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Secret of the Wood (Part One of Two)

Everyone has secrets, but some are harder to share.
Dan’s eyes popped open when he heard the hiss of something running through the dry leaves and grass, the sound drawing closer by the second.

“Hey,” he protested when the two young squirrels used him as a convenient ramp to reach the tree behind him. They ran straight up his leg, jumped to his shoulder, and then scampered upward into the branches.

Dan looked up while rubbing his nose to stave off a sneeze brought on by bushy tails tickling it, and saw the mother of the two rambunctious youngsters. She tilted her head to the side and chattered what he took for an apology before chasing the pair up into the tree.

He chuckled and then stretched, glad in a way that the pair had distracted him before he dozed off. Despite having a lot on his mind, he was still a little drowsy, and the setting was perfect for a spring nap. Sunlight sparkled on the nearly still surface of the pond in front of him. Birds chirped morning greetings in all directions. The smell of pine filled the air, along with that unique scent that could only be called earthy.

Dan sat up a little straighter, ran his fingers through his sandy-blond hair, and then leaned back against the young elm that stood apart from the sea of conifers that dominated the area. It had taken Herculean efforts to save the tree when an apartment building had replaced the island of green where it once stood in the city. Only his parents would have indulged such a whim in a ten-year-old boy, when Dan couldn’t bear the thought of someone cutting the tree down. Once it was transplanted here, his grandmother had nurtured it, ensuring that it survived the sudden upheaval and flourished.

He always came here to think, and he had a lot of thinking to do. With high school now behind him, he had to decide what to do with his life – and he didn’t have the foggiest clue what that might be.

The sound of his cell ringing caused him to close his eyes and sigh. He’d meant to turn it off, but it was too late now. Broken from his reverie, he pulled the phone from his pocket and scowled at the number on the screen.

The reporter had been trying to contact everyone in the family for a month now. Word was that he was snooping around everyone who knew them, and scouring any records he could find as well.

Some quick thumb work sent a text to his mother, following up on the course of action that his grandfather had suggested. A minute later, she returned his message. Here too. Catch a ride with your sister to your grandmother’s?

Daniel whipped off a quick ‘K’ in reply and reluctantly stood up. He patted the trunk of the elm and said, “I’ll be back soon,” before heading through a gap in the pines toward his sister’s house.

The leaves of the elm shuddered just a little more than the gentle spring breeze warranted.

****

Dan walked down the hill from his house toward the woods with his sister at his side. The fair hair, expressive eyes, and soft features of the pair marked them as two of a kind. Anyone who didn’t know better would find it difficult to believe that Kia was nearly twenty years older, however.

The light dimmed as Dan stepped from the grass at the bottom of the steep hill into the woods, but it was anything but gloomy. The breeze outside still carried a slight bite of lingering chill, but pleasant warmth permeated the wood. The fragrance of flowers that wouldn’t bloom for months elsewhere tickled his nostrils. All around the animal trail that he followed with his sister, nature thrived at the limits of its bounty.

Despite his earliest memories lying within the boundaries of his grandmother’s wood, Dan never failed to feel wonder at his surroundings. The trees let in just the right amount of dappled sunlight to bring out the shine on ivy leaves curling upward amongst their trunks. The canopy above conspired to allow beams of light to fall upon different highlights. Here, a particularly beautiful cluster of flowers. There, the stump of a tree that had completed its cycle of life nurtured an almost perfect circle of orange toadstools.

The trail opened up into a clearing at the center of the wood. He wasn’t shocked by the sight of his mother and father sitting nude on the edge of the spring-fed pool, though he was a bit surprised that his father was here instead of at his office in town. Nor was he embarrassed to remove his own clothing while his sister shed hers but an arm’s length away. This too was something that he’d known all his life, and as natural to him as breathing.

“Where are Grandma and Grandpa?” Kia asked as she pulled off her bra and let it fall into the pile of clothing at her side.

Brina shrugged. “They should be here soon.”

Just like her daughter, the years barely touched Brina. Though over sixty, her honey-blonde hair had lost only a little of its luster, and only the faintest of laugh lines decorated her face. Her husband, sitting at her side with his arm around her waist, showed his age in his thinning gray hair.

“He called me too,” Kia revealed after removing the last of her clothing and kneeling down to hug her parents in turn.

Dan shook his head. “The guy just won’t give up.”

“Nosy reporters aren’t our only problem, either,” his father said.

Brina sighed. “Gary, you could have at least waited until Mom and Dad got here before you said anything about that.”

Gary winced from the rebuke. “Sorry.”

“Someone speak of the devil?”

Everyone turned toward the voice as Daniel’s grandmother and grandfather parted the thick curtain of ferns on the other side of the pool. As with the customary nudity of family gatherings within the wood, his grandparent’s appearance was nothing unusual to Dan. Neither looked any older than him, and the family resemblance couldn’t be denied, but his grandmother’s skin shone as if she stood in golden sunlight, while his grandfather’s skin was patterned and colored like tree bark.

