(Edited for brevity)
As Paxton Sullivan traveled along the dark highway toward the north end of Chambliss, where the B&B was located, he spotted a car pulled off the road. Judging by its sideways tilt, a flat tire seemed likely.
“Well, well, well,” he murmured as he closed in, seeing a fine rear end facing him as a woman rummaged in her trunk. “Looks like we have a damsel in distress,” he said to his pit-bull mix sitting in the passenger seat of his truck as he slowed down several yards behind her.
When Harley made to jump out behind him, Pax pushed him back. “Stay here, buddy. You and roads don’t mix well.” He scrubbed the dog’s head, sending sand all over. “Yeah, you just hang here and make a beach outta my truck, why don’t ya?”
Pax grabbed road flares from the toolbox behind the cab, lit them, and set them along the edge of the road. The shoulder needed of a mow, with the grass growing right up to the woman’s calves beneath her knee-length skirt. She grunted as she struggled with the flat piece that covered the spare. His gaze inevitably drifted higher, where the cotton skirt stretched across her ass with her movements.
Damsel, dude. Don’t be staring.
As he approached, his boots crunching on the loose asphalt, she turned, using the owner’s manual to shield her face from the glare of his headlights.
“Need some help, ma’am?” He stepped around to the side so she wouldn’t be staring into the light. When she lowered the book, he took an involuntary stumble back.
She recognized him, too, by the way her eyes flared and her cheeks flushed bright pink. “Oh, I . . . I can manage, thanks. Though I’m sure you mentally rescinded that offer the moment you saw it was me.” She turned back to the tire and started tugging again.
He should leave. This girl—no, a woman now—had wreaked havoc on him and his family. It had been bad enough when, after their soul-searing first meet, he discovered that his brother, Blake, had swept right in on Gemma. No doubt Emily had introduced her to the “right” crowd, Blake being a prime member. Mia had looked flummoxed and embarrassed enough upon discovering that he and Pax were brothers to convince him that she hadn’t known. But the way her eyes followed him at school—well, he’d told himself that was his wounded ego’s imagination.
Except he’d run into Blake and Gemma at the Flying Pepperoni, and Blake had invited him to join them. It had been a little torture, watching them side by side, Blake leaning over and giving her a quick, sloppy kiss.
Throughout dinner, her gaze had been on Pax, laughing at his jokes, leaning toward him across the table. All subconscious, he was sure. He’d wolfed down two slices and headed to the pinball machine in the back room. A few minutes later, Blake’s cronies poured in, and suddenly Gemma was standing nearby watching him play. She’d said it was too noisy over there, too crowded.
He’d wanted to ask her what the hell she was doing with Blake. Wanted to lean across those couple of feet separating them and kiss her proper, guaranteeing that her attention would not be wandering. But dating her had become taboo from the moment Blake claimed her. That was a bro-code no-no.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, a couple of months later Gemma went to the police and accused Blake of date-raping her. There had been plenty of speculation. Maybe she’d had drunk sex and regretted it. Maybe she’d hoped to change Blake’s mind about breaking it off with her, then got revenge when offering her body didn’t work.
Having seen no cold-bitch edge in her, Pax had never assigned a dark motive to her accusation. He suspected emotional instability. After all, she’d supposedly gotten into trouble while living with her mother, the reason she’d been shipped down to Florida.
The charges had eventually been dropped for lack of evidence, thank God, but his family had gone through hell for a year. As he watched her continue to struggle with the cover over the spare, he told himself that he should walk back to his car. He shouldn’t care that Gemma Thornton was stranded. Instead, he angled in next to her and loosened the lever that released the panel. Their shoulders brushed, and hell if he didn’t feel . . . something. Jeez, was he sixteen again? He quickly stepped back.
“I didn’t see that,” she said, brushing her short, dark-blond hair from her face. Obviously a nervous gesture, since it was too short to be in her way. No more of that fluffy, platinum-blond Marilyn Monroe hair. “Thanks.” She turned back to the trunk, dismissing him. Or perhaps assuming he would leave.
He took another step back but paused. “Have you seen your dad yet?”
That made her face him again. “You know about the accident?” She rolled her eyes. “Dumb question. In this small town where gossip reigns, I suppose you do. I came down as soon as I heard.”
“I went to see him earlier. He’s going to be all right.”
Relief saturated her expression, along with gratitude. “When I talked to someone at the hospital, I heard ‘ICU’ and a list of broken stuff, and I . . . well, short-circuited. I found a last-minute flight into Atlanta and I’ve been driving for the last five and a half hours.” Then her forehead wrinkled. “Wait. You went to see my dad in the hospital?”
So she wasn’t aware of the speedway, then, or, at least, of who was refurbishing it with him. “Your dad and I are partners in a business venture.”
“Oh. Well, I’m glad you visited him.” She looked tired and worried, chewing on her lower lip. It touched something in him, but he clamped it down. “Thanks for letting me know.”
