The best thing about nature as far as J.C. Schubach was concerned was that it was out there. As opposed to in here, here being the comfort of her 1968 BMW 2002. With 230,000 miles, some drivers - let's face it, most drivers - might consider the car old. Not J.C. She liked to think of it as vintage. Liked the way it took corners so cleanly. Liked its softly purring motor.
And she especially liked that it went extremely well with her red sling-back Ferragamos.
After all, a girl, especially one born and bred in New Jersey, had to have her priorities. And nature wasn't one of them.
Until now. J.C. turned off the engine and fished her Swiss Army knife out of her shoulder bag. She stowed the bag on the floor of the car next to her briefcase, leaned over and grabbed a paper bag off the passenger seat was. Then she swiveled out of the car and stretched to her full, five-foot-four height.
Glu-urp. J.C. felt the mud swallow up her heels. So much for the additional three inches. She looked down. She always knew nature was evil. She clutched the knife and bag and gingerly cut across the plowed field. The browned stumps of last year's corn created any number of ways to twist an ankle. She stopped and looked up, doing a quick mental calculation. Roughly sixty thousand ways if she chose to examine every stalk in this particular field. She didn't.
Instead, she made a beeline for a copse of trees that lay a short distance from the long dirt drive where she'd parked her car. The underbrush in the wooded area was thicker than she'd anticipated, and a barbed branch slapped across her straight skirt, biting into her left calf and doing a number on her "Barely There" control-top pantyhose.
"Dammit." J.C. held aside several low branches and stepped over a fallen log, finally halting in front of a humongous tree, what type she didn't know - a type that had yet to get its leaves as of April.
She slipped the knife into her suit jacket pocket and opened up the paper bag. First things first. She lifted out a bottle, unscrewed the cap and brought the glass rim to her lips.
The warm liquid trailed down her throat. J.C. squeezed her eyes shut. "Ah-h. Glenfiddich to the rescue." Her toes might be losing circulation, but her heart rate was returning to the high end of medical acceptability.
J.C. took another swig and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. Her heart was doing even better now.
She recapped the bottle and rested it on the ground. Intently, she studied the bark of the tree.
J.C. knew all about this particular wooded section from the written description of the abandoned farm. This bunch of trees and all the farmland around it belonged to one of the more distinguished local families, the same family that had hired Armstrong & Shreveton to help preserve their estate in perpetuity from the marauding hands of developers. Developers, at least the ones in Jersey, had such things as marauding hands.
And since J.C. was the property law expert at the firm, she'd gotten the case. Or rather one of the founding partners of the firm, Archibald A. Armstrong had assigned it to her this morning. But then this afternoon had rolled around, and after a mere seven hours and fourteen minutes of basking in her professional glory, Triple A - J.C.'s private nickname for the seventy-year-old sucking sloth - had informed her that the law firm had called in outside counsel to work with her.
Hah! J.C. knew what that meant. Bye-bye upcoming partnership for her and hello replacement. Triple A, being a lowlife of the first order, had probably planned the little arrangement all along. And the fact that he had been so apologetic merely confirmed it. Triple A couldn't be genuinely apologetic if his tax-free municipal bond holdings depended on it.
Well, so far this new guy didn't seem to come with a name - on that topic Triple A had been suspiciously mute - but she was willing to bet more than even money that he'd have good connections to the exclusive local gentry. Because one thing this charmed bastion of Ivy League quaintness and wealth prided itself on above all else was its local gentry.
But even if the outcome was inevitable and she and her red sling-backs were going to be pushed out the door, J.C. was determined not to just wimp out, especially when she possessed an instrument with a sharp blade. New Jersey, as well as the other forty-nine states, might frown on committing bodily harm against septuagenarians - even sucky, slothy ones - but that didn't leave her without recourse.
Her plan was simple: carve something particularly tasteless like "Archibald A. Armstrong does it with gerbils" on the tree. But as J.C. looked at the rough surface of the bark, she was beginning to have her doubts. Her brain might be able to see things in a balance sheet or tax statement that others couldn't, but a numerical sixth sense didn't translate to the small motor skills required woodworking.