Xantina’s nose crinkled and she said, “I don’t like that word.”

Her mate, for whom Dan was named, apologized, “Sorry, love,” and ran his fingers through her new-leaf green hair.

Xantina’s smile returned almost immediately, and she laughed. She pulled him close, twining her fingers into his slightly darker green hair, and planted a kiss on his cheek.

Dan sat down on a sun warmed cushion of last year’s leaves next to his mother and chuckled when his grandfather said, “Not in front of the kids.”

The nymph rolled her eyes. “So silly.”

The family patriarch cleared his throat and sat down with his legs dangling near where the water churned from its underground source. His mate sank down to the moss right next to him, and leaned her head against his shoulder. “So, something other than the reporter going on?”

“Got a call from councilman Carson yesterday,” Gary answered. “The county is thinking about selling the preserve off 71 to balance the budget.”

“Hmm. Must be pretty bad if they’re thinking about that. The county has had that land as long as I can remember.”

Gary nodded to his father-in-law. “Trosper just made the proposal yesterday, and it can’t be good with his voting record. Carson said he was going to try to find out more. I was supposed to go talk to him this afternoon, but something came up and I’m going to have to be in court over in Jefferson County.”

“I could go see what he found out,” Dan offered, as the councilman had been his Scoutmaster before seeking public office, and he knew him quite well. Carson had actually taught him to tie knots and navigate with a compass in the very same woods that was apparently going up for sale.

Gary smiled. “Thank you. I was hoping that you might offer. This is personal, as far as I’m concerned. I have too many memories from that woods when I was in Scouts to let it go without a fight.”

“Me too,” Dan agreed.

His grandfather laughed. “Make that three. Like I said, the county has owned that land for a long time.”

“Well, I guess Kia and I will find out what we can through the grapevine.”

Kia groaned at that prospect, causing her mother to laugh and nod in agreement with the sentiment.

With his mate fidgeting at his side, the green-haired Daniel said, “We’d best move this along. Our little reporter friend obviously thinks that he’s got something to sink his teeth into, and he’s not going to back off. I think you’re going to have to go a step beyond telling everyone to give him what he wants. Do it yourselves. Pile it on him.”

Gary’s brow furrowed as he considered the notion. “If nothing else, it might get him off our backs while he digs through the whole mess.”

“I have a couple of other ideas too, but just put together all the financial records you can for now.”

Xantina leaned in to ask her mate, “Done?”

He chuckled and kissed her on the forehead. “Yes, love. I believe we are.”

“Good,” she declared, and then snapped a kick at the water. The single movement of her slender foot somehow managed to splash all four of her family members across the pool, while the follow-through curled a stream of water right into her mate’s face as well.

The game was on.

****

Daniel had felt buoyant when he left his grandmother’s pool, but that had quickly changed as he spoke to his old Scoutmaster. Carson had managed to find out where the idea to sell the land had originated, and it wasn’t good.

The man really orchestrating things behind the scenes was from a neighboring county. Daniel sat in the councilman’s car off the side of a gravel road, looking at the future as he beheld the last parcel of land that Wilson had purchased.

“It’s worse than I’d heard,” Carson remarked as he surveyed the scene through the narrow gap in the trees.

Dan had to agree. The fences put up by the company and stands of trees left as camouflage hid what was really going on from nearly any vantage point. Here, after an hour of roaming back roads, he could see the truth.

Nothing but stumps and huge ruts left by the heavy machinery used to harvest the trees remained beyond the mask. Where trees a hundred or more years old once stood, there was only devastation.

Carson shook his head and sighed. “They have a lot of nerve calling themselves Greentree.”

Dan picked up the camera that they’d brought along. “I’ll go take some pictures.” He was only able to find a few shots through the narrow vantage point, but even those were telling. To get any closer, he would have to trespass, which he knew that the councilman and his father would never approve of.

When Dan climbed back in the car, Carson was just hanging up from a call. His brow was furrowed, and Dan knew the look all too well.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was just telling Lawrence Riser about this, and he blew it off.”

Dan’s voice was full of disbelief as he responded, “Blew it off?”

Carson started the car and nodded for Daniel to fasten his seatbelt. “I need to get back to my office and make some calls. Lawrence was one of the last people that I’d expect to side with Trosper.”

The councilman put the car in gear and pulled back out onto the gravel. “Tell your father that I think someone is lubricating the wheels to get this through. We may need his help to stall long enough to find out what’s really going on.”

“Sure. I know he’ll do anything he can.”

Carson sighed. “I hope it’s enough.”

****

After sitting in the councilman’s office for nearly an hour, watching the frustration build with each phone call, Dan had taken Carson’s advice to head home. His old Scoutmaster promised to call the next day to relay anything that he discovered.

The limited parking in front of the councilman’s office had convinced Dan to leave his car in the lot for the park, which lay directly opposite the green space from where he stood. It wasn’t so long of a walk, and hardly an unpleasant one.

