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Cammi Carlisle had been heading east on Route 40 since dawn, doing her level best to keep her mind on the road rather than the reasons she'd left Los Angeles. It would take Herculean strength and the courage of Job, too, to tell her father everything she'd done since moving away from Texas .
Sighing, she looked away from the rain-streaked windshield long enough to glance at the blue-green numerals on her dashboard clock. Fifteen minutes, tops, and she'd be home. Dread settled over her like an itchy blanket.
Her dad would never come right out and voice his disapproval of her decisions. Instead, he'd shake his head and say, "It's your life but I think you'll be sorry ."
He'd said it when she signed up for Art instead of Bookkeeping in high school, when she traded her scholarship to Texas U. for acting lessons at the community college, when she announced her plans to move to Hollywood and try her hand at acting.
Cammi sighed, wondering how old she'd have to be before her dad no longer made her feel like a knobby-kneed, silly little
From out of nowhere, came the angry blare of a car horn, the whoosh-hiss of tires skidding on rain-slicked pavement, the deafening impact of metal smashing into metal . Then came an instant of utter stillness, punctuated by the soft tinkling of broken glass peppering the blacktop.
Cammi loosened her grip on the steering wheel and took stock. She'd been traveling north, but her fifteen-year-old coupe now faced south in the intersection of Amarillo's Western Avenue and Plains Boulevardthe very corner where, thirteen years earlier, on a rainy night much like this one, her mother had died in a fiery car wreck.
Still reeling from the shock of the impact, Cammi stepped shakily onto the pavement. She didn't seem to be hurt, and prayed whoever was in the other car had been as fortunate. Not much hope of that, thoughthe vehicle reminded her more of a modern-art sculpture than a pickup.
The truck's side window had shattered on impact, making it impossible to see the driver. Gently, she rapped on the crystallized glass. "Hello hello? Are you all right in there?"
"I'm fine, no thanks to you," came the gruff reply.
The door slowly opened with a loud, protesting groan. One pointy-toed cowboy boot thumped to the ground, immediately followed by the other.
"Are you crazy?" the driver demanded as he stood and faced her.
Pedestrians had gathered on the street corners as the drivers of other vehicles leaned out of their car windows: "Anyone hurt?" one woman asked.
"Doesn't appear so," a male voice answered, "but I'm gonna be late, thanks to these idiots.. "
Good grief, Cammi thought. As if her reasons for coming home weren't bad enough, now she'd have to add "caused a car crash, smack-dab in the middle of town" to the already too-long list. Suddenly, she felt light-headed and grabbed the gnarled fender of the cowboy's pickup for support. He waved back the small crowd that had gathered, and steadied her, two strong hands gripping her upper arms. Crouching slightly, he squinted and stared into her eyes.
"You okay? Should I call 911?"
The dizziness passed as quickly as it had descended. Cammi shook her head. "No. I'm okay." And to prove it, she stepped away from his truck and smiled.
He thumbed his Stetson to the back of his head and looked her over from head to toe. Satisfied Cammi was indeed all right, he nodded and crossed both arms over his chest. "Did you even see that red light?"
Blinking as the cold October rain sheeted down her cheeks, she stared, slack-jawed and silent, as her gaze slid from his dark, frowning eyebrows to his full-lipped, scolding mouth. Not a bump or bruise, Cammi noted, not so much as a split lip. Thank God for that! "I-I'm sorry. I don't know what was."
He ignored her just as surely as he ignored the quickly thinning crowd. Muttering under his breath, he began pacing circles around what was left of their vehicles. "Is she blind?" he said, throwing both hands into the air. "Where'd she get her driver's license, in a bubble gum machine?"
Unlike her sisters and so many of her friends, Cammi had earned her license on the first try, and hadn't been involved in so much as a fender bender since. "I can see perfectly well, thank you," she snapped, "and there isn't a thing wrong with my hearing, either."
He looked up suddenly. Scrubbing both hands over his face, he expelled a deep sigh, then slid a cell phone from his jacket pocket. "Well," he said, flipping it open and punching the keys with his forefinger, "at least you're not hurt." Frowning, he gave her a second once-over.
If Cammi didn't know better, she'd have to say he looked downright concerned. "You are all right, right?"