She turned back to the spare. He didn’t want to feel anything but derision for her. At the least, apathy. Yet there he was, opening his truck’s tool chest and pulling out the jack and the tools. As he made his way back to her car, she was entirely focused on hefting the tire from its hidey-hole in a none-too-graceful manner. Especially considering that she was wearing pumps and a skirt that now had black rubber scuzz all over the front. The unwieldy tire slipped from her grasp and rolled down into the swale.
“No, no, no,” she called as she chased after it.
The tire won, reaching the water-filled ditch several seconds before she did and sinking beneath the reedy surface. She let out a cry and slapped her hand over her forehead. Even in the shadows, he could see the black imprint she’d left behind.
He stepped down and retrieved the tire, shaking off the water as he made his way back to the car.
She picked her way up the incline behind him. “Thank you. Look, you don’t have to—”
He set the tire flat on the ground and grabbed a lug wrench. “Were you going to step into that potentially alligator-infested water?”
She glanced dubiously at the murky swale. “I would have, but I’ll be honest; I’m grateful as hell that you did it. I meant you don’t have to help me now.”
“I’m doing it for your father,” he muttered as he retrieved the tools he’d dropped on his way to grab the tire. In truth, he would never leave a woman alone on the side of a dark road, even if she was more than capable. From the looks of the manual balanced on the trunk lid, he was guessing she wasn’t well versed in the art of changing tires.
She pulled a flimsy-assed jack from the trunk and set it on the ground.
“You call that a jack?” He set his bigger jack down next to it and inserted the handle into the hole. Then he nudged a chock block behind the front tire on the driver’s side.
“You’re really going to do this?” she asked.
He headed around to the passenger side and set another block. “I’m really going to do this.”
“Because you’re my dad’s business partner. Which is rather . . . ironic, considering.”
He came back around and scooped up his lug wrench. “I have no quarrel with Wade.”
“And the unspoken part of that is like I do with you.”
“I didn’t say it, but if you want to press, yes, I do. You nearly destroyed my family. But I don’t blame him for standing behind you. That’s what family does.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, plumping up the large boobs she’d had even back in high school. “Like you did with Blake.”
She was going there, was she? Well, he’d go there, too. He gritted his teeth as he jerked down on the handle, trying to loosen a tight lug nut. “Because he was innocent.”
“He was guilty.”
The nut finally came loose, and so did the conflict that had lived inside him all these years. “You were the only one who ever made an accusation like that.”
“Then I was the only one who had the guts to do it.”
She wanted a fight. Clearly she’d been holding on to her own conflict for a while, too. He realized he’d been hoping that she regretted what she’d done, that maturity had made her see the error of her ways. It angered him that she still stubbornly held on to her erroneous view.
He jammed the wrench over the next nut as he met her gaze. “Why don’t you just admit that you were both too drunk to exercise good judgment? Alcohol, and your hurt feelings over him dumping you, made it seem like something more than it was. Maybe looking back, you can see how you might have been wrong. It’ll be between the two of us.” He needed to hear her confession. Needed to clear the ugliness of that accusation from his psyche.
The lights from the flares flickered over her angry expression. She snatched the wrench from him and bent down to continue. “I wasn’t hurt that Blake told me he didn’t want a commitment. I was seventeen, for Pete’s sake. I hadn’t planned to marry him. In fact, I didn’t even like him all that much. All he cared about was football, and how many touchdowns he’d made. ‘Wasn’t I awesome on that play?’” she mimicked in a low voice. “‘Feel my biceps. I upped my bench weight to two hundred thousand. Whoo-hoo!’” She was using all her strength to push the wrench, and it finally budged. “To be honest, I didn’t like that whole crowd.”
But you chose them over me. Thank God he didn’t voice that particular sentiment. “Well, you sure as hell gravitated right to them.”
She jammed the wrench over the next nut and started tugging. “I wanted . . . to . . . belong.”
Though she’d grunted them out, her words hit him in the solar plexus. He didn’t want to relate to her in any way. He’d done it once, on that hot summer night at the races, and she’d stepped on his heart. Or his ego. He preferred to think it was only that. “You didn’t seem like a girl who wanted to belong, with your piercings and goth-candy look. At least when you first came to town.” That she was her own person, like him, snagged his attention. She’d been wearing a lacy black miniskirt over black leggings patterned with pink skulls. Her clunky combat boots looked sexier than hell.
She gave him a raised eye. “Goth candy?”
He shrugged. “That’s what I called it. You weren’t a Goth in the traditional sense, pasty-skinned and all black. But you had a touch of that look.”
She turned back and loosened that nut, then moved on to the last one. “I did belong. Back in New York, I was part of the Misfits Posse. But here I was just a misfit. An outsider.”
Damned if she didn’t loosen that nut, too. She stood and faced him. “Why don’t you admit, just between the two of us, that a part of you wonders if he did rape me?”