She rubbed her thumb back and forth across the smooth red body of the knife and screwed up her mouth in thought. Perhaps a more conventional four-letter word like -
J.C. turned her head. She could have sworn she heard something. A rustling. Not like a bird - even she, whose closest contact with fowl was a cooked turkey at Thanksgiving, recognized it wasn't a bird. She tried listening more intently. But this time didn't hear a thing.
Being out of sight of pavement and a Starbucks was making her paranoid.
She worked on calming her nerves and went back to studying the tree trunk. Good luck. Where was the profound inspiration the wood was supposed to generate? And why the hell, was it so quiet? Not a twitter, not a warble, not a slither. Wasn't it some warning signal or other if all went silent in the woods? She thought of Bambi before the forest fire, her only authoritative touchstone to animals in the wild. And slanted her head.
There it was again. A thudding - a kind of thudding, really, mixed with a rustling, definitely a rustling. She looked around, then down around her feet. Snakes didn't thud. She was pretty sure of that. So that was good, right?
Except that the noise got louder, louder and closer. And from behind. And with panting - thudding and rustling and panting.
It was like a bad porno flick.
She spun around. And saw a red flash. A big red flash. Really big and really red. Thudding and rustling and panting.
She did what any gal with a modicum of self-preservation and an IRA account that she meant to collect on one day, would do. She ran.
Only her skinny, high-heeled shoes, which had seemed like such a good idea when she bought them on sale, skidded on the slippery leaves. Her arms swung forward. Her weight went back. Then one heel knocked into a log, and she fell sideways, putting out her arm.
Which is when she realized that sticking out her arm to break her fall was probably not a good thing to do - broken wrists and all that. So she yanked her arm back, quickly, which made her twist…
The good news was she saved her wrist.
The bad news was she banged her forehead on something hard and cold. The impact was molar-jarring intense. J.C. gripped her head and tried to raise it, but pain speared from her hairline to the base of her neck. She moaned and curled on her side.
"Are you all right?" The voice coming from directly above her was male.
Then and there she nearly wet her Victoria Secret's French-cut bikinis. "I don't have any money," she croaked. That was what they taught you to say in those self-defense classes given to incoming freshmen during their first week of college orientation, wasn't it?
"I don't want any money."
Even through the slightly lessening pain, J.C. made out the sound of a mature baritone, as rich as the finest Belgian chocolate and as hot as Madras beef curry. If she weren't scared out of her wits, she might be curious in that tingly kind of way, the kind of way that made a gal wonder if her waterproof mascara were doing its job.
But she was scared. And as luck would - or in this case, wouldn't have it - she'd skipped her college orientation to get a massage and facial, figuring at the time that she'd spend her last moments of freedom, not to mention her last regular paycheck as a blackjack dealer in Vegas, on a little pampering. What had seemed like a no-brainer might now be coming back to haunt her. To think she'd be the only woman to get mugged because she'd wanted her pores cleansed.
J.C. clenched her other hand. And felt nothing. CRAP. She must have dropped the knife. She felt around in the matted leaves - eeuw - hoping to locate it, but the only thing her fingers landed on was the Glenfiddich. Well, beggars couldn't be choosers. Gripping the bottle, she levered herself up on her elbow and turned to meet her maker.
She blinked once, then twice. Getting the world into focus was not as easy as point and shoot. A blur of Impressionist colors, red dominating the palette, still defined her viewing pattern. Never mind. J.C. went on the offensive and thrust out the fifth of scotch. What did she have to lose? If he were a teetotaler, she might just shock him to death.
"No thanks. I don't drink and jog at the same time."
Two little sentences. Twelve, no eleven single-syllable words. She must have really gotten clocked if she was making mistakes with numbers. J.C. squinted and watched as the world came into focus, and the man looming over her body took on a clear outline.
What she saw had her breath coming in short gasps and her body temperature rising like a lemon souffle in a three-hundred-and-fifty-degree oven.
To say the stranger was big, blond and blue-eyed was like saying Secretariat had four legs and ate carrots. It was technically accurate but it only skimmed the surface. And, oh, what a surface! All sinew and muscle. Solidly tall, with shoulders that stretched the red University of Montana T-shirt to the critical limits of its seams. Not to mention the powerful legs, sprinkled with blond hair, and more than visible below a pair of baggy running shorts.