The park had changed quite a bit over the years, mostly from his family’s influence. Pictures of his grandfather here showed mostly manicured grass. Now, trees and other natural growth broke up the landscape, creating a far more intimate setting that Daniel enjoyed. He was almost back to his car when he nearly collided with someone emerging from behind the bushes just off his path.

Daniel dug in his heels and found himself almost face to face with Brooke Kline.

His breath caught, and it was all he could do to say, “Sorry,” without his voice cracking. The gossip around town was that she’d dumped the captain of the football team at a graduation party when she caught him feeling up another girl, and that she was still on the market.

Not that it mattered. She was one of the most sought-after girls his age, and he was that odd guy who spent more time with his family than at parties. She wasn’t just out of his league, she was a completely different sport altogether.

“No, it’s my fault. Oh, hey, Dan.”

She knows my name? He thought in self-mocking disbelief. “Hey, Brooke.”

“I haven’t seen you since graduation. I thought you’d be off to law school by now.”

Once again, he was stunned. Just knowing his name was enough of a surprise. Her having any clue about his life was almost incomprehensible. “I’m still not sure what I want to do.”

She pushed a few errant locks of chocolate-brown hair away from her face and said, “You know me – journalism. I signed up for classes in the fall. Almost everybody else started last year, though. I’ve been walking around the park bored for an hour trying to figure out something to do.”

Years later, he would still wonder where he’d found the courage to ask his next question. “Wanna catch the afternoon matinee?”

“Sure. I hadn’t even thought about that.”

Daniel’s heart nearly stopped. He’d just asked out Brooke, and she’d said yes. Of course, she probably wasn’t thinking of it as a date, but he was willing to take what he could get.

He pointed a thumb toward where he’d parked. “My car’s right there.”

“Why don’t we just walk? It isn’t that far.”

A wide smile broke out on his face. “Cool.”

She tilted her head in a follow me gesture and started across the grass. Dan couldn’t shake the image in his head of him as a cartoon character floating through the air following perfume.

****

Dan still felt like he was floating several hours later as he drove down the county road back toward town. Brooke sat in the passenger seat, her hand lying on her tummy, a languid smile on her face.

“Oh, that was so good,” she said for the second time since getting in the car. “I can’t believe I’ve never even heard of that place.”

The little country restaurant where he’d taken her didn’t advertise except by word of mouth, and didn’t have any sort of regular hours. It didn’t even have a proper name. Everyone who knew about it just called it Geraldine’s, after the woman who had first opened it.

Dan glanced over and smiled. “It’s a well kept secret. If all you city-folk knew about it, it would be too hard to get in.”

She chuckled and then groaned. “I’m going to have to eat nothing but celery sticks for a week to make up for it, though.” After a quick look up the tree-lined road ahead, she asked, “How long until we make it back to town?”

“Fifteen minutes. Maybe a little less.”

Brooke’s expression changed to one of slight concern. “I think I should have gone to the little girl’s room before we left.”

“Oh, well my sister’s house is just a little bit up the road. We could stop there.”

She nodded, looking relieved.

Dan grabbed his cell and called the house, letting Kia know he was coming. A minute or two later, he turned off onto her drive. He usually drove at a crawl, to avoid kicking up gravel dust, but a billowing cloud followed him this time. Brooke was beginning to fidget in her seat, and popped open her seat belt the moment the car stopped.

He hurried to exit the car, thinking to open the door for her, but she beat him to it. Her urgency prompted a quick pace, and they were soon at the door. Before he could even knock, Kia called out from inside. “Come in.”

As soon as he opened the door, Dan pointed down the hall and said, “It’s the door on the right.”

“Thanks,” she said, and hurried toward the bathroom, her shoes beating a rapid tattoo on the hardwood floor.

“Well now. Who’s that?” Kia asked, her expression filled with a mixture of curiosity and mischief as she navigated around the couch and a potted Ficus tree toward him.

“Shh,” he admonished. “Brooke Kline.”

“She’s pretty.”

“Sis...”

Kia laughed, but kept it quiet. “Sorry. I shouldn’t tease. Mom wondered why you were so cryptic when you called to say that you wouldn’t be home for supper. What did Carson have to say?”

“It doesn’t look good. He thinks that someone’s paying off people on the council.”

Kia sighed. “Well, don’t lose hope. Things always seem to come down to the wire, and we always manage.”

He nodded, despite not really feeling his sister’s optimism. He turned back toward the hall when he heard the bathroom door open.

“Thanks,” Brooke said, her cheeks a little red.

“My sister, Kia,” Dan said to introduce his sibling.

“Brooke,” she offered in return.

“Well, we should get going,” Dan interjected, knowing that escaping now was only going to lead to more questions later, but he was willing to live with it.

“Have fun,” Kia couldn’t resist saying as she walked back toward the kitchen.

Once back in the car, Brooke looked over at Daniel and said, “I did, by the way – have fun that is.”

“Me too,” he agreed as he circled around the loop at the end of the drive. “Wanna do it again some time?”

