"This is just great!" Laurel slapped her hand against the steering wheel. "First I leave my wallet at that two-bit, sorry excuse for a diner. Then we get lost. And now I've got to change a flat tire." The car lurched forward slowly as she scanned the road ahead for a wide enough embankment so she could pull over.
"Who said kidnapping would be easy?"
The sullen teen's words grated on her already frayed nerves. "Ginny." Laurel's jaw was so tight she felt the beginnings of a tension headache shooting up her neck and into her skull. "There is no law against protecting someone you love."
"Oh! So that's what you're doing." Ginny's acerbic tone continued as she placed a hand on her chest and feigned a dramatic apology. "Forgive me. Please. I thought taking a person off to God knows where without her permission was called abduction."
Rather than feeling guilty, as Ginny clearly wanted, to her surprise, Laurel's aggravation vanished as quickly as it had erupted. The rigidity in her upper body eased and she relaxed against the seat, a mischievous grin tipping one corner of her mouth. "Oh, but little sister, I had your permission. It's not my fault that you were inebriated to the point of waking with a gap in your memory."
"I wasn't drunk."
Laurel glanced over just as lines of angry denial furrowed Ginny's brow. Compressed lips and tightly crossed arms completed the look of defiance that had become all too familiar lately. Arguing was useless. Her sister's wild, destructive behavior left Laurel feeling hopelessly bewildered. What could she possibly do to help Ginny? Nothing. Nothing, that is, until Ginny herself realized what a dangerous path she was racing down. The same deadly path their brother had followed.
She had suppressed her suspicions for months, refusing to believe that Ginny would experiment with drugs or alcohol. Especially since Ginny knew those were the very things that had caused their brother's tragic and untimely death.
Her grip on the steering wheel tightened. I won't stand still and watch Ginny kill herself, Laurel silently argued. I may have been too young to help Brian, but I will help Ginny. I will! No matter what I have to do.
"Where are we, anyway?"
Her sister's strained voice pulled Laurel from her thoughts just in time for her to spot a wide area on the side of the road and pull onto it. "We're on vacation," she replied, shoving the gear stick into park and shutting off the engine.
Ginny gave a disgruntled sniff. "Does Dad know about this 'vacation'?"
"Yes, and we have his blessing." Laurel was happy to answer Ginny's questions since this was the first sign of interest, hostile or otherwise, she had shown in the trip.
"And he's actually going to stay home and care for Mom?"
"Uh-huh." Laurel hoped her voice didn't betray the uncertainty she felt over their father's trustworthiness. She had plenty of doubts about him actually following through on his promise. But sometimes, problems had to be prioritized.
"Amazing!" Ginny remarked. "And exactly where is this vacation taking us? It looks like the middle of nowhere."
"You're about to enter the town of Oakland, set in the scenic mountains of western Maryland. Rest and relax as you watch wild creatures frolic in the lush, tranquil forest."
Ginny's mouth cracked into the smallest of grins. "You sound like a brochure put out by the tourist council."
"A smile." Laurel's voice filled with warmth. "That's what I wanted to see." Reaching out and taking her sister's hand, she waited until their gazes met and then softly added, "We'll have a good time, Ginny. You'll see."
She ignored the skeptical look her sister shot her and glanced out at the tree-covered mountains, the autumn colors swirling in vibrant harmony.
"You have to admit it's a beautiful place," Laurel said. "It was nice of Jim to loan us his house for a couple of weeks."
"So—" Ginny nodded knowingly "—this is Jim's fault. I knew Dad shouldn't have hired him."
"Ginny!" Laurel chuckled as she freed the keys from the ignition. "He's a great guy. You're just angry because he's not interested in you."
"Yeah, well, don't you find that a little strange?" Ginny's eyes narrowed. "I mean, I could have a date seven nights a week if I wanted. I sometimes do. Why won't he take me out?"
Laurel lifted her shoulders in a tiny shrug. "He's been busy working in the store, plus he's been working on fixing up the upstairs apartment."