J.C. discreetly skipped her eyes up past the critical juncture of his shorts and concentrated on his face. His skin was bronzed and weathered, and two deep grooves bisected his hollow cheeks to his pronounced jaw. Laugh lines fanned out from his startling baby blues. It was like having the hero of a classic Western on hand to do a taciturn but completely compelling meet-and-greet. She glanced around, half-expecting to see his trusty nag.
Instead she saw a dog. A large red, furry dog, staring at her with intense interest. J.C. looked at it sideways. "He doesn't bite, does he?" she asked.
The owner offered a lopsided grin. "Not that I know of. Though there was that one time he snapped at my sister's mother-in-law. But we're of the general opinion that's because she was wearing Arpege." He paused, a real cowboy-aw-shucks-type pause. "Actually, I can see his point."
J.C. frowned. "You're not a fan of perfume?"
"No, it's more to do with my sister's mother-in-law. In any case, Red Dog isn't usually vicious, though he tends to be a little leery around women."
The dog bowed his neck and gave a long, encouraging sniff toward J.C.'s prone body. His master lifted his chin. "You're obviously the exception."
J.C. wasn't sure she should be flattered. "Red Dog?"
"Yeah, I named him after Red Dog, this dog in Australian folklore. Besides the color of his fur, he was famous for farting something awful."
She clutched the scotch close to her side. "Maybe I'll have a drink."
"I don't think so." He shook his head resolutely.
"You don't think so?" J.C. held the bottle more tightly. "Is that some kind of a warning?" She raised her chin defiantly.
"Only from a medical standpoint. If you've sustained a concussion, it's not a good idea to consume alcohol." He stared at her with a penetrating gaze, seemingly as effective as an MRI at detecting neurological damage.
Safer to look away, and she did. Down. At herself. Neurological damage was the least of worries. As they say in Jersey, talk about a wreck!
The straight skirt of her suit was streaked with mud and jacked up to mid-thigh. Her jacket was missing a button, not the greatest tragedy, but still, Mr. Malitto, the little tailor in Trenton who had made her Donna Karan knock-off, was going to kill her.
But what was far worse was that the jacket lay open, exposing her stretchy white blouse, which, as fate would have it, had popped open at several strategic locations, baring her lacy demi-cup bra.
J.C. snapped her head up. The expression displayed on Mr. Montana's features could hardly be classified as impersonal observation. J.C. recognized carnal desire, pure and simple, when she saw it. Check that, there was nothing remotely "pure" about his intense perusal.
She clutched the bottle to the front of her blouse and used her other hand to tug her skirt down. "I'm perfectly all right," she announced, brazening out the awkward situation. "In fact, I was thinking this might be a good time, a very good time indeed, to get up." She tucked her legs underneath and attempted to rise.
She managed to list to starboard - or was it port? She never was good with nautical terms.
"Whoa there." He gripped J.C.'s shoulder with a large, steadying hand and pushed her gently down on her rump. Then he crouched down on his haunches next to her. J.C. noticed he had the good manners to focus on her face and only discreetly eye her breasts. "I think you should wait another minute or so," he said.
One more touch and it was going to take a lot more than a minute for J.C. to get up. George Clooney in his E.R. days would have been hard-pressed to have such a soothing bedside manner. She breathed in deeply. "I'm not sure it's such a smart idea for me to stay here like this."
"Listen, if you're worried that I might be up to no good, you can rest easy. I didn't mean to startle you before. It was entirely by accident. Really." His concern sounded genuine. "I was just jogging with Red Dog–" he nodded toward the canine, whose black lips sagged in a demented smile "–and he veered off into the woods from the drive." The dog sidled next to his side, and Mr. Cowpoke dragged a hand across the animal's shoulder blades, massaging gently.
J.C. stared, transfixed by the slow, ministering motion. She sensed her windpipe constrict like one of those tiny juice box straws.
"So if it's any reassurance, I'm not some stranger passing in the night. Well, the afternoon, to be more exact." He smiled, one would almost say bashfully, and squared his shoulders. "Actually, I'm a local, born and bred. After living out of state for a while, I decided to move back - to my family's place in Grantham, on Caldwell Road." He casually pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. "Maybe you know the street?"
J.C. whistled, which under the circumstances sounded more like she was blowing a raspberry. "It'd be hard for anyone in this part of central Jersey not to have heard of Caldwell Road - unless they've been living under a rock the whole time."