“I don’t have any plans tomorrow.”

Taken off-guard by the enthusiastic response, Daniel’s mind whirled as he tried to think of something on the spot. One thing snapped into focus, and he gave it a shot. “Ever been horseback riding?”

Brooke’s eyes lit up and she answered, “No, I’ve always wanted to do that.”

“How about ten o’clock tomorrow morning?”

“Sure. Meet me at the park again?”

“That’ll work.”

“It’s a date then.”

Dan barely remembered the rest of the drive into town after hearing the word date pass her lips.

****

Two horse’s hooves crunched the leaves, twigs, and pine needles covering the trail through the trees. The hardwoods grew fewer and fewer as the couple rode along, until conifers dominated the scenery along the trail. Birdsong filled the air in the woods, along with the chattering of squirrels leaping from tree to tree, keeping pace with the horses.

Though he made a show of checking his watch, Dan already knew it was close to noon by the rumbling of his stomach. He’d only checked the time as a cover for tearing his eyes away from the sight of Brooke’s breasts jiggling hypnotically in time with her horse’s stride. The tight sweater she was wearing caused the large globes to draw his eyes like a beacon.

He was just about to ask if she’d like to stop for lunch when her horse hesitated and sidestepped a little on the trail, coming dangerously close to the pines lining both sides. Dan clucked his tongue and said, “Easy, Altivo.”

The horse immediately calmed, and Dan explained, “He gets a little nervous with a new rider. Want to stop for a bite to eat?”

She smiled at him and said, “Sure, I’m getting a little hungry.”

“I’ve got the perfect place. It’s just up ahead.”

Brooke held out a hand, letting it brush through the needles of a pine to her side. “So this is all your land out here?”

“You remember Sheriff Robinson?” When she nodded, he continued, “He decided to retire in Florida, and asked Dad if he wanted to buy the land, since it was between our house and my sister’s.”

“Must have been expensive.”

“Nah, not really. He wanted to sell it to someone who would leave it as it is, so he cut us a pretty good deal.”

“Still... I thought your family did charity work and stuff.”

“Well, Dad and my brother-in-law are both lawyers. Mom and Sis are about the only large animal vets around, too. Even with all the stuff they do for free, we get by.”

A bend in the trail opened into a familiar clearing, and Dan was amused to hear Brooke emit a gasp.

“What’s that?” she asked while taking in the combination of a clubhouse and tree house. The lower section was on the ground and around ten foot square, with a gabled roof, and a rather conspicuous sign reading no gurls allowed! This was connected to the upper level by an enclosed ladder leading up into the widespread lower limbs of the tree, where rope swings hung from a balcony attached to the tree house. The entire structure was freshly painted to resemble a stone castle, complete with battlements.

Dan chuckled. “My nephew’s tree fort. It was actually sort of mine for a while, until he was old enough to take over as lord of the castle. It was his dad’s before that.”

His skin broke out into goose bumps when Brooke loosed a beautiful, musical laugh.

“It’s a good thing my brother never saw this. He always thought his tree house was the greatest thing in the world,” she explained. “So, are we going to eat here?”

“Just a little farther.” Daniel guided his horse off the trail and through a narrow gap in the trees. The red pines formed what he liked to think of as his privacy fence, hiding his spot from the world. After a short ride, he emerged with Brooke right behind him into the clearing around the pond.

“Another well kept secret?” Brooke asked as she took in the view. The brilliant sunlight shining down seemed even brighter after the ride through the shadowed wood, and the thick evergreen walls kept the wind at bay.

“From everybody but my family,” Dan answered as he rode toward his spot.

“That tree is a little out of place,” she remarked as he reined in.

Dan climbed down from his saddle with practiced ease. “It’s a refugee from the city.”

Her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh yeah. I remember hearing about it. So this is where you moved it, huh?”

He nodded and walked over to help her dismount. He barely managed to keep from shuddering when she took his hand and used his shoulder to help steady her as she dropped down out of the saddle. “Yep. She holds the fort when I’m not around.”

“She?” Brooke asked with an amused grin.

“Uhm, yeah,” he responded, followed by a nervous chuckle. His grandmother had referred to the tree in the feminine while using her magic to nurture it, and he’d gotten into the habit as well, since it seemed appropriate for some reason. “So, let’s eat,” he said, changing the subject.

Dan pulled what he’d packed out of the saddlebag while Brooke walked toward the elm and observed, “I guess she really isn’t all that out of place. She’s sort of the queen at the center of attention.”

Naturally, he stared as she stretched, standing up on her tiptoes and making her already stunning bottom all the more eye-catching in her jeans. She didn’t help him keep his eyes from wandering to her body when she tugged at the neck of her sweater as she turned back toward him, causing her breasts to bounce.

“Whew. This may be a little warm here, out in the sun.”

