World champion figure skater Sophia Morgan-Smythe wasn’t one to let outstanding debts gather interest, and she’s bound to repay the grumpy, hostile American hick who paid for her tow …only to wind up further in his debt when he steps in a second time to save her life, and the only good thing about the guy is his dog named Buckley.
Brit meets Yank in this epic tale of love against all odds. Buckley likes her; Aaron doesn’t. Sophia is totally confounded.
CLEAN, SAFE READING with Comfortably Sized Text, text and paragraphing set for ease of reading.
This book contains no profanity, no graphic sex, nothing to make you want to hide your eyes. This novel is just pure entertainment in good taste. There’s suggestion, there’s sensual tenderness and intimacy, there’s even situational humor (‘humour’ to you Brits), but it’s all General Audience. Nothing cringe-worthy.
NOTE TO READERS: This book is written using two languages, U.K. English in Sophia’s point-of-view and U.S. English in Aaron’s, so word definitions, syntax and phrasing, as well as spellings change accordingly. You are advised. 🙂 —D. L. Keur and Carole Hill.
687 pages, 122,000 words long, this is an epic love story.
Want to read an excerpt? Here you go:
This book is written using two languages, U.K. English in Sophia’s point-of-view and U.S. English in Aaron’s, so word definitions, syntax and phrasing, as well as spellings change accordingly. You are advised. 🙂
No graphic sex, no profanity, no gore. There are suggestive scenes. There are sensual scenes. There are a couple of fight scenes, but there is absolutely nothing that cannot be shared ‘general audience’.
THE TRAFFIC LIGHTS unexpectedly changed to red just as Sophia Morgan-Smythe reached the intersection. And here she’d thought that she’d got her speed timed right.
Sophia cursed, clenched the steering wheel and stamped on the brake, her BMW grinding to a stop. Seconds later, an ambulance flew through the cross-street intersection, all flashing lights and wailing sirens. It was fortunate she had stopped and not sped through as usual. Maybe there was a god.
Now, though, long minutes later, the light seemed stuck. Be patient, Sophia, she chided herself.
Shouted at the light to turn or she would be late, late not only for her rendezvous with Ian in an obscure out-of-town location to give him the $6000 he needed, but also for a vital skating practice.
“Why does every traffic light in every small town I drive through await my approach and then turn?” she grumbled. Of course, her mum would say that it was divine intervention and that she should abandon this fool’s errand. And, in the future, Sophia would do just that. Ian had been warned—“Okay, but I mean it, Ian. This is the last time,” she’d told him. From now on, he could resolve his own problems.
She sighed. Tapped on the steering wheel, waiting, waiting, for the lights to change. But they weren’t.
Tempted to jump it, she looked around for traffic cameras—none she could see—but then reconsidered. Reminded herself that, unlike the U.K., police in the U.S. carried guns.
With lights on red, she surfed through the various radio stations and paused as one played a familiar love song—their song. She started to sing along, but the words no longer seemed to hold the same meaning or stir the same emotions within her as they once had. Ian had changed since moving to Seattle, and not for the better.
The lights were still red. She tapped the steering wheel. Knew that giving Ian money yet again was a mistake, but she also knew he was desperate. “Last time, I promise, Babes,” he had pleaded, her husband’s usual happy-go-lucky laughter lines all worry. “These people mean business.”
She wanted to believe him—that it was the last time. Needed to believe him. But she wondered why he would jeopardize his dream? …Their dreams. And all for what? Stupidity? A new obsession?
His brown eyes had searched hers, and he had teased her when she tried to resist him and his boyish charm that she found so attractive. And, once again, they’d made love—their mutual answer to everything it seemed. Then he’d rushed her out the door to go to the bank and meet him ‘there’ …wherever ‘there’ was, him setting the address on her phone SatNav and insisting that she not be late. “Our marriage is not all about you, Ian, and I don’t have a money tree,” she’d warned again—her parting shot.
He’d nodded and given her another hug. “Don’t be late, please, Babes?” He brushed her cheek with a kiss.
So, shaking her head, Sophia had grabbed her bag, skipped breakfast, and, now, here she was, stranded at a stuck light, her stomach growling along with her mood.
