“You’re lucky you weren’t killed. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. You’re alive and that’s what counts.”
“Yes, I’m alive.”
Five minutes ago, Kaci Winters had nearly gone about her business without talking to the man with the flat tire, but it wasn’t as if they didn’t know each other. After all, they’d chatted for a whole half-minute earlier in the day. Noticing he’d had trouble kneeling, she’d decided that offering to help was preferable to replenishing the toilet paper in the men’s restroom at Pause Awhile Campground. She’d reminded him of their connection, then had taken the lug wrench from him. Once the nuts had become loose, she’d positioned the jack under the car in preparation for lifting it, but he’d taken over.
She hadn’t come out and asked what his mobility problem was, but she had stared. That had probably been why he’d mentioned he’d been in a motorcycle accident. She’d expressed sympathy, but he’d shrugged. She should have dropped what had been none of her business but she’d asked the thirty-something stranger with big hands, broad shoulders, and intense gray eyes about his accident.
“It happened three months ago.” He paused while returning her gaze. “Have you ever ridden a motorcycle?”
“A few times, but only as a passenger.”
“Boyfriend or husband driving?”
She wasn’t surprised by the stranger’s attempt to learn something of a personal nature, other than that her favorite ice cream was mint chocolate chip. It came with the territory if you were a decent-looking twenty-three-year-old female and the man asking the question was traveling alone. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, not that that said anything these days.
Like earlier, his gaze was intense. A little disconcerting. A little exciting.
“The guy and I hadn’t known each other that long, so he was kind of a boyfriend,” she explained. “The way he handled his bike scared me.”
He didn’t as much as blink. “Enough so that he became an ex?”
She’d gotten to her feet after dealing with the jack but had stayed in close proximity in case the man needed help getting the flat off. Whatever his injuries had been, he hadn’t lost upper body strength, as witnessed by the easy way he removed the tire. He’d already gotten out the spare and wasted no time sliding it in place. She liked how he handled himself. There was a smoothness to him, a confidence that made her think he’d emotionally gotten over the accident.
That was something they could talk about—putting the past behind them.
Or she would if she’d been more successful at it.
Earlier in the day, she’d walked up the road a quarter mile to the café and adjacent ice cream parlor that did great business in the summer as vacationers headed into the mountains. She’d made her purchase and had been sitting at a picnic table when a new pickup with a fancy canopy had pulled into the gravel parking area. A man had gotten out, and headed right for where she’d been sitting, leaned against her table, and stretched. He’d obviously been in no hurry. She’d been a little concerned about personal space, but she often was.
After her initial discomfort, she’d felt herself being drawn to him. There was something intriguing about him, a commanding presence. A deepness to his gaze, as if he was looking for something in her.
For a moment, she’d thought he’d found it, but that was crazy. They were strangers.
He’d asked how much the ice cream cost and whether it was good, which had helped her get past her, what, nervous energy? They’d even engaged in a friendly argument about the best flavors. He’d gone into the parlor and had come out with a double strawberry cone.
“Just what the doctor ordered,” he’d told her before slowly getting back into his truck.
All the way back to where she was spending the summer, she’d mulled over the brief connection. He didn’t turn her on, but there was something about him she couldn’t quite shake, a mysterious aura. A man like that might have a place in her fantasies.
Fortunately, he’d never know what direction her fantasies took.
She’d been surprised and a little suspicious to have him show up at the Pause Awhile Campground where she worked, but his explanation that he’d decided he needed a break from driving and had been taking in the waterfalls off the road between the café and the campground made sense. He’d spotted the Pause Awhile sign just as the driver’s side rear tire began to go flat. He’d had no choice but to stop driving so he could deal with it. He certainly hadn’t expected to see her.
The longer she watched the man, who hadn’t bothered to introduce himself, the more intrigued she became. If his vehicle was any indication, he was better off financially than those who rented RV spaces here. He was traveling by himself and, if she said and did the right things, he might decide to spend the night.
Unless she decided she’d rather sleep alone—which she didn’t always want to, because at night her imagination sometimes took her into places she didn’t understand. What she labeled sexual fantasies got her hot and bothered, all right. They also left her feeling out of control and confused. Where the hell did they come from?
“The not quite a boyfriend with the motorcycle had some good qualities,” she said, by way of continuing the conversation and putting distance between herself and thoughts she didn’t need. “A decent job, for one.”
“But he was into macho, if you know what I mean.”
The stranger held out his hand, prompting her to drop a lug nut into his palm. Their fingers didn’t touch but came close enough that she’d acknowledged the potential.
“He wanted you to play the little woman?”
“We didn’t live together.” I’ve only done that once. Never again. Maybe. “He thought that whatever he was doing or wanted to do took priority. I should kick my agenda aside to accommodate him.”
“And you’re a liberated woman.”
Truth was she wasn’t certain what label to put on herself. Messed up, for sure. Thinking she was running out of time in which to decide whether she was interested in more than a casual conversation, she watched as he slipped the rest of the lug nuts in place. After lowering the truck, he picked up the lug wrench in preparation for tightening them even more.