Dan knew that it wasn’t just the sun. Knowing how much he enjoyed this spot, his grandmother had extended a little extra measure of her magical blessing upon the place. It was always warmer or cooler here, depending upon the weather, than the surrounding woods. He finished retrieving everything for their picnic lunch and gave his horse a pat on the neck. “Okay you two, go have a drink and find something to munch on. Don’t wander far.”

The two horses nickered and took off simultaneously toward the pond.

Brooke laughed. “It’s almost like they understood every word you said.”

He shrugged, nearly losing his precarious one-finger grip on a thermos full of coffee in the process. “I was there when Mom helped deliver them, so they’ve known me all their life. They’re twins.” He sat everything down and grabbed the blanket he’d brought to spread it out underneath the tree. He would have been perfectly content to sit on the ground, but he wasn’t willing to take the chance that she wasn’t.

“Horses can have twins?” she asked as she sat down on the blanket.

“It doesn’t happen very often, and at least one usually doesn’t survive. Mom fought pretty hard for those two.”

“Your family is pretty famous for things like that around here.”

“We all do what makes sense to us – even if it doesn’t make much sense to anyone else,” Daniel responded and chuckled as he started opening containers to lay out lunch. “All we’re doing is talking about me, though. Have you decided what you want to go for once you’re out of school? Print? Television?”

****

Kia grinned approvingly as she peeked through the foliage.

She could hear Glen and Xanmara starting to fidget behind her, and knew that they were eager to see their great-grandparents, so she stepped back from her clandestine listening post. The whole family had been a bit worried about Dan’s shyness around girls, and it was a relief to see him doing all the right things.

She turned back to the kids, pressed a finger to her lips to indicate silence, and then waved for them to follow her back to the car. She’d originally planned to walk to her grandparent’s pool, but decided she didn’t want to invade her brother’s privacy any more than she already had. He would likely ride back the way he’d come, and might encounter them along the way if they walked.

Besides, she was just as excited to deliver the news about Daniel’s budding relationship as her kids were for the family visit.

****

Brooke finished a last strawberry and leaned back on her hands. She let her head loll back and gave a contented sigh. Dan turned his attention to the containers from their picnic lunch as a distraction, because he felt as if his eyes were about to pop out of his head. The pose was one of the sexiest things he’d ever seen in his life.

“Oh, I swear you’re trying to make me fat.” She sat back up and asked, “Where did you get those strawberries? I almost never see any in the stores this early, let alone any that aren’t almost tasteless.”

“Mom picked them up somewhere.” It wasn’t exactly the whole truth, but he could hardly explain how his mother had actually come by the treat. His grandmother loved strawberries, so they grew most of the year round at various places within her wood. She was a little stingy about sharing them, which meant that anyone in the family who wanted some had to go hunting.

Brooke picked up a small container outside of Dan’s reach to hand it to him and laughed. “How old is this Tupperware, anyway? It looks like the stuff my grandma had, and it was old then.”

Dan chuckled as he nested the container inside another that he’d already wiped out. “It lasts forever if you take care of it.”

“So you don’t use any more plastic than you have to?”

“Yeah,” he answered, a bit embarrassed. One of the things that had always set him apart from his peers was his conservation-minded upbringing, which he’d espoused constantly when he was younger. It had taken quite some time to get over bringing it up in every conversation, and only because his mother had convinced him that beating people over the head with it only made them resist all the more.

She must have noticed the blush he could feel burning in his cheeks. “It’s good, really. You’re probably smarter than the rest of us. Everyone will have to come around eventually, I guess.”

He shrugged, wearing a sheepish grin. “Sorry if I’m driving you crazy about it.”

“You aren’t, really.” She picked up the thermos. “Let me help.”

“Thanks.”

Once they finished gathering everything up, Dan clucked his tongue, and the two horses immediately turned from where they were grazing to approach. Dan stowed away what he was holding, and then took Brooke’s burden to do the same. While he situated everything in the saddlebag, she folded the blanket.

Her horse turned to him and snorted once everything was put away and Brooke prepared to climb into the saddle.

“Not today, Altivo. Sorry.”

Brooke gave him a curious look. “Hmm?”

“I know that look. He’s in the mood to run.”

She brought a finger to her lips for a moment and then smiled as she asked, “Could we?”

The excitement in her eyes convinced him. “I’ll take us the short way back, and then we can give them a little free rein in the pasture.”

“Let’s go,” she declared, anticipation obvious in her voice and body language.

Riding out past his sister’s house cut the journey down to less than half the length of the leisurely ride in, and would bring them to the back of the farm that the horses called home. Shortly after passing by Kia’s house, she asked about his jacket, which bore the logo of a forest preservation group that the family belonged to. The question provided a useful distraction as he urged his horse to a faster walk at the edge of the wood. Her horse matched the speed, which resulted in a wider smile on her face – and even more pronounced, hard to ignore jiggling.

He thought to keep the explanation simple at first, but she kept asking questions and seemed genuinely interested, so he fell into talking about what the group stood for, how they got funding, and the most recent push for green legislation that they were focused on. The last drew her deeper into the conversation, as it involved an effort to get the message out in the media to counter the opposition.