"That's weird, too." Ginny slid around and bent her knee up onto the seat. "Have you been up there? He sure is meticulous about how he wants things." Her eyes lit up as an idea hit her. "Do you think he's gay?"
Laurel laughed outright and shook her head. "That kind of stereotyping is rude, little sister. A man can be neat and organized, and not be attracted to you, and still be heterosexual."
"Well..." Ginny sounded unconvinced. "I still think it's weird." Unlatching her seat belt, she gave Laurel a curious look. "If he's moving to Ocean City, what do you think he'll do with his house here?"
"It doesn't belong to him." Laurel unfastened her own seat belt. "He rents from an uncle or something."
"Does this 'uncle or something' know we're coming?"
"He should," Laurel said. "Jim said he'd call. But we won't be going anywhere until we get this flat tire changed."
"Don't look at me," Ginny whined. "I didn't even want to come on this trip."
"Get out of the car and help me with this. It's going to be fun." Laurel slammed the door.
"Sure," Ginny muttered, shoving open her door and stepping onto the gravel shoulder of the road. "Let's have us some fun."
~ ~ ~
Michael had never been hungrier in his life. Then again, he remembered ruefully, he always felt like this after a three-day survival trek. He rubbed a hand over his growling stomach. Knowing you could survive in the mountains on wild berries, Indian cucumbers and sassafras tea was all well and good, but right now all he could think about was the thick, juicy steak waiting for him in the freezer.
Rounding a sharp bend in the road, he saw a young girl sitting on a pile of luggage next to a dusty brown sedan. As he pulled onto the scenic overlook, she stood and waved. He frowned. That steak would have to wait.
Michael got out of his truck. "You having trouble?" He rolled up his sleeves, hoping this wouldn't take long.
"Just a flat tire." She flashed a come-hither smile. "We almost have it fixed." She brushed a long strand of silky blond hair over her shoulder.
He watched with amusement as she strutted toward him, and he knew all that was missing from the well- practiced teenage production was a slight batting of the eyes. Knowing when he was being flirted with, Michael was flattered, but then, he also knew teenage girls weren't particular on whom they practiced.
"We?" he questioned.
Just then a head popped up from behind the car. The setting sun reflected like fire off the jumble of shimmering copper curls. Emerald eyes gazed at him from a beautiful face streaked with grease and grime.
He became uncomfortable as those green eyes narrowed, scrutinizing every detail of his person. She glanced past him to inspect his truck, and when her gaze returned to his face, it was dark with suspicion.
"Need some help?" He did his best to soften the edge of irritation he heard in his voice. It wasn't her fault he was starving.
"Thanks, but I'm almost finished." Her brow was pinched, her whole body tense as she rose to a stand.
Her reaction made him pause and think about what he looked like; unshaven, mud-spattered, bedraggled. Hell, he looked little better than a homeless derelict. Why wouldn't she be wary?
Absently running a hand over his whiskered jaw, he tried to explain. "This is what three days roughing it in—"
He'd taken a step toward her wearing what he thought was a friendly expression, but seeing her grip tighten on the tire iron, he stopped short and swallowed hard.
The younger girl sidled up beside him, oblivious to the apprehension her companion was feeling.
"I'm glad you're here," the teen said.
Her silky hair brushed against his skin as she placed a hand on his arm. "You can check out my sister's handiwork. I'd hate to have that tire fall off while we're driving down the road."
Her laughter was cut short by the burning glare she received from the fiery-haired amateur mechanic.
"I'm finished, Ginny. Let's go."
"But you're missing one of those nut things."
Listening to this exchange, Michael moved around to have a look at the tire. Sure enough, one wheel stud was bare. He was about to advise these women that driving with a missing lug nut wasn't safe, but before he could, the woman clutching the metal rod spoke.
"It'll be fine. We're going. Get into the car. Now."
"I don't think so," Michael said quietly.
"I beg your pardon?"