Finally, the light did change, and, as if on cue, her mobile rang—Ian’s ringtone. “Go away, Ian! I’m on my way!” She dropped the Beamer into gear and burned through the intersection.
“YOU JUST LEFT half your rubber on the pavement, Dude,” Aaron Jackson said, grinning at the fancy white BMW’s backend as it tore off. Beside him, Buckley turned his big head, the mastiff’s eyes laughing, tongue lolling. “Some folks don’t have no smarts, do they, big guy?” Aaron chuckled, putting the truck in drive. “He must have a hot date that can’t wait. Good luck with that on this stretch of highway.”
The papers on the console beside him started sliding off toward Buckley, and, knee-steering for two seconds, Aaron grabbed them and stuffed them into the storage compartment under the lid. “Six new customers, Buckley. Six! All big orders. All word-of-mouth referrals—the best kind.”
Hands back on the wheel, he started whistling. He had their heads well above water, now, and was almost done paying back the money he’d borrowed from his trust. “Next month.” Then he could start drawing a salary. Maybe hire his mom some help. Stopped whistling and turned on the radio. Chris Young came on. It was his foreman Mark’s favorite station. Mark always chose The Bull. Aaron swapped to The Wolf, then switched back. He liked Chris Young. Started whistling again. …And saw the white Beamer that was still in front of him gun it as the lights ahead turned yellow. “Make it, make it, make it,” he begged, knowing it would be close.
Predictably, the lights turned red. He groaned. The white, four-door Grande Coupe’s taillights came on as it braked hard, again. “Great. Stuck behind Mr. Hurry-Up-Can’t-Wait all over again.”
SOPHIA CLOSED her eyes, then leant forward to rest her throbbing forehead on the cold, hard composite of the steering wheel. “Every darned light!” And all she really wanted was to go back home to England where life was far less complicated—go back to how it had been, how they had been—happy and in love.
Two years she’d listened while Ian waxed lyrical about his dream to return home to the U.S.—his dream that, after playing professional ice hockey in the U.K., he would be snapped up by a U.S. team on his return. He’d insisted that she would also have more opportunities to develop her professional ice skating career. “A win-win, Babes,” he’d told her.
So, although doubtful, even cynical, she had supported him and uprooted her life and career, despite her personal reservations. And her reservations had proven right. You might be a shark in the pond back in England, Ian, but, here, you are just a minnow in a lake. “Not even a minnow! More like a tadpole!” she muttered as she checked the light—yes, it was still red. Closed her eyes, again, and sank into a puddle of misery at her own career’s descent.
She felt nothing more than frogspawn here, the other skaters at the local rink nicknaming her ‘the scrawny Brit’. World Champion four times, Olympic gold, and now she, Sophia Morgan-Smythe, had entirely disappeared from the ranks of renown. Moving here had been such a huge mistake—a crushing one—and there was no way to climb back up that she could stomach. “I don’t want to be a coach.” And that was about the only thing left. “I want my audience, my fans. I want to perform again!”
AARON WATCHED the light change from red to green. The fancy Beamer didn’t move. Just sat there. He couldn’t go around—too many cars, the ones stuck behind him pulling out to push their way into the other lanes. He put his hazard lights on. Heart attack or texting? he wondered.
The light turned back to red. Telling Buckley to stay put, he got out. Walked up to the heavily-tinted window on the driver’s side and rapped his knuckles on it, his eyes on the light.
The window rolled down halfway under his tapping. “Yes? What do you want?!” came an angry woman’s voice—a foreign-sounding voice. British, maybe?
He turned his eyes to the open window. Definitely a woman! Not a guy with a feminine voice. Switched gears to polite. “Ah …are you going to go when the light turns green again?”
The woman—pretty, blonde, blue-eyed …with about the longest, most ridiculous-looking fake eyelashes he’d ever seen, and wearing a very expensive wedding band—she looked at him as if she would eat him alive. Her hand wafted the air as if he smelled bad. “I’ll move when I’m good and ready!”
