Dani’s blue Honda Civic lurched and sputtered, drawing her attention to the neon-orange needle on the gas gauge. Empty. A frustrated growl rushed from her throat as she maneuvered onto the tufts of new spring grass at the side of the country road, turned off the ignition, and leaned her head back against the seat, berating herself for her forgetfulness. She’d love to blame this on the fight with her mother, but it wouldn’t explain the hundreds of times she’d made similar mistakes—just one more to add to her collection.
She rubbed the dull ache building between her eyes and stared at her surroundings on this Texas back road. Why did she choose today, of all days, to visit her aunt, a woman she knew only from chatty letters and a brief phone call?
She longed to escape. To disappear, to travel so far away that painful memories became yesterday’s ashes.
A stray tear wandered down her cheek and she banished it with a swipe. Today marked the one-year anniversary of Richard’s death. Death had robbed her—not only of her husband, but her dream—and stamped her heart’s one desire with angry red letters: REQUEST DENIED. Thanks to the life insurance and inheritance of her father’s company, a ridiculous sum of money now graced her bank account, but not enough to buy what couldn’t be purchased. A house, yes, but not a home.
Stop wallowing, Dani. She grabbed her cell phone and flipped it open. No signal. Of course. She climbed from the car to scan the horizon. Nothing but tree-dotted pastures and a few cows. Breathing deep to quell the rush of panic, she closed her eyes and envisioned a sweet grandmother-type driving up to offer a ride. Her eyes fluttered open. Yeah, right. She wasn’t Cinderella. Godmothers didn’t exist. And Prince Charming? The biggest fairy tale of all.
Her marriage was proof.
Waiting to be rescued just squandered precious hours of daylight. She snatched her purse from the passenger seat, slammed the car door, and stamped toward Miller’s Creek. Like a scratched CD, Mother’s hurtful words from the earlier phone conversation replayed in her mind, and none of it made sense. Why did her mother oppose this visit to see Aunt Beth? And what had caused a rift the size of Texas between the two sisters?
A cramp commenced in her toes and inched into her feet. With a frown, she eyed her shoes. Heels weren’t exactly the footwear of choice for hiking country roads. Balancing her discount-store purse in the crook of her arm, she rifled through its contents, searching for the keys as she marched back to the car. A sudden realization forced her into a stilted run, and a strangled sound ripped from her throat. “Please, no!”
The keys dangled from the ignition, teasing her like chocolate candy behind a counter of glass. With a guttural groan, Dani tilted her face toward the cloud-darkened sky. “What do You have against me?”
The isolated countryside responded with silence.
On the continued trek toward Miller’s Creek, the hush enveloped her, the only sound an occasional bird’s song and the rhythmic thud of her heels against the pavement. So peaceful, and so unlike the city’s unending drone. The bluebonnets and Indian Blankets of early spring painted the countryside, stretching beyond the barbed-wire fence into open fields, and the breeze tangled her hair. As she breathed in the fresh air, her shoulder muscles unknotted. Then a low rumble pulled her gaze to the clouded sky.
Heavy raindrops pelted Dani’s face and dotted her consignment shop designer jacket. Within minutes she was drenched, the metallic taste of make-up dribbling into her mouth. She kicked at a rock, self-pity seeping through her like the rain through her dry-clean-only suit.
With a shiver, she hunched over and pulled the soggy jacket closer in an effort to get warm. Burning pain in her left little toe hinted at the formation of a blister, but she hobbled on, her thoughts on her aunt. Could the woman provide the sense of family she so desperately needed? She attempted to toss the question from her mind. One thing was for certain. Her drowned-rat-appearance would make a memorable first impression. Just not in a good way.
The faint roar of an engine sounded behind her and intensified. Finally. She turned to see an older model pickup top the hill, and waved her arms in an effort to make herself seen in the rain and approaching nightfall. The beat-up truck slowed to a stop and the window lowered.
She tried to swallow, but her throat clamped shut. This was no grandmother. With one finger, a dusty cowboy pushed up his sweat-stained hat, his other arm draped over the steering wheel. “Can I give you a ride, ma’am?”
Dani brushed the drippy hair from her eyes, resisting the urge to correct his grammar. “I, uh . . . r-ran out of gas.”
The cowboy smiled, his teeth white against his dirt-smudged face. “That’s not what I asked.”
With a glance in the direction of her car, her brain accelerated into high gear. “Actually, if you’d be so kind as to get me some gas—”
A soft chuckle resonated from him, and his eyes twinkled.
She hoisted her chin. How dare he laugh at her.