Though they were from completely different worlds, talking as they rode brought up some common interests. It started with the media, which was critical to the environmental activism of his family, and her foremost passion. That had somehow segued into favorite television shows, followed by movies and music, revealing a shared love for songs a generation out of sync with their peers.

Dan almost regretted seeing the fence on the back side of the pasture when they approached. He’d barely noticed the half hour passing as he talked to Brooke. The light in her eyes as he opened the gate was well worth the break in the conversation, though.

Dan hopped back up in the saddle, because her horse made it quite plain that he was ready to stretch his legs. Once he rode through with Brooke, he asked, “Ready?”

Altivo’s whinny almost completely drowned out her enthusiastic, “Uh huh.”

“Okay. Lean forward a bit if you feel unsteady, and just give a yell if you want to slow down. Here we go.” He then gave a flick of his reins and called out “Yah!”

Her horse dutifully stayed alongside as Dan urged his to a canter, though he could see the animal constantly looking toward him in anticipation of a real run. Brooke was keeping her seat well, and glanced over to say, “Faster.”

Dan laughed, and then gave both his date and her mount what they wanted. Two sets of hooves thundered across the pasture, accompanied by Brooke’s cries of excitement, which sounded distinctly sexual to him. By the time they neared the other side of the trek, near the barn, he was half hard from the arousing sounds she made along the way.

As he slowed the pace back down to a fast walk around the barn, she released a loud, “Yes!” She then moaned and added, “Oh my god. That was incredible.”

The sight of her breathing hard, her face flushed, and the orgasmic quality of her voice was almost too much to handle. He smiled and spent the rest of the ride around the barn trying to force the swelling in his jeans to go away before he had to dismount.

****

Brooke looked into her rear-view mirror as she drove away after the date, more than a little perplexed with Daniel. She’d done her level best to attract his eye at every opportunity, without much effect. Considering the outrageous amount of flirting she’d poured on, she’d expected him to be all over her.

Instead, he was a perfect gentleman. He’d certainly noticed her trying to accentuate her charms, but he just didn’t react in the way she was used to when men thought they had a chance to get in her pants. He hadn’t even pushed for a kiss afterwards, and she thought that taking that initiative might have been a bit too much.

Her phone rang, and she clicked the button to turn on the speakerphone.

“Get anything juicy? I haven’t heard from you in two days.” The caller asked before she could even say hello.

“Nothing yet,” she answered. “I had a chance to peek into the sister’s medicine cabinet, but there wasn’t anything interesting there. He hasn’t said anything really suspicious yet.”

“Has he talked about all that land they have or the charities?”

“Yeah, I got him talking about it. I don’t know whether he’s telling the truth or not, but he has good stories to explain it all.”

“He’ll slip up eventually. Keep at him.”

Brooke said, “I’ll see what I can find out.”

“There’s something fishy with the whole family, and I’m going to find out what it is. They’re just too good to be true. Get me the key to this story, and I guarantee you that you’ll be working at the station as soon as you graduate.”

“He’s supposed to call me tomorrow.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense for so long next time. Gotta run. Keep me posted, babe.”

Brooke hung up the phone, suddenly feeling a little uneasy about the whole situation. The talk with Dan had surprised her quite a bit, revealing common interests that she never would have anticipated. More than once, she’d caught herself forgetting what she was trying to wheedle out of him, telling stories of her own.

She shook it off, thinking that she was never going to make it as an investigative reporter if she didn’t keep an objective eye on the ball. Daniel’s family seemed too good to be true, and experience told her that such a feeling was almost always right – especially when it came to men.

She’d learned that lesson hard and fast, many years ago.

****

Daniel didn’t know whether to be grateful or sad when Brooke pulled the popsicle stick from her mouth one last time. Her now bright cherry-red lips turned up into a smile, and she handed him the stick, which he deposited in the trash bin next to the bench where they sat.

After two weeks of dating, Dan was glad the amusement park had opened. He was running out of new ideas around town, and the park had provided a perfect solution for today.

He did at least have a great idea for tomorrow, which had taken a couple of days to set up. He couldn’t wait to see her face when he sprang the surprise on her.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

She nodded, and they both stood up. She reached for his hand as they walked toward the exit of the park. “It’s been so long since I actually came here to ride anything. All my friends ever wanted to do was walk around and flirt and gossip.”

“Too bad it hasn’t warmed up enough for them to open up the log flume. I like that better than the roller-coasters.”

Brooke tugged on the sleeve of her white t-shirt as she stepped through the gates into the parking lot. “I think we might’ve had to skip it, even if it was open.”

Daniel’s cheeks warmed as he considered the thought of that t-shirt soaked through with water. Even dry, it didn’t leave much to the imagination, thanks to an apparently thin bra and the still crisp spring air. “Yeah, I guess so.”

She leaned into his shoulder and laughed. “You’re so cute when you blush.”