Flustered, he backed away. Took hold of himself, then stepped back up. “Lady, you’re blocking traffic. There’s nobody behind me right now, but that’s bound to change any minute. You’ve got to get a grip and do something.”
She revved her Beamer, cursed him, then burned rubber, the car’s backend whipping, almost catching him across the legs, to blow through the intersection on red. He jerked away as she tore off and barely missed being hit by a van coming into the left turn lane beside him. Traffic horns blared; tires squealed and brakes ground, cars swerving and panic-stopping to miss the Beamer. Where’s a cop when you need one?
The Grande Coupe disappeared over the next hill as the light turned green, the sound of a horn loud in his ears from a car now stuck behind his idling truck. Waving apology to the driver behind him who flipped him off, then tore off around him in the right lane, he got in …and had to wait for the light. Again. “Figures, huh, Buckley,” he grumbled, and his big friend riding shotgun next to him gave a low groan, then bundled his big body up into as tight a ball as possible and laid down on the passenger seat, dog overflowing upholstery.
THAT STUPID BUMPKIN telling her ‘to get a grip and do something’ because the lights were on green…. Seriously! She’d show him. Men! They were all cast in the same ‘bossy’ mould. Except for Ian. He wasn’t bossy. Just irresponsible—a dreamer. A selfish dreamer. …And there she was in her thoughts, full circle back to that. She pushed the speed up. She was late now.
Sophia was driving too fast and knew it for this particular stretch of road with its sharp bends and steep hills, but the clock on the dashboard confirmed she was now twenty minutes late and counting. She checked her rearview mirror to ensure the cowboy-hatted hick and his ugly, stinking diesel truck were nowhere in sight.
Her mobile phone rang. Ian’s name pulsed on the screen. Yeah, Ian, I know I’m running late. Give me a break! She swiped the screen to answer as she hit the next bend, lane departure alarm sounding, readjusted her steering to compensate, then snatched at the phone as it slid from the seat.
Bluetooth kicked in, and she heard Ian curse over the car speaker, followed by his usual platitude. Of course, he picked up right where they’d left off earlier that morning. At least his voice was mollifying: “Sophia, Babes. Where are you?! You’re supposed to be here!”
Sophia jerked the steering wheel as an animal—was it a moose?—sauntered onto the road right in front of her. Her car’s backend fishtailed, and she hit the brake. Hard. Missed it! Her car slid, nose-first, over the edge into the centre reservation, ground on something, stopped, and stalled out.
SOPHIA CURSED as she looked out the side window and watched the big, rangy animal—it was a moose—continue across the highway to disappear into the trees beyond. Ian continued his tirade at her, and she finally zapped the call on the steering wheel control panel. If nothing else, at least she’d managed to miss the poor animal. Shame it wasn’t Ian. Then I’d have made it a direct hit! …But she wouldn’t have, and she knew it. For all his faults, she loved the big guy. This new gambling vice was getting serious, though. This would be the very last time she bailed him out.
The sound of Ian’s ringtone again crashed through her assessment of her own predicament. “GO AWAY, IAN!” she shouted to the sound, which seemed to be coming from somewhere off in the far reaches to the front and right. “This is all your fault!”
Thought about answering the call to ask for help, then immediately dismissed the idea. The centre reservation was not the best place to ground her car, which was now angled going the wrong way. She needed immediate assistance, not whenever Ian decided to show up.
Releasing her seatbelt, she opened the door to assess the problem. Yep, the low-sprung suspension had grounded the car on a hump, and she was well and truly wedged. Attempting to get out, she yelped as her foot slipped down from where it was resting on the brake, her knee and ankle objecting to further movement. Her foot was trapped between the clutch and brake pedals.
She closed the driver’s door again and inched her fingers down her leg to the problem. Yes, wedged.
Fingers going to the buckle at the back of her shoe, she tried to release it, but, one-handed with her long fingernails, she failed in her first attempt. Even two-handed, her face jammed against the steering wheel to reach, it didn’t work. Groaned. Tried again. Gave up. Closed the door.
Tried to get the car to connect to her phone. That failed, too. She hoped the phone wasn’t damaged. Or the car.
