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More than anything, Lacey Delaney hated the darkof being alone in the dark. She wouldn't admit it to anyone, but at twenty-seven years old, she still slept with a bedside light on. It didn't always keep the nightmares at bay, but at least when she woke up, panicked and gasping for breath, she wasn't engulfed in utter blackness. Even now, sitting in the relative safety of her car, she had only to close her eyes to envision her father buried alive in a coal mining disaster so horrific that his body had never been recovered.
Maybe her friend, Julia, was right and she should just find herself a man to keep her so pleasurably occupied at night that she'd be too sated and tired to dream. Unfortunately, both her job as a design engineer for StarPoint Technologies and her overprotective mother kept her too busy to meet many eligible men. Katherine Delaney gave a whole new meaning to the term helicopter parent. She didn't just hover; she flew fully armed, ready to obliterate any obstacles in Lacey's path, or to extract her from any danger.
Now here she was alone, broken down in the middle of nowhere, with darkness pressing in on all sides. If her mother could see her now, she'd have a complete fit. The thought made Lacey smile. Her mother hadn't wanted Lacey to travel to Kentucky; had urged her to give the assignment to somebody else. Of course, the more her mother insisted that Lacey stay home, the more determined she was to go. Sometimes it felt as if the entire course of her life had been dictated by her mother's belief that something would happen to Lacey if she wasn't there to protect her.
Lacey understood the genesis of her mother's anxiety. She'd been just eight years old when her father was killed, and her mother lived in fear that something terrible would happen to Lacey, too. That worry hadn't diminished as Lacey grew older; if anything, it had ballooned into an irrational need to cocoon her against all dangers, real or perceived. And for a long time, Lacey had allowed it. But what had once seemed like parental concern for her welfare now felt like micromanagement of her life. More and more, Lacey found herself resenting her mother's intrusive habits.
She loved her mom, but she wanted to be free, to experience life, and all its pitfalls, on her own terms. She wanted to be taken seriously, and not viewed as someone who needed to be taken care of. Unfortunately, her small stature seemed to bring out a protective instinct in those she worked with, and Lacey was getting a little tired of insisting that she could do things on her own. So when StarPoint Technologies had offered the opportunity to field-test STAR, the new Subterranean Advanced Receiver unit that would become the latest technology in NASA's arsenal of global positioning systems, Lacey had jumped at it.
Her boss had been skeptical, since Lacey's experience was limited to the design lab. She had never before ventured into the field. But Lacey knew if she wanted to be respected as an engineer and a scientist, she needed to be familiar with all aspects of the job, including fieldwork. She just hadn't been prepared for how remote this particular field assignment would be.
The parking lot of the diner, where a short time ago she'd halfheartedly picked at a plate of meatloaf, was completely dark except for one light pole near the entrance. She'd been unable to pick up a signal on her cell phone, and was grateful that the owner of the diner had at least called for a tow truck before he'd snapped off the lights and locked the door, assuring her she'd be fine until Sullythe tow truck driver, she presumedarrived.
Sighing, she sat behind the wheel of her rental car and left the door open for whatever small breeze might happen by. God, it was hot. Of course, New England could get sticky in the summer as well, but it was only early June and already Kentucky sweltered with heat.
Resting her head against the seat back, Lacey listened to the night bugs in the surrounding trees and watched the tiny blinking lights of the seemingly hundreds of fireflies. Generally, the heat didn't bother her, but tonight was different. Tonight she would have to return to the pathetic little motel she had checked into earlier that evening, knowing she wouldn't sleep a wink. She wasn't a snob by nature, but the only other patrons she had seen were several itinerant coal miners who had been well on their way to getting completely drunk. Knowing a slim length of chain was all that prevented one of them from entering her room would ensure she slept with her clothes on. And to top it off, the room would be about a million degrees since the air-conditioning didn't work.
