Jackson St. James hadn’t prayed for anything since he’d sprinkled dirt on his mother’s casket almost three years ago. At that moment, he’d decided God didn’t give a shit about him or his prayers. Everything that had happened to him since then had only confirmed his hunch. But just now, when another crack of thunder shook his SUV, he considered sending up a Hail Mary.
A coal-colored sky spewed torrential rain onto the mountain road winding its way toward Winhall, Vermont. Autumnal leaves blew about, pasting themselves on his windshield. Trees bowed—bent to the point of breaking—as they fought to hold their ground while straining against unrelenting winds. Only their deep roots kept them from toppling.
A superstitious person might take the weather as a sign of an ill-conceived journey and reconsider. Fortunately, Jackson wasn’t superstitious. And while he didn’t much appreciate God’s twisted sense of humor today, he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of that Hail Mary, either.
Irritated by the satellite radio cutting out for the umpteenth time in twenty minutes, Jackson punched it off. Only the rapid thumping of his wipers—sounding oddly like a sturdy heartbeat—offered a distraction from his gloomy thoughts.
If the berm of the road were wider, he’d pull over and wait out the heaviest part of the storm. Instead, he flicked on his hazard lights, eased up his speed, and squinted at the few feet of centerline still visible.
He hugged close to those double yellows—the lifeline leading him through the dark to safety. Had he not been so far to the left of his lane, he’d have crashed into the idiot who not only failed to park a massive Chevy pickup truck away from the road’s edge, but who also leapt out and ran to its rear.
Was help needed?
For a split second, Jackson thought to keep going. He had his own problems to sort out, after all.
Of course his conscience kicked in, reminding him that he’d never ignored a person in need, not even a stranger. Apparently not even a stupid one who just might get them both killed.
He steered his Jeep as far to the right side of the shoulder as possible while avoiding the drop-off to the river on its other side. Twisting to the right, he considered reaching for his umbrella. Then the howling wind shifted and rain began to pummel the car sideways. Cursing, he left the umbrella under the passenger seat and stepped out of his car.
Within three seconds, his clothes were as soaked through as if he’d been tossed into the swollen river ten yards away.
Muttering to himself, he jogged back to where the pickup remained precariously parked, trying to ignore the way his jeans had transformed into some kind of Chinese finger trap, tightening with each step.
Just then a small figure circled around from behind the truck bed. A woman—a young woman—stopped in her tracks, wide-eyed, teeth chattering. “Oh!”
Like him, her soggy clothes dripped. Long brown hair adhered to her cheeks, neck, and shoulders. Raindrops bounced off the thick lashes framing her impossibly round, pale eyes.
Unlike him, however, she didn’t look particularly miserable. In fact, she looked kind of cute in her oversize barn coat, with the skirt of her multicolored, floral-print dress clinging to her legs, which were slim and long despite her short stature. Like a rookie schoolboy with a first crush, he felt a grin tug at the corner of his mouth.
“Looks like you need help,” he shouted above the din of another peal of thunder. “Flat tire?”
“Yes.” The young woman stepped back slowly. She flashed a brave yet tight smile and took another step away from him. “But don’t trouble yourself. I’ll be okay, thanks.”
The rain made it difficult to see her face clearly now that she’d put distance between them, yet the spark of attraction charged through him. Attraction he hadn’t felt in a long time. Attraction he had no business indulging for many reasons, not the least of which being the fact that she looked like a college coed.
Too young and innocent for a guy like him.
“Your jack probably weighs more than you do.” He took a cautious step toward the back of the car so she wouldn’t be alarmed. “Have you ever changed a tire?”
“Please don’t bother.” She held up one hand. “You can’t help, anyway. There’s no spare.”
Jackson frowned, noticing the flat front tire. He stooped to take a closer look at the gash. No sealant would fix that tear, and his compact spare wouldn’t fit this huge wheel rim. He glanced at the decal on the side door: Gabby’s Gardens.
Gabby. Cute name, too.
“Did you call for help?” He stood, his hands tucked under his armpits, water sluicing off every inch of his body.
“No service.” She shivered.
Oddly, the chilly rain hadn’t cooled him off. In fact, his body temperature had only increased since he first set eyes on her, despite the gusty weather.
A truck honked as it zoomed by, simultaneously hurling a gritty spray at them and causing Gabby’s pickup to quake. Jackson swiped his bangs from his eyes, slinging a handful of water from his face.
“Why don’t we get off the side of the road before we both end up dead?” He gestured over his shoulder. “Hop in my car and I’ll drive you to the nearest dry spot with cell service.”
Presuming common sense would force her to agree, he started back toward his car. When she didn’t catch up to him, he glanced back at her. “Aren’t you coming?”
“I don’t think so, but thank you.” She darted for the door of her vehicle. “If you wouldn’t mind calling a tow truck when you reach an area with service, I’d appreciate it.”
“Miss, you’re parked right at the edge of the road. I’m afraid you’ll get hit.” When that failed to persuade her, he added, “If I were going to hurt you, I could’ve done so already.”
“All the same, I’ll take my chances here. Not much traffic at this time of day.” She waved before ducking into her truck with a quick “Bye!”
He heard her car doors lock. For three seconds, Jackson stood there, dumbfounded . . . and a little insulted. No one had ever refused his help or considered him a danger. Then again, a small woman like her probably shouldn’t take chances with any stranger.
Another heavy rumble overhead forced him to shrug and return to his Jeep. He knew, from dozens of ski trips to the area, that the Stratton resort area wasn’t too far ahead, so he flicked the hazards back on and drove away.