NEVER APPROACH a woman in distress. Aaron knew that rule. Had broken it. And almost paid for it by getting hit as she burned rubber. “Knew better. Did it anyway,” he muttered. “Never learn.” To his defense, though, he hadn’t known it was a woman.
The light finally turned green. Eight miles down the road, and there was the Beamer again, swung around and nose down in the median, the low car’s body high-centered where the slope steepened.
He didn’t want to stop. Did anyway. This was a lonely stretch of highway—not much traffic. Legally, Aaron was obligated to check on her and to help if she was injured or in danger of immediate harm. This time he had no choice. Grumbled. Shook his head. This was turning into a nightmare. Beside him, Buckley got up and looked.
ONCE AGAIN, Sophia rested her forehead on the steering wheel. What else could go wrong today? Occasionally, drivers travelling on the opposite carriageway honked their horns, and some even started to slow down, but none actually stopped. Couldn’t or wouldn’t, she decided. She would just need to be patient and hope someone kind would arrive and offer help.
First, Ian, then this. Bad luck usually came along in threes, they said. So what or who would be the third?
As if she’d rubbed the genie’s lamp, number three appeared, knocking on the side window again—the cowboy-hatted hick with attitude. What?! Was he stalking her?! She sighed and laid her head back on the steering wheel. She’d been rude. Now here he was again, the only help in sight.
THE WOMAN didn’t answer his knock. Looking in through the windshield, he saw that the airbags hadn’t gone off, so there was no collision impact. The lady didn’t look hurt, either. Head on the steering wheel, she wasn’t moving, but he saw no blood, and it was obvious that she was breathing, though she was slumped forward. Her hands still gripped the wheel. Awake, maybe stunned.
A check around the Beamer showed that it hadn’t suffered any damage. It would have to be towed out, though. “Or I can hook onto it.” He didn’t want to do that. Rife for a lawsuit if he damaged it.
Braving it, he tapped on the window again. “Lady? Are you all right?”
“Yeah, absolutely spiffing,” came the answer as the window finally rolled down partway. The woman groaned a disgust that reinforced the scorn on her face as she turned toward him. “Seriously,” she said. “Do I look okay, you stupid hick? I parked in a ditch just for the fun of it! …Why do you men ask such stupid questions?”
Oh, boy. One of those. It seemed his lot in life to be constantly bumping heads with angry women. Calm. Stay calm, he told himself, hard-tying his patience so it couldn’t escape. Do what you legally have to do and get out of here.
The woman groaned again. Then, “I’m sorry. It’s not been a good morning. I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Are you hurt?” Aaron asked again, ignoring her apology. “Do you need me to call an ambulance? …Tow truck?” Anger Management, maybe?
Of course, she’d take him up on it. You’ll never learn, Aaron! He called for a tow truck. Had to give them a valid bank or credit card number to dispatch. “It’s not my car.”
Didn’t matter. Aaron wouldn’t be charged if the client was good for it.
He used his ranch charge card. Gave over the ranch phone number, card number, billing address, and security code.
SOFIA WOULD love to have declined the man’s offer, but commonsense had overruled pride. She was well and truly stuck, her foot not budging. Heard him end the conversation with whomever he had called. “All right. Done,” the hick said and started to turn away.
Seriously, he surely did not intend to leave her stranded. “Wait! I need to get out first.”
He stopped and turned back around, his face a mask. “Waiting.”
Sophia again attempted to extract her foot from between the clutch pedal and brake. Darn! Her shoe would not give an inch. She reached down and once again attempted to undo the fastening at the back. Felt skin scrape. No chance.
She looked across at the bossy stranger, and if a man could manage a resting grumpy face, this one had mastered the technique down to a fine art. She continued to wrestle with the shoe until reluctantly conceding defeat. Her pride screamed, “Don’t!” but, again, common sense prevailed.
Opening the door, she smiled sweetly at the stranger. “Er…. Excuse me. Can you …er, please?”
A ‘please’ accompanied by a smile usually worked. …But not with this guy. His expression stayed the same and was utterly unreadable.
A ‘PLEASE’. Wonders never cease!
