that someone had deliberately dropped off. There were a lot of people who walked this trail; maybe someone was hoping it would find a good home. A cruel thing to do, but he supposed there could be reasons he didn’t know about.

“It’s coming out,” the woman beside him breathed softly.

“I see,” he said in the same soft, low tone. He didn’t want to scare it. There wasn’t much light left, but he could see a little wet nose poking out of the bush.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the woman’s fingers beside him wiggle like she wanted to grab the animal or at least hurry it along. He hoped she decided not to but figured it wasn’t his place to tell her no.

A head appeared behind the nose and then a scruffy-looking body. It could be the lack of light that had turned everything to dark gray. But Thad was pretty sure it wasn’t the light that made the dog appear so dingy and ill-kept. He had to wonder how long the pup had been lost or abandoned.

Like the woman had read his mind, she said, “It looks like he hasn’t eaten in weeks.”

“Nothing substantial anyway.” Thad wasn’t sure the pup would’ve survived weeks with no food, so it must be eating something. But definitely not enough.

The animal, crawling slowly crouched on its belly, had almost reached the beef jerky when the sound of a tire on gravel racing toward them made him look toward the trail.

The bike was coming fast, like the guy was racing. Actually, he was dressed like Thad assumed a racer would be, with tight biker shorts and a tight shirt. He hunkered down over the handlebars.

There was still enough light left, apparently, for the guy to see them when he was almost upon them since he straightened a little over the handlebars before hitting the brakes and skidding his back tire.

“Justice! Is that you?” the man exclaimed loudly.

Thad had his eyes on the pup, who had almost gotten to the beef jerky. At the sound of the man’s voice, the animal turned and ducked back into the bushes.

Thad’s jaw tightened. At the rate the pup was going, he’d be long gone. Thad wasn’t sure they’d be able to find the pup again tonight. If they started making a lot of noise searching the bushes for it, they would probably just scare it farther away.

Justice stood.

At least now Thad had a name to go with the woman beside him.

“It’s me,” Justice said. 

Thad smiled at the trace of irritation in her voice. It matched the thread of irritation that had snaked up Thad’s neck.

It wasn’t the dude’s fault that he had scared the pup. He didn’t know what they were doing. The woman seemed to realize this and didn’t say anything about the animal to the man on the bike.

“Come on.” The man didn’t bother to try to hide his irritation. “I have the Charity Hill banquet tonight, and we’re going to be late. I was expecting to meet you in the parking lot.”

“You go on without me, Andrew. I’ll be ready when you pick me up. I was looking for something.”

Thad found it odd that Justice didn’t explain what they were doing. Maybe with three of them working together, they could encircle the pup and keep it from running away.

He glanced at the sky, then back to the bushes which were almost completely dark.

He didn’t say anything, just stood with his arms crossed over his chest and his feet planted. Maybe Andrew wasn’t the kind of man who got down off his bike and crawled around in the dirt. Actually, Thad lifted one brow at the tight biker shorts and thin legs.

It was really hard to imagine that man on his hands and knees crawling around in the dirt.

The man sniffed, breathing in then breathing out in a loud way that showed his displeasure.

“Fine.” His tone said it was anything but. “I don’t want to be late. I’ll be at your house in an hour.”

The man made as though he was going to take off on his bike again, and Thad was a little shocked that he would leave the woman standing here with a dude he didn’t know. But just before he put weight on the pedal, he turned to Thad.

“Who are you?” he asked, like the question had just occurred to him.

“A serial killer. Just escaped from prison a week or two ago. Looking for my next victim.”

It was immature. Thad couldn’t figure out why he even said it. He didn’t typically have a problem being a jerk. But there was something about this guy, Andrew, who would leave a woman alone after dark in the company of a stranger, that just stirred every wrong feeling in his chest.

Andrew snorted. “He thinks he’s a comedian.” There was a lot of snob in his voice. “I was on track to have my best time. I wish I hadn’t stopped. I’ll see you later, Justice.”

“Sorry.” Thad shoved his hands in his pockets and spoke before Andrew’s tires on the stones had faded away. “I shouldn’t have been sarcastic. But he was a jerk.”

He probably shouldn’t have said that either. There was nothing like an insult to get a person to defend someone who really didn’t deserve to be defended. But he couldn’t help it. Andrew was a jerk.

Justice sighed. She shifted. This time of year, twilight lasted a long time, and he could still make out her silhouette and see her teeth flash.

“He is.”

Thad noticed she didn’t touch his apology. Maybe it hadn’t been flowery enough.

But instead of saying it again, his mouth uttered words that he didn’t typically say. “Then why are you with him?”