"Sheba! "Sheba! Come on, girl." Jane's voice cut through the silence of the long avenue that led through the woods. Her cheeks glowed red in the autumn air, and her dark hair brushed the leafy ground as she flung her arms around the dog's neck.
"Good girl," she praised, rubbing Sheba's silky coat. "Good girl." Jane's green eyes sparkled with energy and she longed to walk further, but she knew she had to get back to her flat and her list of enquiries.
Somewhere among the trees a branch snapped. Jane looked uneasily around her. She had been coming to this country estate for months now, at the same time every Saturday, giving both herself and her dog much-needed exercise. This wasn't the first time she had felt she was being watched. She shivered.
"Come on, girl, let's go home," she whispered. She raced the dog back along the track, glancing nervously to either side as she ran. As soon as they were both in the car, she slammed the door shut and started the engine, but sat for a while, watching for any sign of movement around her. Sheba jumped about on the back seat and barked. Seeing nothing, Jane decided maybe she had watched too many detective stories on the television, and she relaxed a little.
"Alright, girl. Let's go." She forced a laugh and drove off slowly, grit and dried leaves crunching beneath the wheels. At the wrought iron gates she stopped before turning left into the lane which would take her most of the way home. A queue of cars blocked her way for some distance ahead of her.
"What now?" she groaned. She chided herself for staying out so long. Her birth certificate lay waiting on the coffee table, and she knew she had a long and difficult letter to write. If there was no reply this time, then perhaps she should just get on with her life. She was startled from her thoughts by a sudden movement to her left. A horse appeared between the trees and came to a halt at the side of the road. Through her low car window Jane could just see a pair of man's riding boots. She pushed herself back into her seat, her instinct telling her to be cautious.
As the horse squeezed between her car and the one in front, the rider bent forward in his saddle and, looking her full in the face, tipped his cap with his crop. Shocked by his sudden appearance, Jane's heart pounded until she thought it would burst, and she fumbled with the door lock. But the horse simply crossed the road and, entering the field opposite, continued on down the hill. With the high thicket hedge between them, Jane too moved slowly down towards the roadworks and the traffic-control sign. Reaching it before her, however, the horse rider shouted something to the youngster directing the traffic and, just as Jane was about to pull over and drive passed, the 'GO' sign was swiftly turned to 'STOP'.
Jane's nervousness increased as she glanced sideways out of the window. The huntsman's eyes met hers; he was motionless, looking over the hedge straight at her. His face was slightly tanned and middle-aged, his dark hair greying at the temples. He smiled an uncertain smile, then cantered off down the bridle path.
Her hands shaking, Jane slid into first gear and drove passed the workmen. Increasing her speed, she overtook the horse and cheered triumphantly. But her relief was short-lived, for in her mirror she saw the hunter break into a gallop after her. She pressed the accelerator hard to the floor; there was a sickening 'bang' as a tractor pulled out right in front of her.
"Jane! Jane!" A muffled voice echoed round her throbbing head as a hand gently stroked the side of her face.
Jane's arm lashed out as she tried to scramble up. "Leave me alone," she shouted "I won't go with you; I won't...."
"It's alright, Jane." She could feel hands gently restraining her. "You've been in an accident. The ambulance is here. You're safe with us."
Jane's eyes shifted warily from the paramedic, who knelt beside her, to the riding boots. In her confused mind she was three years old again, surrounded by a sea of hounds, all yelping and sniffing at her until she could bear it no longer. She screamed, and two strong arms reached down and lifted her high in the air. "You're safe now," a soft brown voice said, as a young man kissed her on the forehead, then set her astride his horse.
"It's o.k. You're o.k." The paramedic's arms held her firmly. Jane's eyes drifted up from the boots standing in front of her, to the owner's face. He smiled warmly, his green eyes reassuring. For the first time in years she felt part of something ... someone. "Was this love?" she wondered. After years of surviving on her own, first in a children's home and then in a bed-sit, she didn't know; but tears of relief trickled down her face.
A dog barked somewhere behind her. "Sheba," she cried feebly, "where's Sheba?" A large, warm tongue licked her cheek and Jane clung to the only family she knew.
"Let's get you to hospital." The paramedic motioned to her colleague to bring the stretcher.
"But what about Sheba?" There was a note of panic in Jane's voice. "I can't just leave her."
"I could look after her for you, Jane," the soft brown voice offered.
"But who are you? And how do you know my name?" Jane's pulse began to race again.
"Yes, Sir;" a young policeman cut in, struggling to restrain the dog; "Just how do you know her name?"
"I can explain...." Jane heard the voice reply. Then everything went black.
When Jane came to she was surrounded by curtains. A hand held her lightly by the wrist.
"Go away and leave me alone!" Jane wrenched her arm away. "I'm not staying here; I won't"
"It's alright," a woman's voice came through the haze. "You're in hospital. You're safe now."
Jane looked up vaguely. Slowly it all came back to her and she allowed her aching head to sink into the soft pillows.
"We want to keep you in overnight for observation," the nurse explained. "We're just waiting to see if there's a bed. I'll go and ask the doctor if you can have a drink." She disappeared through the gap in the curtains.
"Can I see her?"
Jane thought she recognised the man's voice in the corridor.
"I'm not sure, Sir; are you family?"
"Yes," the soft brown voice replied, "I'm family. I'm her father."
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