Squatting down so that he was at her level, Aaron asked, “What’s the problem, Ma’am?”
Her hand, long, garishly-adorned nails that made her hands her own liability, indicated her leg—a very long, nicely-turned leg, exposed from nearly hip to fancy, spike-clad hoof. “My foot? It’s stuck?” she said as if he couldn’t see that.
Nope. Not touching this one. Been there, done that. He stood and backed away. “I’ll call 9-1-1. They’ll send an extraction team to get you out,” he answered, and watched her mouth drop open.
She sputtered, a look of disbelief on her face. “Can—can’t you help?”
Yeah. There it was. Just itching for a lawsuit.
“I don’t think so. I don’t need the legal hassles when you claim I put my hand or my head where it shouldn’t be, or my eyes on something they shouldn’t see. You’re a Brit. Obviously you haven’t been keeping up with the times here in the good old U.S. of A. I’m a straight, white male, a ripe target for you feminists. No thanks. I stopped. You’re okay. I’ve called for help and done my duty by the law, so I’m out of here.”
Aaron touched a finger to the brim of his hat and gave her a mock salute. “Have a good day, Ma’am.”
Run, Aaron, is what he thought …and he almost made it.
“HAVE A GOOD day! Honestly?! Does it look like I’m having a good day?” she called to his retreating back. Sophia felt tears threaten. Why did these darn Yanks seem to end every conversation with ‘have a good day,’ especially when they knew full well you were having a terrible one?! And ‘Ma’am’. Ma’am! Back home, one only addressed the Queen as ‘ma’am’.
The man continued walking away without a backward glance. “Hey, Cowboy! I’m talking to you! You can’t leave me here. I could get eaten by a bear!”
Sophia nervously surveyed the dense woodland opposite. Anything could be lurking in there. Anything!
He didn’t even pause. “Hey, YOU!” she yelled. “You can’t just leave a woman in distress alone!” And, still, he didn’t pause his step.
She screamed and held her hand on the horn, but, as well as being rude, he was obviously deaf. And how dare he assume she was a feminist!
Without so much as a backward glance in acknowledgement, she watched him get in his truck, give a pat to what looked to be a giant tan dog, pause to turn on his music full blast—of course, it was Country—before rolling his window up and edging his vehicle away from the shoulder. Then, he just drove off, abandoning her.
She released the horn and then pummeled the flat of her hands on the steering wheel. “Monster!”
Once again, she tried releasing her foot. Not a chance!
She heard the throb of an engine behind her. Oh, good! The 9-1-1, or who- or whatever Mr. Hick had called, had finally arrived!
IN HIS REARVIEW, he saw the muscle car pull up and stop. Oh, no. He turned off the stereo.
He slowed down, pulled over on the shoulder, Buckley getting up and grumbling out a low growl. Put his hazard lights on, the pulsing click of them hollow-sounding and stark in the sudden silence. Sure enough, two ‘bad boys’ in hoodies and slouch pants worn way below their navels exited the machine—an older Dodge Charger—that machine visibly vibrating and blowing black exhaust as it idled. Ready for a quick getaway? Double trouble, no less.
He hit the switch and let the window roll all the way down. Then he waited. Watched. Hoped.
SOPHIA CAUGHT a shadow, a sense of movement. Someone yanked the back door open. “What are you—?” She turned just in time to be greeted by the muzzle of a gun. …And screamed.
HE HEARD a scream—hers. You could not miss that woman’s voice. Buckley growled again, hackles coming up.
Hammer down, punching the throttle, Aaron spun it around, burning rubber the wrong way back to her.
A SPOTTY YOUTH sneered, “Shut it, lady.” Leaned in closer. Demanded, “Cell phone?!”
Sophia froze as he moved to her open door and pressed the gun into the side of her head. She nodded towards where her phone had disappeared. Panic! Where was it? Swallowed hard and closed her eyes. The smell of the toxic cocktail of the boy’s stale sweat and cigarettes mingling with her own fear made her want to wretch. “I—I don’t know where it is. It flew off the seat when I crashed.”
She felt the cold, hard steel of the gun push harder. She tried to stay calm.