Except for that brief dizzy spell.and Cammi thought she knew what was to blame for thatshe'd come through the accident unharmed. A quick nod was her answer.
Facing the intersection, he spoke quietly into the phone, shaking his head. He reminded her a bit of her father, what with his frustrated gestures and matter-of-fact reporting of the facts. He probably outweighed her dad by twenty pounds, all of it muscle, she decided, remembering the way his strong hands had steadied her moments earlier. The similarities made Cammi swallow, hard, knowing that the reprimand this cowboy gave her would pale when compared to the look of disapproval she'd see in her father's eyes once she got home. It would've been tough enough, bringing him up to speed on the reasons she'd left L.A.without this mess. Especially one so similar to the wreck that killed her mother. Especially considering that in his mind, this too, like so many other things, had been her fault.
Stubborn determination, she knew, was the only thing that stood between her and tears. But there'd be plenty of time for self-pity later, after she'd told her father about Rusty, about the
"Tow trucks are on the way," he said, interrupting her reverie. He snapped his phone shut, dropped it back into his pocket. "You look a little green around the gills," he added, wrapping those big fingers around her upper arm yet again. "Soakin' wet, too," he continued, leading her toward Georgia's Diner. And in a voice she couldn't describe as anything but tender, he added, "What-say you wait inside, where it's warm and dry, while I take care of things out here."
She hated to admit it, but she did feel a bit dazed and confused. Why else would she have so quickly and willingly followed his instructions?
As he reached for the door handle, Cammi considered the possibility that he was one of those multiple personality types raging mad one minute, sweet as honey the next. What if he'd just robbed a bank, and the accident had interfered with his getaway?
He held the door open and smiled. "Order me a cup of coffee, will ya?" He nodded toward the intersection. "I have a feeling I'm gonna need it once that mess is cleaned up."
Like a windup doll, Cammi went where he'd aimed her, wondering yet again why she was being so agreeable. It wasn't like her to let others tell her what to do. She chalked it up to the welcoming comfort of being in the restaurant where, as a teenager, she'd spent hundreds of hours, earning spending money for movies and mascara and the myriad of other things high school girls need.
"Hey, Georgia," Cammi said, stepping behind the counter to grab the coffeepot. "Mind if I help myself?"
"Well, as I live and breathe!" Cammi's former boss tossed her cleaning rag aside to add, "Look what the wind blew in!" Georgia wrapped Cammi in a warm hug, then held her at arm's length. "You sure are a sight for sore eyes, honey. Are y'home for a little visit? I'll bet your dad is just thrilled outta his socks. Every time that man comes in here, it's 'Cammi this' and 'Cammi that.'"
It stunned her a bit, hearing her father had spoken well of her. But Lamont London had never been one to air his dirty laundry in public. She waited for Georgia to take a breath. "I'm home to stay," she managed to say between hugs. "Had a little accident out there in the intersection, and that's why I'm"
"Accident? You okay, honey?" Georgia pressed chubby palms to Cammi's cheeks. "Let's have a look at you.. "
Cammi gave Georgia a one-armed hug, mindful of the hot coffee sloshing in the egg-shaped pot she held in her other hand. "I'm fine, but my car isn't. And neither is that cowboy's pickup truck." She took a step back and pointed toward the intersection. "I was told to wait in here while he 'took care of business.'"
"Well, now, will wonders never cease. A real-live gentleman, in this day and age!" Georgia walked toward the customer who'd just seated himself at the counter. "Glad to have you home, honey," she said, winking at Cammi. "You know where ever'thing is, so go right ahead and help yourself."
Cammi filled two mugs with coffee and carried them to a booth near the window wall. The overhead lights glinted from the narrow gold band on the third finger of her left hand. Sighing, she stared through the diner's window, watching the cowboy "taking care of things" out there. For all she knew, he could be arranging to steal her car and everything in it. Why had she so casually handed over control of the situation, when usually, she demanded to be in charge of her life?
Cammi groaned softly, knowing that wasn't even remotely true. No one in charge of her own life could have messed things up as badly as she had this time!
Maybe his soothing DJ-deep voice was the reason she'd obeyed like a well-programmed robot, or was it those greener-than-emeralds eyes? Or that slanted half smile? Or his soft Texas drawl ?