Because they’d arrived early and it was still the off-season, it was only a short walk from the gate to the car. Dan opened her door for her, and then crossed in front to his own side of the car.

As soon as he sat down, Brooke said, “I haven’t had this much fun here since Mom and Dad brought me when I was little.” She paused and rolled her eyes. “Before they got divorced and started hating each other.”

“Had to be rough,” he sympathetically offered as he backed out of the parking space.

“They did their best to keep us out of it, but we heard,” she responded with a shrug.

For the next few minutes, she talked about the back and forth of her parent’s divorce and how it made her feel. She seemed to need to talk, so Dan just let her know he was listening by making a few comments. Finally, she said, “Listen to me, trying to ruin the day. Can’t expect all marriages to turn out as well as your parents’.”

“Guess it’s just a matter of finding the right person.” He let his gaze linger on her just a little bit longer than intended – and far longer than he should have while driving. The reward of her uncharacteristically shy smile was well worth it, though.

He focused his eyes on the road just in time to see the dually pickup merging into his lane.

With traffic in the lane next to him, Dan had to hit the brakes hard. Brooke gasped and then exclaimed, “What a jackass!”

Once his heart stopped pounding, Dan noticed the advertisement for Greentree Timber painted on the tailgate of the truck and his eyes narrowed.

“There’s no how’s my driving number. I already looked,” Brooke remarked.

“It’s not that. That’s the timber company that’s after the patch of land the county is thinking about selling. I wonder where they’re going, and what’s under that tarp?” Dan felt a little stab of guilt that thoughts of Brooke had pushed the effort to prevent the sale to Wilson almost completely out of his head.

“Well, let’s follow them, then.”

Dan smiled and kept pace. Remembering the camcorder Brooke had brought with her to the park, Dan asked, “Hey, can you film that truck? Try to get the logo.”

“Sure,” she responded and opened her purse to retrieve the digital cam. She turned it on and aimed it out the windshield, recording the truck ahead. “How long?”

“Just a minute or two for now, then check it out to make sure you can read the logo.”

She kept the camera on the truck for a while longer, and then turned it off to review what she’d just recorded. “It’s clear. I can almost read the address at the bottom even on the viewscreen.”

“Great. I don’t know what good it will do, but I know that Dad will want to see it.”

“I think he’s going to exit,” Brooke said a minute or two later.

“Yeah,” Dan agreed, and flipped his turn signal to slip into the exit lane at almost the exact same time as the driver of the truck. He realized that there were two places of interest the truck might be going along the road they were circling around to.

Sure enough, the driver of the truck slowed down when approaching the turn toward the woods. Dan started to ask Brooke to get out the camera again, but when he glanced her way, she’d already aimed it at the truck.

“He’s still going too fast, if he’s planning to turn,” she noted.

“Probably just drooling in anticipation.”

“You really don’t like them, do you?” she said as she shut down the camera again, the turn already past.

“I’ve seen the way those guys work. They claim to be conservation minded, but they leave just enough and replant just enough to hide where they clear-cut everything and tear up anywhere they go. They probably dump used oil and who knows what else too.”

“Why is the county selling it to them, then?”

Dan shook his head. “Don’t have enough proof to convince the council that it will happen, and we think some of them are on the take.”

“Better fall back a little bit. The traffic is thinning out,” she suggested.

He nodded and eased off the accelerator. “I’ll trust your instincts. You’re the investigative journalist.”

“And I smell a story.”

He chuckled, keeping his eyes on the truck and the road. A few minutes later, the truck’s brake lights came on.

“I’ve got it,” Brooke said, once again anticipating him asking her to film the truck again.

“That’s councilman Trosper’s driveway.”

“Just pass by and don’t look,” she warned while keeping the camera on the truck.

Dan did exactly that, and then thumped the steering wheel once he passed the driveway where the truck had turned. “Damn. I wish we could see what’s under that tarp.”

“Slow down and turn up there,” Brooke instructed. When he made a puzzled sound, she said, “Trust me.”

Dan made the turn and started uphill.

“Pull off right at the top of the hill. There’s a gravel lot there.”

Dan remembered a small civil war era graveyard there, and that the lot was for it. He stopped as soon as he pulled onto the gravel, and Brooke said, “Let’s go.”

He had to hurry to keep up with her as she skirted along the fence surrounding the graveyard, with her camera in hand. He broke out into a wide smile when he realized that she was heading for a spot overlooking the councilman’s house.

The driver of the truck had already gotten out, dropped the tailgate, and set up ramps. Councilman Trosper was standing beside the truck. As Brooke aimed the camera, the driver of the truck climbed into the bed and unhooked the ties for the tarp. A minute or so later, he whipped off the tarp.

“Looks like a brand new quad.”

“It looks like a bribe to me,” Brooke corrected him, her voice filled with excitement.

The couple watched and filmed as the quad rolled out of the truck. The driver and councilman shared a handshake before the former climbed back into his vehicle and drove away.