“No way.” The words jumped out of his mouth like hot beans, and he squelched that burning sensation in his gut that signaled the need for an antacid. He’d bought it by the case in the months after her accusation. “I know my brother. He might look strong and confident, but inside he’s a wimp.”
“It doesn’t take strength to ply a girl with alcohol and force yourself on her while you twist her words and ignore her pleas to stop.” Her voice had wobbled on those last words, tightening his gut. She bent down to grab her junky jack. “And that no one has accused Blake of assault means nothing, nada, zip. Seventy percent of sexual assaults aren’t reported. And look what happens when a woman does report it. She’s made out to be a whore. Or a vindictive liar. People she thought were her friends call her nasty names on her Facebook page. The charges are usually dropped, her rapist goes on with his life, and she never gets any frickin’ closure. Why would anyone else come forward after seeing what came of my accusation?”
Damn, the pain and anger in her words, as fresh as though it had happened last month . . . but no, she was just seeing it from an emotionally skewed perspective. Or she was covering her guilt with her conviction.
But her big brown eyes didn’t hold a speck of guilt as she met his gaze. “Look, I appreciate your loyalty to my father, but I got this. Have a good night.”
Whoa, complete dismissal. She went back to work, positioning the jack as she squinted at the manual’s directions. Fine. He didn’t need to help her. And he sure had plenty to do. He would get back in his truck and . . .
“Hell.” He pushed his jack beneath the car and pumped the handle. Once the tire had cleared the ground by a couple of inches, he loosened the lug nuts the rest of the way. He removed the tire, feeling the tear that had rendered it flat. She had already grabbed the spare and slipped into place to push it on.
A car passed, the first since he’d stopped. He wondered how far along she would have gotten on her own. She was capable enough, though his headlights provided light that she wouldn’t otherwise have had. They both hand-tightened the lugs, and he lowered the car. She grabbed the wrench and nudged it over a nut. He let her handle that until she went on to the next lug nut.
“Tighten them in a star pattern,” he said, pointing to the nut across from the one she’d just tightened.
She nodded and focused on going from nut to nut as he pointed out the next one. The smudge on her forehead made her look adorable, a ridiculous thought to have about the enemy.
And make no mistake: you and she are on opposites sides.
Pax tested the lug nuts and gave an approving jerk of his chin. “You’re all set.”
“Thank you. I’ll tell my father you were a big help.”
“I’m not vying for Brownie points.”
She looked at him for the first time in what felt like a while. “You’re not a partner at the B&B, are you?” By the tightness in her expression, he guessed that the thought of that unnerved her.
“No, innkeeping’s not my thing.” He wasn’t going to get into his dreams with her. “When you see your father, he’s going to look pretty scary. He’s banged up bad.”
“But you said he’s all right.”
“He’ll be all right, but it’s going to take a while.”
She took a moment to digest that. “I heard someone ran their car into the inn.”
“Guy had a stroke—at least, that’s what they think. He plowed into the kitchen, where Wade was preparing for breakfast. The car shoved him through the cabinets and into an interior wall. Broke his pelvis, ribs, and arm, cut him up pretty bad. He suffered some internal injuries, the reason for ICU.”
She let out a soft whimper that gripped his chest. “Oh, God.”
Damn, he’d listed the facts like a cop. Which you’re not anymore. He’d only been a cop for two years, yet he’d already assimilated the ability to view horrific events with detachment. “He’ll survive. I promise.” Damn again. He’d broken the cardinal rule: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Even worse, he had touched her arm without even realizing it. Hopefully, she hadn’t, either, worried as she was about her dad. He grabbed the flat tire and stowed it in the storage area, then closed the trunk. “You know how to get to the hospital from here?”
“I have the map app on my phone.”
He rubbed his hands together to clear off the dirt. “All right, then.” They stood only a foot apart, face-to-face. The years had refined her features and sharpened her cheekbones. She didn’t have the ruby nose stud, the multiple ear piercings, or the smoky shadow around her big brown eyes. She wasn’t wearing any lacy black skirt over black leggings. She no longer had the rebel spark in her eyes that had yanked on him that first night they’d met. But she’d lost all that long before her treachery. Just as she’d seemed to lose interest in him once school started.
He’d caught himself wondering many times whether it would have been different if she’d gone out with him. He wouldn’t have gotten plastered, and he sure wouldn’t have had sex with a girl if she was drunk.
“How long are you going to be in town?” he couldn’t resist asking.
“Until my dad is out of the hospital and back on his feet.” She blindly reached for the door handle. “I really appreciate your help. Especially considering —”
She hesitated for a moment, tension rippling between them. “I guess I’ll see you . . . well, I probably won’t.”
She got into her car, and he snuffed out the flares as she pulled away. He climbed into the truck and stroked Harley’s soft, short fur as he watched her taillights fade into the distance. “Maybe I should’ve told her that she will, indeed, be seeing me again.”