“Let me.” She held out her hand. “Whoever does this part needs to kneel, and right now that isn’t your strong suit.”
He stared at her without speaking for so long that she became acutely aware of the male-female component. He wasn’t just looking her over, he was going beneath the surface, searching for something he had no intention of sharing with her. It could have been as simple as an older man trying to decide whether a young thing was interested in him, but she didn’t think so. She might have been more concerned if they weren’t in a public area.
At length, it occurred to her that he was waiting for her to make good on her offer. She took the tool from him and knelt again. It was pushing ninety this afternoon, which was why she had on shorts. Fortunately, he’d pulled onto the grass-weeds that flanked the campground entrance instead of going clear to the rocky area near the office. Her task took a fair amount of upper body strength, but not her full attention. As a result, she remained aware of his presence. He hadn’t invaded her personal space the way he had at the ice cream parlor, but neither did she feel apart from him. He struck her as someone accustomed to being in close proximity with another human being. Maybe a wife? Maybe a sex slave?
Sex slave! Where had the thought come from? Damn it, much more of that nonsense and she’d have to see a shrink, something she vowed she’d never do. She wasn’t the most squared away person in the world but she was able to function. What more did she want?
A different past.
Done with her task, she looked over her shoulder at the slightly over-six-foot-tall man. His features were in shadow, which made seeing his expression difficult. Being on her knees like this was more intimidating than she wanted to admit. Disconcerting.
And he knew it.
“It’s a good thing I don’t charge mechanics’ rates,” she said as she got to her feet. She tightened her hold on the lug wrench. Forget a one-night stand. He was too—something.
“I appreciate it. So”—he looked around—“are you staying with family or friends?”
“I work here.”
She could tell he hadn’t expected that, but then most people didn’t. “It’s a summer job, May through October. I get a place to stay and a not bad salary. Get to meet a lot of different people and occasionally work on my auto repair skills.”
His disbelieving expression faded a little, to be replaced by something she didn’t understand, but maybe should try to.
“You keep saying ‘I’. So it’s just you doing, what, being a campground host?”
“It’s kind of communal living, only with a constantly changing cast of characters,” she said to let him know she wasn’t here alone. “I answered a Craigslist ad. They hired me.”
“Hmm. It doesn’t look like a first-class operation.”
“It isn’t. People are only supposed to stay for ten days, but my guess is nearly half of the RVs here belong to people who have nowhere else to live. As long as they pay their rent, the owners don’t mind.”
His nod made her wonder if he could relate, but he didn’t strike her as someone who carried his house on his back. His truck was top of the line, his clothes expensive. His dark hair was on the long side. Her guess was he’d been more interested in getting back on his feet after his accident than haircuts.
“All done,” she said, indicating the spare tire. “Now you’re free to go.”
“Free? Yeah, I am.”
Unexpectedly, she couldn’t think of anything to say. Shouldn’t he want to get back on the road? To her way of thinking, she hadn’t given out any signals that she was into a roll in the hay. Maybe she’d entertained the thought at first but no longer.
“So you have limitations on how many hours you should drive in a day?” All right, so it wasn’t the most brilliant question she’d ever asked, but hopefully he’d get the hint that it was time for him to move on.
He smiled, one of those grins that didn’t reach his eyes and made her think he was doing what he figured was expected. “This is the longest trip I’ve taken since the accident. Part of it was because I needed a change of scenery.”
‘Change of scenery.’ She could relate to that. Restless. Dissatisfied. Always looking for something.
“Put your feet up the moment you get home and keep going with your physical therapy.” What was her problem? One moment she wanted him gone, the next she wanted to learn more about him.
“I’d like to pay you for—”
“No. Helping you allowed me to get my good deed over with for the day.”
On the tail of another semi-smile, he held out his hand. “Thanks for the help. Your parents raised an independent woman.”
Her so-called parents had had nothing to do with how she’d turned out. She might have dropped that on him if not for the way he held her hand. He didn’t have it in a death grip, but she’d have to work at getting loose.
Memories of handcuffs and locked doors stirred. Damn it! Would she never get that nightmare time out of her system? Barely holding onto self-control, she pulled back. He held on a second longer then released her.
“It’s been interesting,” he said. “One more question and then I’ll let you go back to work. What are your plans once summer’s over? This place closes down, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.” What did he mean by ‘interesting’ and what had the overly long handshake been about?
“Maybe you’re in college?”
“I’ve taken a few courses.” The way he studied her made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. The damn man intimidated and intrigued her at the same time. “I’m not worried about paying the bills. Something always comes up.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “What’s that saying, something about a rolling stone not gathering any moss? You aren’t interested in settling down?”
What do you care? “No. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I didn’t say there was, but most young women have a life plan. Specific goals.”
How do I begin to do that? “Sounds boring.”
He appeared to be mulling over what she’d just said, searching for flaws in her so-called logic. Well, damn it, what she did or didn’t do with her life was none of his business. Going it alone was the only thing she knew.
He opened the cab door. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“What makes you think that’s what I’m doing?”
“Because you are.”