“Lady, play nice. I’ll ask you one more time. Where—”
HE DROVE RIGHT at the hoods, putting the rig into the median and aiming at them as they stood beside her car. Laid on the horn.
Their heads turned. Then, of course, they just stood there, deer-in-the-headlights. Stupid as well as criminally inclined. …Same thing.
Both of them held guns, one a bag. Aaron’s luck was definitely failing him today.
He slammed on the brakes and jammed it in park when, almost on them, he opened the door, stepping out as the rig slid to a stop. Pulled his S&W to draw down on them as he did, Buckley jumping with him out of the truck, the dog’s hackles full up. “Buckley, stay.” His door was between him and them, not that that door would stop a bullet, but there it was.
Now they reacted as he leveled the gun, raising their arms, including their gun-toting hands, to cover their faces. They didn’t duck behind the front of her car. They didn’t use her as a hostage. They didn’t aim their weapons. Newbies at their game was his conclusion. “Leave while you can still stand,” Aaron told them, and watched them look at each other, look at the woman, then run, his aim and Buckley’s head following them as they jumped in their sorry version of Hot Wheels®.
Belatedly, he realized he should have had them drop the guns and the bag. The bag was probably her purse. Too late now.
He sighed as, belching burnt-oil exhaust, the Charger tore off down the highway. Ordering Buckley back in the truck—“Get in the truck. Get in the back, and stay, Buckley”—he watched till the car disappeared. He had no doubt they’d swing around and do a drive-by. “Get out of the car and into my truck, right now!” he barked at the woman. “They’ll be coming back mad, spraying lead.”
He put the S&W’s safety back on. Repeated his command for Buckley to stay in the truck and jammed the gun into the back of his waistband. Went over. Grabbed the clutch and brake pedal, lifted, and told her, “Pull it out.”
“You could have done that earlier, you know,” she sobbed.
He heard what he thought was the sound of the Charger. They had maybe a minute to vacate. “Lady, if you don’t want to be dead, get in the truck.” And, grabbing her hand, he ran for it, dragging her with him. Let her go, scrambled into the cab, and slammed the door.
Waited as the woman ran around and pulled open the passenger door.
He extended a hand, and she grabbed it. Pulled her in, grabbing the back of her skirt to get her all the way in, yelling, “Legs,” as he floored it to yaw them around, just missing the Beamer with his backend, his tires spewing turf, his dog tumbled and slammed against the far side of the crew cab. He spun it the other way and beat it gone out of there, going the wrong way down the highway, the passenger door slamming shut from the momentum. Glad she got her legs in.
“Blimey,” he heard the Queen of Anger say—practically the first honestly civil word out of her. He heard the gulped-back tears. He saw her hands grab hold. At least she wasn’t hysterical. He counted his blessings. And cursed fate.
TERRIFIED, SOPHIA remained silent as, head jammed against his leg, her hair cascading around her face and onto the floor, she watched his boot on the throttle, his other on the brake. There was some dirt on the rubber mat, little pebbles that bounced and rolled.
She was focused on holding tight to anything safe within her reach. The vehicle bounced, braked, and then lurched back and forth. And then they were going backwards—fast. To think people paid good money for thrill rides such as these, and here she was getting one for free!
Her emotions battled somewhere between her terror and hysterical laughter as they hit a bump that dislodged her grip on what she assumed to be the handbrake. She found another handhold on the centre console, a cubby there. Her other hand groped, finding and grabbing fabric—his shirt, she realized—something popping as the truck accelerated, then swerved back and forth. Shirt too flimsy, her hand found belt. Grabbed hold.
They were going backwards at a ridiculous speed. Branches scraped the side of the truck, and she heard him curse. Felt him yank the steering wheel, more brush scraping. And then, finally, they stopped. After a long moment of stillness, she let loose her pent breath.
HE’D TAKEN the first and nearest dirt trail that was wide enough into the cover of trees, pulling up, backing around, then backing in fast, the ride making Buckley crouch, legs splayed and bracing, butt jammed in the corner. It bounced and jolted the woman still sprawled awkwardly across the center console and the seat, her hands gripping him and the console, her head jammed crookedly against his leg. Please don’t break your neck.