Fingernails drumming quietly on the tabletop, she sipped black coffee, watching as he talked with yellow-slickered police officers, as he scribbled on the tow truck drivers' clipboards, as he collected business cards. He pointed and gestured, nodded in a way she could only term efficient. No, she corrected, the better word was definitely manly.
Once both tow trucks drove off with their loads, he headed for the diner, big shoulders hunched and hands pocketed as he plowed through wind and driving rain. It suddenly dawned on her that the coffee she'd poured for him would be cold by now. Cammi hurried to the counter for a hot refill, and was just settling back into the booth when he walked through the door.
He shook rain from his hat and denim jacket and hung them on the pole attached to the seat back, then slid onto the bench across from her. "I, uh, owe you an apology."
Not a word about the trouble he'd gone to out there, about being drenched by the cold rain, about being without his truck for who knows how long.thanks to her. Cammi blinked and, smiling a bit, held up one hand. "Wait, let me get this straight I ran the red light, totaled your truck, and you're apologizing?"
His cheeks reddened and his brow furrowed. "Yeah, well, I went overboard. Way overboard." He wrapped both hands around his mug, then met her eyes. "Wasn't any need for me to get that hot under the collar."
She'd had plenty of time, sitting there alone, to toss a few ideas around in her head. His truck hadn't been a new model, and his clothes, though clean and neatly pressed, had a timeworn look to them. Which told her that, without his pickup he'd likely be hard-pressed for a way to get to work. No wonder he'd given her such a dressing-down! Now his quiet, grating voice and the haunted look in his eyes made her believe something far more serious than property damage had inspired his former grumpy mood.
"Let's make a deal," she suggested. "If the mechanic can get your truck back on the road in a day or two, then you can apologize for blowing things out of proportion." She grinned. "But I have a feeling that apology isn't going to be necessary, don't you?"
His smile never quite made it to his eyes, Cammi noted.
For an instant, she considered asking about that. Instead, she slid a paper napkin toward him. Earlier, she'd jotted her insurance agent's name and number and her own cell phone number on it. "Better drink up while it's hot," she said, pointing to his mug. Before he could agree or object, she tacked on, "I want to assure you the accident won't cost you a dime. It was my fault, completely, so if you need a rental car until your pickup is repaired, or if"
His mouth formed a thin line when he interrupted. "Thanks, but I'll manage." He held out one hand and cleared his throat. "Name's Reid, by the way. Reid Alexander."
She wondered if his skin was naturally this warm, or had the hot coffee cup heated it? "Cammi Carlisle," she said. It still seemed strange, saying "Carlisle" instead of "London." Deep down, she admitted her new last name wouldn't upset her dad half as much as the rest of what she would have to tell
"If you have a pen," Reid was saying, "I'll give you my phone number, too, in case your insurance agent needs it."
Cammi fished the felt-tip pen from her purse and watched as he plucked a napkin from the chrome stand-up holder on the windowsill. She liked the strong, sure lines of his handwriting, the firm way he gripped the pen. He had a nice face, too, open and honest, with look-straight-at-you green eyes that told her he was a good, decent man.
But then, she'd believed that about Rusty Carlisle, too at first.
"Hungry?" he asked as she tucked his phone number into her purse.
She didn't think she'd ever seen thicker, darker lashes on a man. "As a matter of fact, I haven't had a bite all day."
He raised an arm and waved. "Hey, Georgia," he called, grinning. "How 'bout a couple menus over here."
The husky redhead shot a "you've gotta be kidding" look his way, and propped a fist on an ample hip. "I don't remember seeing you come in here on crutches, honey, so unless your leg is broken, come get 'em yourself." To Cammi, she mouthed Men! and went back stacking clean plates behind the counter.
Reid chuckled. "Be right back," he whispered. "Wouldn't want to rile the cook."
"Right," Cammi agreed, "'cause y'never know what might end up on your plate."
She liked the way he walked like a man who knew who he was and where he was going in life. He leaned over the counter and grabbed two plastic-coated menus and exchanged a few words with Georgia. The good-natured tone of their banter told Cammi they knew one another well.