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Pain surrounded her pregnant stomach and sharpened with knifelike intensity. Darcy Rhodes swallowed once, twice, as the threat of hurling abated along with the cramp that had taken her so by surprise.
Sliding into the narrow, Tennessee mountain road's salt-rusted guardrail hadn't been fun, but at least she'd stopped with a fairly light, if jarring, jolt. For a split second mid-skid, she'd wondered if she would plunge right over the edge.
You just had to keep driving to make up for the pee stops, didn't you?
She collapsed against her Volkswagen's seat, barely daring to breathe for fear that the pain would return or, worse, the movement would cause the guardrail to break and send her hurtling down the mountainside. Before the cramp had hit she'd done little more than reassure herself that she hadn't been severely injuredall body parts were still attachedand all four wheels appeared to be on solid, if slippery, ground. But now
The passenger-side air bag had deployed on impact and sagged across the dash like a deflated balloon. Chalky powder filled the air, making her nose itch and her throat burn. Who wouldn't tense up and react to what had happened?
She took a deep, cleansing breath, coughing weakly because of the powder. The cramp was just that, a mixture of fright and the need to pee. A normal reaction. As soon as she twisted the keys in the ignition the car would start and she would be on her way once again, slowly but surely. The very first hotel she saw, no matter how dirty, smelly or disgusting, she would stop without a single complaint.
The steady stream of freezing rain quickly changed over to a sleet-snow mix, and she watched,dazed, while the little bits of ice globbed together on her windshield before slowly sliding toward the hood.
Ignoring the weather as best she could, Darcy grasped the keys and turned. Nothing. Not even a stutter. She tried again. And again. Nothing?
She stared out the moisture-blurred windshield, her mind too full to think clearly. Mostly because it flashed to the horror flicks she'd watched as a kid. She knew what happened to stranded motoriststhey were always the first victims. Back then she'd clamped her hands over her eyes to escape the scary parts, but there was no escaping this. When had she last seen a car? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? "They had better sense and stopped somewhere."
And now you're talking to yourself. Someone will be along soon.
But when? Darcy groaned, all too aware the passenger door was a lot closer than it had been five minutes ago, and shifted to find her cell phone. When she couldn't, she leaned over to peer into the dim abyss of the passenger floor, the shadow she cast negating the illumination offered by the overhead light. At least her air bag hadn't deployed and she hadn't hit the console between the seats. If she had, she could've broken a rib, and her baby
Not going to go there, she told herself firmly. "Everything is fine." Her thick coat and the pillow she used for comfort had cushioned the impact.
Finally spotting the phone lying near an empty sour-cream-and-onion chips bag, she managed to snag it, only to swear at the illuminated display. She shook the phone, held it up in various spots in the interior of the car, but the little bars indicating signal strength didn't budge.
Her mind chose that moment to flash on an image of the movie heroine having car trouble and a strange man appearing out of nowhere and offering to help, the bowie knife concealed until it's too late.
Darcy turned off the overhead light and stared out at the landscape revealed by her one remaining headlight. At least the battery still worked. It didn't power the heat, but she wouldn't have to sit in total darkness while her mind ran amok.
Cold seeped into the car with every gusty blow of wind, the battered little Bug rocking with the force. And when the bough breaks?
"Nothing's going to break. You're not going to"
Something struck the rear, the thump startling her so badly her breath hitched in her throat. What was that?
She jerked around to look out the back window, the side mirrors, but saw nothing. The wind in the trees? A twig or branch? The road was littered with them, the combination of the wind and precipitation wreaking havoc on the area. Just her luck, she would have to get lost in the stupid forest.
Darcy double-checked the locks on the doors. If she jumped and tensed at every little sound, she'd be a basket case in no time. Maybe music would help? She turned the knob. "And now a weather update " Two seconds after finding a station, she groaned. In typical weatherman style, they'd gotten it wrong. The forecasted dusting of snow was now a full-fledged winter-storm advisory, and she was right in the middle of it with a car that wouldn't start and no cell service.
Where was everyone? Surely there was someone out on the roads. "Where's a cop when you actually need one?" She shoved her hair behind her ear, but it sprang right back.
"Be prepared for the worst," the too-chipper radio voice added. "We're in for a doozy. Stay indoors and conserve heat. Power outages are being reported throughout the listening area, and repair crews are running behind. For further updates and information, stay tuned. Up next is everyone's favorite, 'Don't worry, be happy.'"
Darcy rolled her eyes and turned the radio off with an angry twist of the knob. This couldn't be happening. Seriously, how many people got stuck like this?
Bands of muscle began to contract, up her back and around her middle. No, no, no. This was not happening. It was too soon.
She fought the pain, tensing, then just as quickly tried to will the muscles lax. She was fine. They were fine. It was only a cramp. The phone in one hand, she rubbed her belly, noted that it was hard as a rock and getting harder, the ache in her back growing sharper and more uncomfortable. "It's just a cramp," she whispered, eyes squeezed tight. Slow, deep breaths. In and out. Calm. Soothing. She gave massages for a living, she knew soothing. She could do soothing. It was mind over matter.
"Just calm down. A car w-will be along soon, and "is just a cramp . Just an itsy-bitsy cra Ohhh!"
The phone clattered as it hit the floor. Her hands fumbled, finally latching on to the steering wheel. She squeezed hard, a low moan escaping her lips she couldn't have held back if her life depended on it.