Brooke turned off the camera. “Let’s get back to my car. I’ve got an extra thumb drive that I can copy this onto for you.” She grabbed his hand and eagerly tugged to encourage him to follow.

Though excited about having something that could actually prove what he suspected about the council, it was hard to think about that with Brooke’s hand in his.

****

A love song played on the radio, mingling with the cascade of water as Brooke showered. Touches of exhilaration still shot through her from capturing a real story of bribery unfolding right in front of her eyes. Even though Dan had asked her to keep it under wraps until he had a chance to talk to his father, she was tempted to take it to the biggest station in the city herself.

She unconsciously hummed along with the radio, and her mind wandered to the mixture of relief and excitement in Dan’s expression when she’d told him that she was free tomorrow.

She was still humming when she turned off the water and slid back the glass door, but at the moment her foot stepped on the towel outside the shower, her smiled faded.

She slapped the radio to turn it off and thought, Stupid. What are you doing?

The word stupid continued to echo in her head as she toweled dry – a self tirade berating her for falling for it again. The old pain and anger swelled up inside her, along with the memories that she’d buried so well.

She’d developed early, and abundantly. The attention had frightened her at first, and then intrigued her as she grew accustomed to it. Then, he came along and swept her off her feet.

She was the talk of the school. She had a boyfriend who had a car, instantly propelling her into the social stratosphere, and making the other girls green with envy any time she walked past on his arm. For a month, any time she wasn’t with him was spent reliving it with her friends in whispers, giggles, and sighs. Page after page of her notebook contained different ways of signing her married name, following the wedding she’d already planned in intricate detail.

As soon as he got what he wanted in the back seat of his car, he’d moved on to his next conquest.

She’d vowed that very night to never – ever – let anyone take advantage of her that way again. The redness of her eyes from crying was gone by the next day of school, replaced by determination. She kept up appearances to maintain her social status, and had a new boyfriend within the day. Soon enough, calculating the best way to stay on top of the ladder smothered her feelings.

Right up until she’d just caught herself humming a sappy love song and grinning from ear to ear.

With a towel wrapped around her body and another wound into a turban on her head, she stalked back into her bedroom toward the phone. She had to get back in control, which meant calling Dan and telling him that she had something more important to do tomorrow.

His cell went straight to voicemail, so she tried the home phone. An exasperated sigh escaped her as she tossed the receiver onto the bed, having gotten a busy signal with her second call. Her hand slashed the air in front of her as she turned back toward the bathroom, thinking to try again after finishing getting ready for bed.

A call on her cell from Benson looking for juicy tidbits distracted her, and she ended up going to bed without making the later call.

****

Dan peeked in on his father again and saw him typing an instant message. He recognized the handle as his brother-in-law’s, and the window filled most of the screen. Ever since seeing the video, his father had been on the phone and the computer, talking to Carson and members of his firm, trying to decide how best to utilize the evidence.

The phone rang through for the first time in hours, as both the line and the call waiting had been in use almost all evening. His father glanced at the phone and called out, “It’s Kia,” as he returned to typing.

“I’ve got it,” his mother answered from the front room.

“What do you think, Dad?” Dan asked when his father sent the message and sat back in his chair.

“We’ll see. At the very least, this should convince a couple of people on the council who haven’t been paid off yet that getting as far away from this mess as possible is conductive to their continued political life.”

“What about going to court?”

“Have to agree with my partners. This isn’t quite enough. We should be able to convince the D.A. to start digging, though.”

Dan could tell that his father was excited, and that was a good sign. For the first time since seeing the rape of the land in the next county, he had some real hope that the future of the land that they were fighting for wouldn’t share the same fate.

Uh oh, he thought as he saw his mother walking toward him, her eyes trained on the office door, and narrowed in irritation. He stepped out of the way, knowing better than to stand in the path of an approaching storm.

Brina’s voice was filled with sarcastic sweetness when she reached the door to the home office. “Oh, dear. You do know that it’s after midnight, don’t you? Kia was just wondering if she might possibly have her husband back at some point this evening, too. If you both don’t want to spend the night camping out in the tree fort, I suggest you come to bed.”

Dan could almost hear his father wincing when he replied, “Sorry, Bree. I guess we just got caught up.”

Her expression softened. “I know. I feel it too.”

Dan’s father appeared in the doorway and turned toward him. “Good work, Dan. Be sure to tell Brooke I said so, too. Speaking of which, shouldn’t you be hitting the sack? Rumor has it that you have big plans tomorrow.”

“Yep. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” his parents responded, and turned to walk hand-in-hand toward their bedroom.

Dan headed to his own room, but he knew that sleep wasn’t going to come easily. He had too many things racing around in his head for that.

****

Author's Note: This story was submitted in two parts due to length. There are no naughty bits in this one, but they're coming in part 2. It is part of a series called "Magic of the Wood", and the first story in that series, "Steward of the Wood" is linked below.




After Steward comes "Daughter of the Wood", "Forever of the Wood", and then this story, with more stories in the series to follow in the coming days.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than Lushstories.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.


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