Her small carry-on bag sat on the passenger seat beside her, and now she dug through the contents, pulling out an emergency pair of panties and bracourtesy of her mom, just in case the airline lost her luggageand an eReader as she hunted for the bottled water she had stashed there earlier. Blowing a strand of hair from her face, she took a long swallow of the water and decided it would only be for one night. Tomorrow, she would meet with Sheriff Hathaway, her point of contact while she was in Black Stone Gap, and ask him to recommend somewhere to stay other than the seedy Blackwater Inn. If there was any other place, she thought glumly. The motel should have been named the Backwater Inn, because it was literally in the middle of nowhere. Her own frantic hunt through the phone book she'd found in the bedside table hadn't turned up any other hotels or motels in the area.
She reminded herself again that she wasn't here on vacation. Where she slept didn't matter. She had a job to do, and a dingy motel room wasn't going to deter her. StarPoint Technologies was under contract to NASA to develop a GPS unit that would operate underground, capable of sending and receiving signals through hundreds of feet of rock. Lacey had spent the past three years of her life designing and developing the unit, affectionately dubbed STAR.
Now that the development phase was complete, all that was required before they could turn the unit over to NASA was the final testing. For Lacey, this meant a chance not only to prove herself as a field scientist, but also to get out on her own. She could do whatever she wanted, within limits.
But Lacey was tired of limits.
She'd do her job, but she also intended to have some fun on this trip. Her friend Julia was right; allowing her mother to have so much influence over her life was unhealthy, no matter how good her intentions might be. This was an opportunity to spread her wings a bit and explore her own capabilities.
She'd spend three days with the local search-and-rescue team, demonstrating the use of handheld GPS units designed by her firm, and then one week at the local coal mines, testing STAR. But she'd also have some free time in which to sightsee. She'd spent part of the flight from Boston to Roanoke consulting her tourist book, considering the things she might do while she was in Kentucky. An evening pub crawl with free samples of Kentucky's finest bourbon sounded fun, but so did zip-lining over a forest canopy. Of course, how much free time she had depended on how smoothly the field tests went.
The opportunity to utilize the local coal mines to test STAR had been too good to pass up. Not only would the coal mines that riddled the area around Black Stone Gap provide a perfect test environment, but Lacey owed it to her father to ensure the unit worked deep inside the tunnels, where it could do the most good. If she could prevent even one miner from suffering the same fate as her father, she would be satisfied.
It seemed only minutes had passed when headlights swung toward her through the parking lot. Lifting her head, she peered at a large, beefy tow truck as it turned into the lot where she was stranded. It approached from the side and parked facing her door. The headlights bathed her in a blinding glare as she sat up and shielded her eyes.
She couldn't see who was in the driver's seat, but felt their scrutiny as if it were a palpable thing. She suddenly knew how a deer felt when caught in a car's headlights. Here she was, alone and vulnerable and out in the middle of nowhere, and she could only imagine who watched her from the cab of that tow truck. Lacey had completed a self-defense course in college and she had no doubt that she could take care of herself, but when she heard the opening and closing of the driver's door, it galvanized her into action. Better to be safe than sorry. Swiftly, she pulled her own car door shut and punched the lock down. A figure stepped into the light, silhouetted for a moment in the brightness.
Lacey's breath caught.
His body was lean and powerful, with broad, sloping shoulders and narrow hips. It was a body that turned a woman's thoughts instantly to sex. The light behind him shadowed his features, but she knew with a certainty they would be as arresting as his body.
He came closer, and as Lacey sat immobile, he leaned down to peer in at her. Her mouth fell open as she stared wordlessly into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. They weren't just your average blue, either. Even in the dim light she could see they were an opulent shade of blue-green that reminded her of tropical waters and warm, secluded beaches.
"Ma'am?" His voice carried low and clear through the car window, and she could see the concern in his eyes. "Are you okay?"
