Friday morning, Maryanne stepped out of the shower and popped another piece of chocolate in her mouth. The mixture of dark chocolate, marzipan and pistachio hummed through her taste buds. She pinched her tummy, still less than an inch of fat, and tucked Lucas’ note into the box. They had a nice conversation, and he’d asked her to go hiking. With all the goodies he supplied, she’d be needing the exercise.
After pulling on a spaghetti strap, dip-dyed lace cami and a pair of white hipster shorts, she buckled a wide silver-glitter belt and slipped on a pair of flip-flops. She dabbed sunscreen on her face and applied a little bit of makeup. Oh, and one more piece of chocolate.
She pinned her hair back just as the doorbell rang. He was early, the devil. Maryanne rubbed on a healthy coat of lip-gloss, grabbed her new Marc Jacobs shoulder bag and opened the door.
Lucas’ gaze travelled immediately to her feet and her bright white enamled toenails. “Seriously, flip-flops for hiking?”
“Are you always so rude in the morning?” She whisked past him. “I’m driving.”
He ogled her exaggeratedly. “Great, I can enjoy the scenery.”
“Keep your eyes on the wildlife, mister.” She hid her smile behind a fake yawn.
“Yes ma’am. I sure will.”
“Hands to yourself.”
“No problemo!” He mock saluted her.
She looped her hand around his elbow and led the way to the parking area. “So, how are you this morning?”
“Not bad. I already did my fifty mile training ride and swam fifty laps.”
Whew! All she did was get out of bed and lick chocolate. Milk chocolate with hazel nuts. She’d save that piece for Lucas. She glanced at him and met his knowing eyes.
“How about you?” He licked his lips. “Did you eat too much chocolate?”
Urgh! Maryanne let go his arm and unlocked her Ford Focus. “If you’re fishing for gratitude, yes, I enjoyed a few pieces. Thanks.”
Lucas threw his backpack in the back seat. Before getting in, he slid the seat all the way back. “Are all your friends midgets?”
“Unlike you, we’re genetically challenged, and we don’t have your sense of humor.” She started the ignition. His body heat radiated the short distance between their shoulders. She reached across him to the glove compartment. “Is there an address to put into the GPS?”
“No, it’s an open space preserve, but I know the way.”
“What’s it called again?”
“La Purisima Creek Redwoods.”
“It’s not too wild, is it?” She pulled onto the street and headed to the freeway.
“Nope, perfect stroll in the woods. And it won’t be crowded since it’s a weekday.”
A perfect stroll for him might be a torture march for her. “Did you bring water?”
He pointed at his backpack. “Always prepared. And a picnic lunch too.”
Her heart warmed. Wow. So thoughtful. Ever since the multiple apologetic notes, he’d been the perfect gentleman, well, minus the silly flirts he threw every time he opened his mouth. She pushed the power button the stereo. “Music? Any preference?”
She turned to 106 KMEL, the Bay Area’s Hip Hop and R&B station.
“You don’t have to put this on for me.”
“What?” Maryanne took the carpool lane onto the freeway. “You don’t like?”
“Just cuz I’m black doesn’t mean… What if I like white music?”
Gulp. She barely knew him. Was he accusing her of being racist?
“Rock or top 40. Whatever.”
He touched her shoulder. “It’s fine. Sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize. I like this music or I wouldn’t play it.”
“I shouldn’t have jumped on you. I just thought—”
“It’s okay.” She kept her attention on the road. “Leave You Alone” by Young Jeezy rapped through the speakers. She’d dated men of every race and nationality. It was silly to think of music as either white or black. Lucas looked more white than black, but now was not the time to expand on it. She whizzed onto the bridge in the Fastrack lane.
The water was choppy, a bit on the brownish side. After crossing the bridge, she headed toward Half Moon Bay. The road narrowed and wound between vistas of the bright blue Crystal Lake and tree lined ridges. About four and a half miles south of the turn, Lucas pointed to a parking area. It was empty.
Maryanne flipped down the vanity mirror and checked her lip gloss. “This place is deserted.”
“I hope you’re not wearing any perfume.”
“Bees.” Lucas pulled on wraparound sunglasses, hiding his soul-stirring green eyes.
“Oh… I didn’t know.”
“Don’t worry, I have insect repellant. But it smells nasty.” His nose twitched.
“Oh, great choice. I have to smell like you? Think I’ll take my chances.” She put on her sunglasses. If she couldn’t see his mischievous eyes, he wouldn’t read her either.
Lucas pulled out his backpack, and she locked the car. Warning signs were prominent at the trail head. Mountain lions and what to do when confronted. Tick Danger. Poison oak. Maryanne turned toward Lucas. “Bees are the least of my worries. Are there really mountain lions?”