“Look, ma’am.” His picture-perfect smile disappeared behind the long line of his lips, his voice laced with impatience. “I know you’re concerned about accepting a ride with someone you don’t know. Can’t say I blame you. But by the time I get to town, get gas, and get back out here, it’s going to be dark. Then you’ll have plenty of reason to be afraid.”
She raised a hand to her lips. What he said made sense, but could she trust him?
His mouth curled at the corners. “Coyotes are pretty bad in these parts. Sure wouldn’t want to be out here after dark. Especially alone.”
Coyotes? Dani yanked on the door handle and hoisted herself onto the grimy seat. After one breath in, she wrinkled her nose and sniffed. What was that smell? Eau de Sweat? She swiveled her head toward him and found his gaze trained on her, his face lined with suppressed laughter.
He needn’t be so amused. She fidgeted with the seat belt and held it with one hand to keep it from riding across her nose. “I think someone up there must not like me.”
“What makes you say that?” He stared at her like she was mentally unbalanced and put the truck in gear.
“It’s just been a rough day. Like God has it in for me or something.”
He raised one brow. “I think God must love you a lot, or I wouldn’t have come home this way. Not many people use this road anymore.”
Dani drew in a sharp breath. Did God love her? She gave her wet head a shake, sending droplets of water to the worn seat. No one could love her. Not even God.
Conversation lapsed as the rain continued its steady stream, thundering against the roof, yet unable to drown out the hum of the truck’s engine. What would’ve happened to her if he hadn’t driven by? The only coyotes she’d seen were in science videos at school. A surprising shudder scuttled down her spine, followed by a shiver that rattled her teeth.
The cowboy shifted her direction, his dark eyes focused on her ruined jacket. “You must be cold.”
Brilliant deduction, Sherlock. Were all small-town people as intelligent as him? “What clued you in? My dripping clothes or blue lips?”
He laughed out loud, a hearty sound that made her somehow feel better. “Feeling a little testy, huh?” His eyes sparkled with amusement.
She hung her head, half in shame and partly to conceal the smile that crept onto her face without permission. “Sorry.”
Dani started as he reached toward her, but relaxed when he pulled a brown suede leather jacket from behind the seat. “Here. This ought to warm you up.”
“Thanks.” She gripped the stained coat with two fingers, and examined it for signs of vermin. None that she could see. “Looks, uh . . . nice and cozy.” She snuggled into its warmth and breathed in the light scent of men’s cologne.
She closed her eyes, the unwelcome memories and emotions clawing their way through her insides. The feelings still took her by surprise, crawling into her consciousness at unexpected times. Had she not been a good enough wife? Is that why he’d betrayed her, not just once, but several times? Her mind revisited their last fight. Richard had been more than happy to point out how many girlfriends he’d had during their ten-year marriage.
“By the way, I’m Steve Miller.” The stranger’s silky baritone interrupted her thoughts.
She opened her eyes to find his hand extended toward her. “Dani.” She clasped his hand. Not as rough as she expected for a cowboy.
“You really shouldn’t be on the back roads without enough fuel, you know.” The look he gave her was stern, but kind.
Dani swallowed the sarcastic reply that popped into her head, and instead sent him a pasted-on smile.
His gaze rested on her wedding band. “Your husband not able to come along?”
The irony of his question made her grimace. At least the ring had served its purpose. She shook her head and focused on the passing terrain, some fields completely covered in wildflowers. How many more miles?
He leaned forward and made eye contact. “Been to Miller’s Creek before?”
“Once when I was little, but I don’t remember much about it.”
“It’s a nice place.” His voice held a hint of pride. “Any family there?”
She slid a hand over her wet hair and cleared her throat. Time to change the subject and let him enjoy the hot seat for a while. “An aunt. What about you? Have you lived in Miller’s Creek long?”
His eyebrow cocked into a furry question mark. “All my life.”
“No surprise there,” she muttered to herself. She glanced at his filthy blue jeans and tattered shirt. It had probably been that long since he’d taken a bath. Immediate guilt rained over her. Ease up, Dani. At least he offered you a ride.
“Excuse the way I look. We had a fence to mend today at the ranch.”
Heat built up steam under her cheeks, and she averted her eyes. Okay, he wasn’t supposed to hear that last comment.
His expression held nothing but friendliness. “I might know your aunt. What’s her name?”
She rubbed fingers against her damp pants. Was it wise to divulge that information?
“Never mind.” Steve held up a hand, a thin layer of black showing beneath his nails. “I know you city folks have to be careful about stuff like that.”