In cover, glad the truck was dusky gray, a color that camouflaged it well in the half-grown brush they were in, he stopped. Let it idle. Breathed out relief. Heard her do the same.
Buckley gave a groaning sigh and laid down, Aaron’s sentiments exactly. The woman let go of his belt, his shirt now pulled free and open in front by her desperate grabs.
Loosed from her grip, he redid his shirt snaps as she sat up. Did the snaps up wrong, and, popping them all back open with a jerk, started again, this time from the bottom up instead of top down.
Pulling the S&W free from where it jabbed him in the back, he set it on the console, muzzle pointed away from her, safety still on. He saw her eye the gun. Tucked his shirt in and put the gun back out of sight under his vest where it belonged. Put his seatbelt on and waited.
TAKING THE OPPORTUNITY to pull herself upright, adjust her position and then grab the seatbelt to secure it around her, Sophia hitched down the hemline of her dress. Saw that the dog was, in fact, a massive, tan creature with black ears and muzzle. It was lying down on the back seat and watching her. She eyed it nervously and then decided it was no threat. At least for the moment. It wasn’t growling. Neither was the owner of the dog, a good thing.
Sophia stole a sideways glance at the hick, relieved he had returned to rescue her and scare away the muggers. A grudging respect softened her earlier opinion. It was her lucky day that this rude, crude, common laborer not only carried a gun, but also was not afraid to use it. She’d also somehow have to convince Ian about guns.
She’d been nagging Ian since they’d arrived from England that they should learn to handle a gun, but he had ridiculed her suggestion. Told her she’d been watching far too many movies and shushed her when she objected. At least she now had the ammunition to press home the argument.
She suppressed a snort of laughter at the thought of Ian manning up should someone point a gun at him. He had muscle and good looks, but not much else …and was certainly last in the queue when brains and common sense were handed out.
Tempted to ask if they were safe, she swallowed the thought. The hick’s body language indicated otherwise. Two against one, both of whom were armed, and she guessed the odds were probably stacked in the thieves’ favour when they came back.
Remembering too vividly the gun muzzle pressed to her head, Sophia tried to control the panic that now rose up anew and threatened to overwhelm her. Close to tears, she dismissed the question and took a deep breath. Exhaled slowly to help her focus and remain calm, a technique she had developed to steady her nerves before a skating competition.
The dog, now standing, edged forward. Sophia felt its hot breath on the back of her neck. It tickled. She turned slowly. Its curious brown eyes, unblinking, stared into hers, no doubt trying to decide if she was friend, foe, or lunch. “Big dog,” she ventured. “Does it have a name?”
The stranger didn’t answer her. Just kept his eyes straight forward, watching the highway. She studied him—his mouth was set in a hard line; jaw set, too; body tense as he gripped the steering wheel. The hands gripping were relaxed, though, not white-knuckled. Certainly, she thought, what the hick lacked in manners, he made up for in guts.
BESIDE HIM, the woman had collected herself, covering up her decidedly provocative, lace-covered bottom, getting her neckline back where it should be, and generally pulling herself together. That she had buckled the seatbelt impressed. Some sense, it seems. Everything else was too obviously a wash in the safety first department. If it was a choice between fashion and failsafe, fashion came first, just like with most of them these days. No, thank you.
His nerves tense, muscles wanting to twitch as he felt her eyes on him, he kept studiously focused. Wished she’d stop watching him.
Buckley softly woofed. Aaron paid attention.
In moments, the Charger screamed past on the other side of the median, slowed as it drove by the woman’s stuck BMW, then sped up. Suddenly, it slammed on the brakes, backed up, and stopped even with the woman’s car, the young bucks opening the doors and starting to get out.
A cop car rolled past on this side. The kids jumped back into their oil burner and took off, and, predictably, the cop bolted across the median and, lights and siren coming on, went after them. “Okay. That took care of that,” Aaron muttered, more to himself than to the woman sitting next to him. “Cop’s on the tail of those creeps. I’ll take you back.”