“Nothing to it. Stay behind me. See the sign? ‘Keep children behind you.’”
“I’m not a child.” Maryanne pinched his upper arm.
“Ow! Could have fooled me.” He ducked. “What I meant was you gotta look big and mean. Here, I’ll show you.” He waved his backpack in the air and jumped up and down, hollering, “Git the shit outta here.”
A giggle escaped her throat. “Hmmm… makes sense. Cats get hissy until you stare them down.”
“I wouldn’t know. Allergies.”
They stepped onto the trail. The air gave off a mixture of conifer and chaparral scents. “Will the tree pollen bother you?”
He puffed out his chest and took a deep breath. “Took my Allegra and got my shot this week. Reason I moved here. Less pollen and great coastal breezes. So many places to mountain bike, run, and swim.”
The trail split into two. A wide path swung toward the left, but Maryanne was drawn to the wooden rail fence with a narrow opening marked with no bicycle and no horses signs. “Which way?”
“Enter ye in at the strait gate.” Lucas pulled out a camera. “Can I take your picture?”
Sounded like something out of the Bible. Maryanne posed between the narrow space. “The bicycles and horses have to go on the wide road.”
“Which leadeth to destruction.” He laughed and snapped a picture.
They walked under a canopy of trees. Moss hung in strings off spiny branches, and ferns waved from the bases of trunks. Partially rotted tree trunks lay on the ground, and vines crawled along the sides of the trail.
“Sure that isn’t poison ivy?” Maryanne tip-toed with her flip-flops through a narrow passage between oat grass and green jagged leaves.
Lucas trailed her. “Those are berries. See the spoor?”
He pointed to globules of dark purplish-black droppings. Maryanne stepped back, right into his arms. “Ugh. I didn’t step on that, did I?”
He let her go immediately. “Ready for a seven mile loop or you want to come back on the same trail?”
“I’ll take the entire loop.” Maryanne shrugged. Most men would have hugged her a moment longer or even copped a feel. She’d showered and shampooed, and he had looked at her appreciatively, unless it was all a big act.
“That’s because we’re going downhill.” Lucas’ gleeful voice cut into the foreground. “See those switchbacks down there? I sprint up the trail and walk back down. Interval training.”
“I’m game, but not for sprinting up.” She wiggled a flip-flop at him.
After negotiating the switchbacks, the trail widened and leveled off a bit. They walked under majestic trees with rugged trunks pointing as spires toward the sky. Redwoods. Lucas helped Maryanne across a long log, and surprisingly, he didn’t let go of her hand. A warm feeling calmed the jitters in her heart. Vera said she only craved the chemical high of being in love, but not the man behind it. Maryanne gripped Lucas’ hand tighter. He didn’t respond. Instead he seemed shy and stopped chattering.
The sound of woodpeckers periodically peppered the tall trees, and was soon joined by trickling water. Ferns were sprayed all along the bank of the creek. Even though it was midday, the canopy of trees hid the sunlight and the air was refreshingly cool. They walked several miles in silence.
“Ready for lunch?” Lucas stopped near a flat stone and swung his backpack off his shoulder.
“Sure, I’m famished.” Maryanne dipped her feet in the trickling water. It soothed her feet. “It’s surprising how cool and damp it is in this forest.”
“Even in May. That’s what I like about the Bay Area. Ham or turkey?” Lucas pointed to the spread—two wrapped submarine sandwiches and Hershey’s chocolate milk on ice packs.
“How do you know I’m not a vegetarian?”
“Oh, I’m sor—”
“Don’t you dare apologize.” Maryanne put her hands on his waist. If she were taller, she’d lay her lips on his to stop further discussion. “I was just teasing. I’ll eat anything.”
A slow smile stretched across his face. “Okay, I’ll hold you to it, man eater.”
Maryanne refrained from rolling her eyes and unwrapped a sandwich. “I haven’t seen many hikers. It’s like we have this place all to ourselves.”
She took a bite of the sandwich and leaned closer. Couldn’t he at least put his arm around her? His eyes, green as light emeralds, held her gaze. As clear as the sea, not even a speck of brown. The pupils pin-pointed, and he stared over her shoulder.
He jumped to his feet. “A mountain lion!”
Maryanne gasped and coughed up a piece of bread. She grabbed onto Lucas. “Where? Where?”
Nothing but green branches and fluttering leaves. Was the cat stalking behind the ferns? Her heart in her throat, she hid behind Lucas.
He waved his hands, jumped up and down, hooting and chuckling? What was wrong with him? She looked around anxiously. There was no movement in the vicinity, no giant cat ready to pounce.
Lucas slapped his thighs and doubled over with laughter. “Gotcha!”
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Genre: Women's Fiction, Contemporary Romance