What was it with his ability to read her mind? “City folks? You make it sound like a disease or something.” She hugged her arms to her chest. “Besides, how do you know I’m from the city?”
“’Cause people from around here don’t dress up in such fancy duds.” His dark eyes glinted and her nerves unraveled more.
“True. They wear cowboy hats and drive beat-up trucks.”
His throaty laughter reverberated in the cab. “Guess I had that coming.”
Resting her elbow on the door, Dani leaned her hot face against her fist and wished for a punching bag.
She stared at the tattered pickup cab ceiling and drew in a breath. “Dallas.” If they didn’t get to Miller’s Creek soon she was going to blow.
“Should-a guessed that.” Steve’s face scrunched up.
“How can you stand living in the city with all that noise and traffic?”
“I suppose the same way you live with stinky old cows and a lack of civilization.” Her voice rose in frustration. Dani immediately wished the blurted-out words back in her mouth.
She started to apologize, but Steve spoke before she could get a word out. “You in business for yourself, or you work for a corporation?”
Where’d he get that idea? “I’m an elementary school teacher.”
“Really?” His brows notched up and he snickered.
Irritation seeped through the cracks of her frazzled nerves like floodwater penetrating a leaky dam. She twisted her head to glare at him. “Is that so difficult to believe?”
A smirky smile snaked across the cowboy’s face. “Guess not. It’s just that Miller’s Creek teachers don’t dress up like you. They get down on the floor with their kids.”
The dam burst wide open. “Well now it’s my turn to be amazed. I didn’t know small towns like Miller’s Creek had schools.” She huffed out the words then yanked her head around to clamp a hand over her mouth. What was wrong with her today?
Broken only by the swish of the windshield wipers and the pit-pat of rain drops, the silence hung between them, thick and sultry. Suffocating. She let out a slow breath and ducked her head to study him from beneath her lashes. Steve faced forward, the dark hair at the nape of his neck curling upward, his stubbled jaw locked. Most of her friends would classify him as handsome, but she wasn’t looking for a man. Not ever again.
He began to whistle, a shrill sound that chafed against her raw nerve endings. She pressed a hand to her temple. How much farther could it be? “Is there a convenience store in Miller’s Creek by any chance?” She tried to infuse her tone with kindness.
His cinnamon eyes turned on her, dry hot winds that withered everything in their path. “Of course. Right next to the community outhouse.”
A nervous giggle escaped before she could stifle it, but Steve’s daggered glare brought it to a quick halt. After a few minutes she peeked at his face, now chiseled from granite. Way to go, Dani. She’d already offended one member of Miller’s Creek and hadn’t even made it to the city limits.
The rain ceased as they pulled into town, and she sat up straighter at the sight of country cottages lining the street. Homey. A little tired-looking, but nothing a fresh coat of paint couldn’t fix. Tree branches arched across the road to create a living canopy. The sun, sandwiched between cloud and earth, changed the leaf-clinging raindrops to diamonds.
And children everywhere she looked. They splashed in puddles and chased each other across spring green lawns, their shouts and laughter a symphony of careless joy. So Mayberry RFD.
The hunger for home haunted her, and a familiar ache settled over her heart like ancient dust. “Unbelievable.” Dani whispered the word and relaxed into the seat. The fear of never finding a home clung to her with razor-sharp talons, but she pushed it aside and glanced at Steve, his face impassive.
In one deft movement, he jerked the pickup into a parking lot and came to a whiplash stop. She avoided eye contact and allowed the sign above the door to capture her interest. B & B Hardware? Dani peered to her right where two lanes of gas pumps stood, and a smile wiggled onto her face. A hardware-store-slash-gas-station. Only in a small town.
She plucked a hundred-dollar bill from her purse and offered it to him. “I appreciate—”
“Keep it.” Steve spat out the words and leaned away, his mouth a taut slash.
Surely he needed the money. His ragged jeans and this rattletrap he drove suggested as much. She squeezed her eyebrows together. For whatever reason, he wasn’t about to take the money, so she stuffed the bill back in her wallet, shrugged off the coat, and handed it to him.
“Thanks for the ride.” With a release of the door she lowered herself to the ground.
Without looking her direction, the cowboy put the truck in reverse, barely allowing her time to shut the door. As he tore out of the parking lot, his rear wheels spewed gravel.
Dani sucked in air and blew it out in a gush. Thank goodness that was over. Now to call Aunt Beth and end this nightmare. She faced the store, her heart pounding like a child on the first day of school.