Finally the contractionoh, God help her, they really contractions!subsided and that's when pure, unadulterated fear kicked in. No cell signal. Lost because of a wrong turn, stranded in the mountains in a snowstorm
in labor? "Oh, God, please. It's been a while. Okay, I know, it's been a long, long time, but please" She bit her lip, unable to deny the truth any longer. "Help me. I can't do this here. I can't do this alone. I need help. Please, I need help!"
Time passed, minutes blurring together as contractions came and went. She remained where she was, her grip tight on the wheel, eyes closed during the worst of the pain when it felt as though her body was being shredded from back to front. Oh, please. Please, please, ple
The pounding on Darcy's car roof scared her so badly she shrieked and leaned sideways in the bucket seat to escape. How had she missed seeing the headlights of the vehicle stopped beside her car?
I've told you a million times, child. Ask and ye shall receive. Believe and, if it's His will, you'll be just fine.
She blinked, dazed by the combination of pain, surprise and the memory of her grandmother's voice.
"Hey," a man's voice called, "you okay in there?" Bang,
"Need some help?"
"Please don't let him have a knife." Her pain-tensed body tightened even more when she spied the large shadow looming outside her window. But what choice did she have?
Hoping Nana was right, Darcy flipped the lock, fumbled with the handle and pushed weakly, but the door didn't budge. She hit it with her palm.
Apparently catching on that the door wasn't opening, the man yanked twice before it gave with a shattering explosion of ice. "Are you all right?"
Unable to respond because the contraction hit its peak, she bit her lip and shook her head because it was all she could manage.
"Are you hurt?" The man's tone was more insistent.
She reached out and grabbed his overcoat to make sure he didn't leave and the soft, expensive feel of the cloth registered at the same time the banded muscles finally loosened their grip on her body. She fell against her seat in relief.
The man bent into the car, effectively blocking the opening and shielding her from the worst of the weather. She caught a brief sniff of his cologne. The dome light above their heads didn't illuminate much, but she was able to make out dark, close-trimmed hair, thick brows, a longish nose and the shaded roughness of lightly stubbled cheeks. He had to be gorgeous, didn't he?
His lips were turned down at the corners in a concentrated scowl, his expression clearly worried and concerned rather than threatening. A little of her anxiety eased, but not all. If you sent me an angel, Nana, this one has black wings.
"Where do you hurt?"
"I I'm p-p Oh, no." She moaned when another contraction made itself known, and vaguely heard her handsome rescuer mutter something indistinguishable when he realized the lump between her and the steering wheel wasn't just the bulk of her coat.
She managed a nod, imagining she heard his deep voice squeak a bit there at the end.
"Okay, uh How far apart are the contractions?"
This pain ended fairly quickly and wasn't as intense as before. That was a good thing. Right? She released the air from her lungs in a gush. "They're c-close together b-but irregular."
A glove-warmed hand brushed the hair off her forehead. He had calluses on his fingers, not thick or abrasive but there; something she wouldn't have guessed him to have, given his expensive appearance.
"How far along are you? Any special conditions? Who's your doctor?"
She struggled to focus on the questions. "I I don't have a doctor. Not here. I'm on my way to Indiana." Her grip tightened on his coat. "I can't have the baby here!" She felt herself weakening, the fear she'd barely managed to keep locked away breaking free.
"Hey, no tears. Come on, sweetheart, don't do that to me," the man murmured. He brushed his thumb over her cheek.
The gesture had a calming effect, and even though her body ached and everything had gone wrong, she felt a connection with him.
Because he's the only thing standing between you and self-delivery. Did you even look for a knife?
"Stay still, okay? I'll go call for help. Don't move."
Like she could go anywhere else. The guy straightened and the door closed sharply, carried by the wind. The slam caused more ice to crack, and a small sheet slid down the windshield where it wedged beneath the wiper blade, obliterating her ability to see.
This was what it was like to suffocate. To feel hemmed in and confined, surrounded by darkness.
Melodramatic much? Just stay calm. All she had to do was keep it together and ignore the pain spreading along her back. Relax. Breathe. But what if the man didn't return? What if he went back to his car and drove away because he didn't want the responsibility of helping her? How many people would help her? Had it been someone else by the side of the road and her driving by, would she have stopped?
She gripped the steering wheel so tightly her fingers went numb. Then, as fast as it had come on her, the contraction ended, the tension subsiding to a dull ache.
Darcy huddled in her seat, cold in a hot and shivery, this-really-can't-be-happening kind of way. The baby would be fine. She had to believe that. She couldn't believe anything else because if she did
She caught a glimpse of movement in her peripheral vision, unable to believe what she was seeing. The man's vehicle was moving.
Darcy straightened in the seat, her heart racing out of control the way it had when she'd been the new kid on the merry-go-round the bullies had tried to sling off. She flattened her hands on the window. Pounded on the glass. Her sweaty palms left prints behind. "Wait! Wait, don't leave!"
But the large vehicle drove on.
Images came again. First Stephen, his parents, the storm and the accident. The baby and now this. She dropped her forehead to the cold glass, fighting the cramping sensation as long as she could.
I asked, Nana. I asked! What now?
The contraction leaped from cramp status to uncomfortable, this-really-hurts pain. What now?
All she wanted was to give her baby the best life possible, make up for screwing up the beginning of its life. A nice home, someplace safe. Maybe a nice guy somewhere down the line. To be the mother
You don't know how to be?
She wrapped her arms around her stomach and rocked. "Please don't leave me."