The impact of her anger took him by surprise when she directed the full force of it at him. He realized her fear, but seeing that they drove away safely outweighed it. Besides, her alarm was unfounded. She'd learn that soon enough, if she gave him half a chance.
"I think we should look around for the lug nut," he told her. "It couldn't have rolled far." He stepped away from the teenager, who had crouched down to look under the car.
"There, Laurel!" she exclaimed, pointing. "It's right there. See? This guy's cute and he's right."
"Laurel." The name rolled off Michael's tongue in a whisper too low for anyone to hear. What a beautiful name. It fit her perfectly.
He watched her crouch down and reach under the car, his gaze sliding down the graceful curve of her spine, over shapely hips, settling on the firm corduroy-clad bottom covered with sand and grit.
Tearing his gaze away, he found himself looking directly into the lively eyes of the younger girl. The knowing smile on the flirtatious teen's face said a mouthful, and Michael couldn't help grinning with her in acceptance of being caught.
Laurel tightened the last lug nut as quickly as she could, unaware of the silent conspiracy taking place over her head. She would have been quite satisfied with her job had it not been for the man who had suddenly shown up to "help." Quickly checking out the stranger once more, she found him sharing a smile with Ginny. Anger overrode her distrust. Their silent conversation was clearly unwholesome, and she was furious that this man would leer at her sister. And the way her chin was dipped, Ginny seemed to be egging him on!
Using every ounce of her ire, Laurel cranked the jack like there was no tomorrow and soon had all four tires on the ground. Holding tight to the cold steel of the tire iron, she dragged the jack from under the car with her free hand and straightened.
"Excuse me," she snapped as she stepped between them on her way to dump the jack into the trunk. Returning for the flat tire, she none too politely refused the man's offer to help.
"If you help her," Ginny jeered, "she won't be able to hold this over my head. And believe me, she will!"
Prickling, Laurel watched the laughing dark eyes of the man as he shared the joke with Ginny. In her haste to leave, she had put the jack in lopsided, which kept the tire from sitting properly. Frustrated, she pounded on the false bottom that covered the tire, trying to get it to lie flat. Whirling around, Laurel snapped at Ginny, "You'll have to reload the suitcases. My hands are filthy."
"Now I, unlike my dear sister, would never turn down an offer of help."
The teen's eyes glittered as she spoke to Michael, and he was relieved to finally get a chance to assist. He'd had to stuff his hands deep into his pockets to squelch the urge to interfere when the improperly placed jack had caused so much trouble. But instinct had told him standing back would be wiser than possibly being thumped on the head with a tire iron.
Laurel moved out of the way and watched her sister and the stranger pack the cases into the trunk. She noticed the man carefully arrange them around the off-kilter false bottom and felt heat rise up her neck to scorch her cheeks. Maybe she had been silly for being afraid. It was obvious he wanted to help. She watched his dark eyes dance and sparkle with humor. Now that her fear had abated a bit, the joking and laughter he shared with Ginny seemed warm and genuine, and Laurel liked the sound of it. He did need a shave, but she liked the way the sun glinted off his sleek brown hair, and the way the muscles of his tanned forearms rippled as he lifted the...
What was she thinking? Laurel blinked, mentally shaking herself. The guy could be an ax murderer for all she knew, and she was standing here admiring his muscles! She started when he slammed the trunk's lid, his gaze suddenly connecting with hers. The conflicting emotions warring inside her caused another rush of heat to flush her face and neck.
"Would you mind if I made a suggestion?" he asked.
"Of course not," she replied grudgingly.
"There's a service station about fifteen miles up the road. I think you should stop and have the attendant check the tire. He'll tighten the lug nuts with air compression and he might be able to plug the flat."
"Thanks, but we won't be going that far." Laurel was pleased with her flippancy and motioned their departure to Ginny with a jerk of her head. She spun around and walked along the side of the car. The man's stare on her back caused a tingling sensation to travel up her spine.
"One more suggestion?"
His quiet voice forced her to turn once again in his direction. Laurel flashed him a mockingly patient look and waited.
