Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ladd Springs

Crouched in the Tennessee mountain brush, Delaney Wilkins pushed up from her knees and moved farther into the thicket for a better view. Beneath the canopy of laurel and oaks, the scent of wet earth and decomposing leaves rose thick in the air around her. She craned her head to look between the trees. Some blackened, others gray, trunks stood in varying stages of decay, victims to the slew of storms that ripped through the area several years back. And among them, two strangers. By the outline of their build, the rough jerk to their movements, they appeared to be men. But gender didn’t matter. Trespassers were trespassers and they were on her land.

Delaney held her breath, suppressing all thought but one. No one was supposed to be in her part of the woods. Did they venture too far off the USFS trail and get lost?

Her instincts hummed. The USFS was public land. It was possible. But these two seemed too intent on whatever it was they were doing to be lost hikers. She could hear their voices but was unable to make out the details of their conversation, or what—exactly—they were doing. Damn it, she had to get closer.

A quick survey of her surroundings told her the answer wasn’t here. Not unless she wanted to take up cliff diving down the slope before her, causing a ruckus that would obviously reveal her presence. Delaney scanned the upper ridge beyond the men. The trail behind her would take her to the top, but it was a twenty minute hike at a good clip. But they could be gone by then. She dropped her focus back to the strangers. There was one other way. She spied the narrow trail leading off to her left. It was a footpath she had forged years ago, one created as her secret weapon in games of “hide and seek” played with her cousin, Jeremiah Ladd. At one time, she had used the trail to kick his butt. At the moment, it would serve to get her thirty feet closer. Unfortunately, the pace she’d have to travel to remain undetected would have to be excruciatingly slow.

Delaney considered her options. Her Palomino, Sadie, was tied to a post at the base, the landmark her family had built to mark the opening for this trail. If she had to get anywhere fast, she knew Sadie would take her. Physical confrontation didn’t concern her—not with a pistol holstered snug in her boot.

Gravel and sticks crunched behind her. A thunderbolt of fear slammed into her. Shooting hand to boot, she whirled, ready to pounce.

“Hi,” came the hushed greeting.

With a sharp intake of breath, Delaney recovered from the initial shock and took in the unexpected sight of Nick Harris, the real estate developer determined to buy her family’s property—but what the hell was he doing here?

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