She recognized his voice as the man she had spoken to on the telephone earlier. She would have preferred to roll her window down to talk with him, but with the engine off, the power windows were useless. If she wanted to communicate, she would have to either shout through the glass, or open the door. Already, the air inside the car was suffocatingly hot. She studied him for a moment, and then drawing in a deep breath, pushed her door open but made no move to get out.
He stepped into the opening, bracing one hand on the roof and the other arm along the top of the door frame.He grinned down at her, a lazy this-must-be-my-lucky-night kind of grin. His teeth were white in the darkness of his face. He wore a faded black T-shirt that clung to his muscled torso, and from her vantage point below him, Lacey could see the impressive bulge of his biceps as he leaned into the car.
"You called for a tow truck?" Deep indents flashed in his lean cheeks. His voice was lazy and warm.
Lacey didn't know what was wrong with her. She couldn't seem to find her voice. "Um, yes." She gulped. "I did. My car doesn't seem to want to start."
She wasn't prepared when he suddenly crouched down beside her. Now he was eye level with her and she could see he had close-cropped, dark hair. Balancing on the balls of his feet, he edged forward and reached toward her legs.
"Mind if I take a peek?" he asked.
A surge of heat coursed through Lacey that had nothing to do with the outside temperature. For one wild, crazy second she was sure he was going to flip back the skirt of her little sundress and, heaven help her, she was going to let him.
But his hand went with unerring skill to the hood release located just under the dash, and only when she heard the popping of the catch did she realize she had been holding her breath. He rose to his feet in one fluid movement and rounded the front of her car to raise the hood, pulling a slim flashlight out of a back pocket.
Lacey sagged back against the seat. If she'd had a fan, it would have been working overtime to try and cool her suddenly flushed skin. He was, without a doubt, the most sinful-looking man she had ever seen, and she thought it had as much to do with the way he looked at her as it did with the way he looked.
She struggled to get a grip on her rioting thoughts. What was she thinking? A tow truck driver? She could almost see Julia doing a victory dance. Despite his amazing eyes, he was probably not much better than the leering, beer-swigging coal miners at the Blackwater Inn.
But an image of that leanly muscled physique came back to her, and she knew instinctively she was wrong. He wasn't at all like those men. He was the sort who would take his time with a woman, ensuring her pleasure before reaching his own. He would be assertive, playful and maybe even a little kinky. For one wild instant, her imagination surged. Images of a secluded mountain cabin and fur-strewn floors lingered in her mind. She envisioned him clearly, his tautly muscled body moving softly over her own in the darkness, murmuring husky words of encouragement against her throat, her lips
He came back around to her door and bent down, interrupting her wayward thoughts. "Ma'am, do you mind if I try to start her up?"
"Oh, of course not!" Unable to meet his eyes, Lacey scooted out of the car to stand out of his way.
She watched as he folded his long frame into the driver's seat and turned the key. Still nothing. He tried again, and then sat back for a moment, considering. Looking up at her, he gave her a lopsided grin.
"Looks like you're going to need my services, after all," he drawled.
Lacey's pulse reacted immediately. If he only knew.
Sensing those tropical water eyes on her, Lacey glanced at him. His expression held a heat that made her breath catch, and she knew in that instant that he was interested in her. Then he looked away, his features shuttered.
"Dodo you know what's wrong with the engine?" she asked, clearing her throat against the sudden restriction she felt there.
"Why don't I show you?"
Climbing out of the car, he indicated she should precede him, and her nerves jumped when he placed a hand at the small of her back to guide her. Just that light touch of his fingers seemed to burn through the thin fabric of her cotton dress. A tiny shiver rippled through her. She felt strange, all fluttery and anxious, and her heartbeat pulsed loudly in her ears. She felt shivery, yet flushed with heat. And all because this man had touched her.
He leaned over her engine compartment and flicked his flashlight into its dark interior. He spoke, and she listened to the warm, rich tones of his voice even as she admired the fit of his jeans across his backside. She envisioned those leanly muscled orbs cupped in the palms of her hands.