"Dust off your bottom before you get in."
Ginny giggled before disappearing into the car and slamming her door shut. Laurel fixed him with a burning glare of disgust before pulling open her own door and slipping into her seat, and it took every bit of willpower she possessed not to brush off her rear before doing so.
"I don't think it's all that funny," Laurel growled at her sister. Her scowl deepened as she caught sight of the man in the rear-view mirror still wearing that irritating grin.
Michael shook his head as he watched the car drive away. He shouldn't have teased her, but he'd become aggravated knowing she would probably let her pride get in the way of her safety. He knew she would pass the gas station and hoped she had sense enough to stop. She must have a lousy sense of direction and distance, because the only thing between the overlook and the station was the cabin he rented to his cousin Jim.
~ ~ ~
Steam filled the tiny bathroom as hot water beat down on Laurel's back. The steady spray slowly washed away her tension. She was sorry for yelling at Ginny while they were driving to the cabin. They hadn't been in the car two seconds after the tire incident before her tirade had started. The fatigue she'd felt was no excuse for the bitter words she'd spat at Ginny.
"I can't believe your behavior!" Laurel had barely contained the impulse to hit the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. "You're not a kid any more. You're almost eighteen years old. You should know better. That man could have been an escaped convict, a thief, a rapist! At best he was some dirty vagrant stopping with the hopes of getting a few bucks off two fluttery females."
Ginny had opened her mouth to protest, but whatever she'd been about to say had been crushed by Laurel's continued onslaught.
"Did you see that dilapidated truck?" Her eyebrows had shot up toward her hairline. "Did you notice the fact that there was a gun hanging in the back window?" Laurel had sucked in an angry breath. "Is it too much to ask for you to use a little common sense? Just a little!" That time she had hit the steering wheel with force enough to bruise her hand.
"Are you ever going to grow up?" Her words had been husky with exasperation. "Don't you know it's not safe to flirt with a complete stranger?"
Ginny had lifted her chin stubbornly. "I wasn't flirting. And it was you he was gawking at! Jeez, the man practically drooled!"
Laurel had been floored. And even though more than four hours had passed since their narrow escape, she was still stunned. The needles of steaming water didn't provide enough heat to stop Laurel's involuntary shiver as she thought of being ogled by that degenerate when her back was turned. They'd been lucky to get away from him unharmed. And to think she had admired him! Pushing the frightening thoughts from her mind, she lifted her face to the hot spray.
Think of pleasant things, she chided herself.
She sighed, shoving the ugliness from her mind. Then she remembered Ginny's dismay when they had driven up the narrow dirt lane on Spring Mountain to find that Jim's house was a small rustic cottage, and she smiled. Laurel's own trepidation had vanished when she'd discovered that the tiny log cabin had all the comforts of home. Plus a few added attractions.
She grinned as she remembered the mouse that had sent Ginny into hysterics. Calming her had been a feat in itself. Finally, Laurel had clapped the car keys into her hand, gave her hasty directions and thrust her out the door with orders to bring a pizza home for dinner. She had promised Ginny the mouse would be gone before she returned. Catching it hadn't been easy.
Laurel considered spending another minute or two under the deliciously hot spray, then reluctantly turned the porcelain handle, knowing Ginny wouldn't appreciate having to take a cold shower. She pulled back the curtain, plucked a fluffy white towel off the bar and wrapped her hair, turban-style. Contentment spread through her relaxed muscles.
She knew that she'd done the right thing. Ginny was away from the hooligans she'd been running around with back home. The two of them had the opportunity to get close again, to talk. Laurel would make Ginny see the need to go to college and do something with her life.
The front door opened and closed. As Laurel tucked another towel around her body and secured it under her arm, she wondered how Ginny could have gotten back so quickly, then realized she must have forgotten to take money.
"Hey! You in there?" The loud rap on the bathroom door caused every muscle in Laurel's body to clench. But what chilled her blood was recognizing the deep male voice.