He raised an assessing eyebrow. "Somehow I can't picture you living under a rock."
"Not unless there was as cappuccino machine and a Kate Spade outlet." She eyed him carefully. Caldwell Road was major bucks territory, and even though the guy was decked out in what looked like castoffs, Old Money had this indefinable way of dressing in rags with utter confidence. And he sure as hell had elan, or whatever the high-end term was for self-possessed sex-on-a-stick.
J.C. angled her head back to get a good look at those gorgeous baby blues. "So tell me. Do you live in a slightly crumbling Colonial with a crushed-stone circular driveway, or is it a Tudor mansion with stone lions flanking the entryway?"
He smiled, making the deep dimples in his cheeks crease just so. "A brick Georgian with a one-hundred-year-old beech tree shading the servants quarters over the detached garage."
"Detached garage, huh? In my neck of the woods, a detached garage means the driveway - the garage having been turned into the holding tank for the ride-on lawnmower and tacky outdoor Christmas decorations. And don't forget the more upscale renovation, involving space heaters, red indoor/outdoor carpeting and 'burled maple' paneling."
"Sounds charming." Leaning back, he displayed his well-formed thigh muscles that much more nicely, thank you. "So, have I convinced you I'm not about to inflict bodily harm?"
She nodded stiffly.
"Good. Then let me just do one more thing." He grabbed the bottom of his T-shirt, yanked it over his head and bent forward. His cheek loomed over hers.
"You, you said you wouldn't, wouldn't- " she sputtered.
"I wouldn't what?" He wadded up his T-shirt and brought it near her face.
J.C. yanked her head to the side.
"Hold still. I just want to clean up your forehead. It's bleeding like a stuffed pig where you hit it."
"It is?" Never had she been so relieved - until she turned back and looked up - at the triangle of blond curls on his muscular chest. They were darkened by sweat and trailed to a narrow line that dipped to the waistband of his running shorts. It was like an arrow pointing to the Adults Only section of the local video store - toward that very juncture she had so discreetly avoided staring at earlier.
J.C. wet her lips and swallowed. She tried concentrating on how many times a minute she was breathing, and then realized she wasn't breathing at all. So she inhaled deeply, catching a whiff of athletically inclined male. The deodorant makers had it all wrong - one hundred percent of this essence was what drove a woman wild, not some woodsy scent that smelled like taxicab air freshener.
He continued blotting and she just let him, leaning back on her elbows and drifting into some gaga state that stopped just short of drooling.
He pulled his arm back and studied her face. "Better?"
"Sublime would be an understatement." Her jaw was limp.
He placed his shirt on the ground and brought his empty hand back. He removed the bottle from her clenched fist. His fingers brushed her skin for a scant second, really, but long enough that the ripple effect skittered over her skin faster than the 6:30 a.m. Metroliner from D.C. to New York.
He carefully placed the scotch on the ground. "Not for dogs," he said sternly when Red Dog lowered his snout to investigate, and turned back to J.C. "He's more into unblended varieties." She blinked. And he brought up both hands to her chest.
She stopped blinking. And followed his long, strong fingers...
As he buttoned her - slowly, before pulling his hands back and resting them on his thighs.
She looked up, at his fabulously naked chest and the sculpted muscles of his shoulders and upper arms. And let's not forget the sinews running the length of his forearms.
"This may be the only time I've ever helped a beautiful woman put her clothes back on," he said quietly. He didn't appear to be blinking either.
J.C. pursed her lips and thought about what he'd just said, reading every possible implication into it. By the time she had gotten to number three, she'd made herself blush. She sniffed and looked at him askance. "So, tell me. Who do I have to thank for all this kindly attention?"
"It's McDonald. Liam McDonald."
J.C. almost gagged. "Did you say Liam McDonald?"
"Yeah. Is that a problem?"
She opened her mouth to say something along the lines of, "You bet your sweet bippy it is," but she didn't. Because she couldn't. Couldn't get any air. Because there didn't seem to be any, and it had nothing to do with the high levels of pollution that the E.P.A. said Mercer County suffered from.
J.C. felt her head doing a series of loopy figure eights. And she could do nothing to stop her elbows from giving way as she flopped back into total darkness. And wouldn't you know it? This time she hit the back of her head.
(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 2010)