He put it in gear.
“Are we safe now?”
Her voice quavered, and Aaron cringed. He hated tears, he hated hysteria—both ‘woman’ things. At least he was saved one, maybe both of them with this one. She wasn’t hysterical and wasn’t crying, just shaken.
Behind him, Buckley groaned, and a check in the rearview showed the dog lying down, putting his head on his paws. The mastiff was going to stay out of it. Chicken dog.
“…Are you sure it’s safe? Those yobs did not look the type to….” Her voice trailed off.
He didn’t answer her. Didn’t know what ‘yobs’ were. But she did have a point. Put it back in park. Kept his eyes straight forward, watching for the tow truck. Then, deciding, he finally said, “Okay. We’ll wait here until the tow truck comes, then drive over. That suit?”
A moment’s pause, then, “Better, thank you.”
…A minute, then two of welcomed silence. Aaron started to relax—mistake.
“My name is Sophia,” the woman said, the voice still tight. He glanced. Saw tears blinked back as she extended a shaking hand as if in greeting.
What to do?! He did not want to give her his name. He had to do something. She was looking at him expectantly. Panic began to set in. Abruptly, he chose to nod—slightly, slowly, and he hoped it looked ‘decidedly’, too. He kept his hands quiet on the shifter and the steering wheel.
It didn’t work. Her next words were: “And yours?” She still held the hand out.
He glanced away out the side window. What now? He cautiously touched her hand, and hoped that would satisfy.
It did. The hand dropped. Still she looked at him, though. “Um, I….” Blew breath. “…Jackson,” he said. “A. Jackson. Rocking AJ Ranch.”
“A?” she asked.
Her voice was getting stronger—good. But he grimaced at the persistence in asking for his first name. “First initial.”
Her face turning haughty and determined, she popped the glove box open. Grabbed the registration, him shocked at her audacity.
Behind him, he heard Buckley get up. The dog was watching her. He signed, and Buckley lay back down.
“Well, now, here it is!” she said, voice trying to sound victorious …which failed completely. She sniffed. Rubbed a hand across her eyes, then, mouth muscles twitching with spent nerves, tried smiling his way. “Arthur,” she said, still trying to sound victorious. The effect was ruined by the still slight quake of her voice, but he admired her ability to recover herself. She’d just gone through a really frightening ordeal, one that was his fault for not staying with her like she’d asked, and most women, even his mom, would be being carried out in a basket, all hysteria, tears, and screams.
She put the registration back and closed the glove box.
…A full five minutes of silence, her looking out the passenger-side window. It was bliss. Then the wrecker showed up. “Tow truck’s here,” he muttered, and put it in gear. Drove over. Told Buckley to stay put. Got out.
“You the owner?” the tow truck man asked as Aaron heard the woman—’Sophia’, she’d said her name was—get out of the truck.
“No. The lady here is,” he said as she came around.
“Okay. Here’s the bill,” the man said, holding out an electronic clipboard.
Aaron saw her swallow. Head to the BMW. Go to the open back door and just stand there.
Memory jogged—the bag. “Charge my card on record,” he told the guy.
“Will do, sir. You want the receipt?”
“Yeah. Give her one, too, though.”
“Sent to your phone,” the man said just as Aaron’s phone pinged.
He checked. “Got it,” he said, thanking the man.
“All right. Let’s get this car out.”
“Preferably without damaging it,” Aaron said.
SOPHIA HELD BACK the tears just long enough for her car to be towed from the centre reservation. When the tow truck driver handed her the invoice and paid-in-full receipt, she thanked him. Turned around to thank Arthur, too, but he was already in his truck, his music coming back on.
He did glance her way for just a moment, touched the brim of his cowboy hat, and nodded before pulling out.
“Thank you, Arthur,” she whispered as she watched the taillights of his truck disappear into the distance. Her earlier hostile behavior towards him made her feel guilty. He had obviously never attended ‘charm’ school, but he had put his own life in danger, so maybe—just possibly—she owed him. Maybe guardian angels did exist, and, today, one had manifested itself in the guise of a grumpy country bumpkin with a poor attitude and a very big dog.