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It was a conspiracy of darkness. What with the gloom of the skies, the heaviness of the rain, the narrowness of the road and a preoccupation with his own somber thoughts, Doug Donohue never saw the motorcycle until it had rounded the curve and skidded sidelong into him. He swerved onto the muddy shoulder of the road and slammed on his brakes, but it was too late.
Within seconds he was out of the car and running back the several yards toward where the cyclist lay. "My God!" he exclaimed, then more softly under his breath, "Damn fool kid!" when he caught sight of the slender form beneath the bulk of the Suzuki. With strong hands he levered the heavy motorcycle up. "Are you all right?"
Setting the damaged vehicle aside, he knelt down just as the cyclist's head moved. "Wait!" he commanded. "Be careful! If it hurts, don't move!" A quick perusal of the prone figure showed neither sign of blood nor the grotesque posture that might suggest a bone break. When the head turned again and a shaky hand moved toward the helmet, he got there first, unhooking the strap, sliding the visor up, then pausing and quite helplessly catching his breath.
The face bared to his gaze had to be the most delicate and feminine, not to mention the palest he'd ever seen. "My God!" he exclaimed again, though in a whisper this time. By sheer instinct he smoothed the thick fall of auburn bangs to the side, to expose gentle features to the rain's ministration. Heart pounding, he watched wide-set eyes flicker, then open.
It took Sasha Blake a minute to focus. Stunned, she blinked. The world was an amalgam of darks and lights, the shadows of trees andhedgerows, a nearby automobile, the contrasting glare of an overcast sky. She'd been riding home. Her front tire had hit something. She'd skidded, then slammed into a car. Now she was on her back on the road. Eyes widening, she turned her head toward the figure kneeling beside her. Then, brought to full sense by the steady patter of rain on her face, she struggled to sit up.
"Wait!" the dark figure by her side commanded, a firm hand at her shoulder restraining her. "Maybe you shouldn't"
"I'm all right!" she moaned, ignoring small twinges of pain to shift cautiously in search of more serious damage. Her arms worked, as did her legs, though when she tried to curl them sideways to prop herself more steadily, she couldn't suppress a whimper.
"Something hurts?" the deep voice demanded instants before long fingers closed over the taut muscles of her thigh and probed carefully down the slim length of denim. Skipping to her other leg, they repeated the exploration.
"Everything hurts," she murmured, her breath coming faster as the enormity of what had happened hit her. She'd nearly been killed! Had she been inches farther to the left it would have been a head-on collision. Feeling suddenly hot and faint, she mustered as much strength as she possessed to shove the helmet from her head. The rain, her enemy earlier when it had come so suddenly and with such force that her ride home from North Tisbury had become an ordeal, was suddenly, almost patronizingly refreshing. She was only marginally aware of the arms that supported her when she swayed, of the broad chest against which her head was momentarily cradled. By the time she regained her equilibrium, the support was gone.
"It doesn't look like anything's broken," the voice came less gently. "And we'd be a damn sight drier in my car. Can you make it?"
Stunned or not, Sasha was hesitant. The sooner she could be on her way, the better. "No. I mean, yes! I can make it. But I'm fine." Experimentally she flexed the taut muscles of her neck by slowly swiveling her head. "If you could just help me get the Suzuki up" she gasped as she put a hand down and tried to stand "I'll be on my way."
It was the strong arm around her ribs that got her to her feet. "You can't get back on that damned cycle. I'm taking you to the hospital."
"No hospital!" she cried, imagining the spate of publicity such a visit would cause. In her three years on the Vineyard she'd successfully maintained a low profile. She wouldn't blow that now. "I don't need a hospital. I'm fine!"
"Fine?" was the harsh retort. "Then what's this?"
To Sasha's horror, her rescuer took her hand and turned it until she could see the raw heel covered with blood. Fighting a flash of dizziness, she struggled to keep her knees from buckling. Her voice was a distant, ragged protest.
"It's a scrape. It doesn't hurt. Really." Even as she whispered the last word she was being lowered out of the rain into the passenger's seat of a plush sports car. "But my Suzuki ."
"I'll set it off to the side of the road," he growled. "It can be picked up later."
"I want it now! Really! I'm all right!"
Wondering at the stubbornness of the woman, Doug worked his way back through the rain to the disabled cycle. Pulling it erect, he wheeled it to the roadside.
"Wait!" she cried, stumbling after him. "Is it badly damaged?"
"I thought I put you in the car," he snapped, his glower made all the more forbidding by the rain dripping freely from his dark hair.
Sasha managed to tear her eyes from his ominous expression to peer at her motorcycle. "The worst is the front wheel, I guess," she said shakily, then grimaced. "But look at the rest. It's scratched up pretty badly."
"Humph." If she was well enough to worry about damages, he decided, he had a word to add on that score. "You wanna see scratches? Take a look at my car!"
Horrified, Sasha wheeled around. The sudden movement made her dizzy, and she stumbled as she went back to study the jagged tracks marring the Maserati's otherwise smooth flank. Shaking rain from her fingers, she traced the ugly grooves. "I'm sorry," she whispered, then looked up at the man who had come to join her. For the first time she was struck by his height, which was accentuated by the breadth of his shoulders as he loomed above her. His hair and face dripped, his leather bomber jacket was sodden, his hands were clenched on hips covered by denim nearly as drenched now as her own. Slightly intimidated, she took a breath. "I'll cover the cost."
Ignoring her offer, Doug shot an angry glance at the spilling clouds. "This is ridiculous!" he breathed. "Get in the car!" He grabbed her elbow to enforce his command, but she winced. With a soft muttered oath, he released her to place a more gentle guiding hand at her back.
Each step made Sasha more aware of the battering she'd taken as her cycle had skidded those few yards with her between it and the road. Her ankle ached as she walked, her hip and shoulder throbbed. When once again she found herself seated in the Maserati, she dropped her head back and closed her eyes. In delayed response to the shock of the accident, her limbs began to shake. Yet her mind was alert. No sooner had Doug climbed behind the wheel when she spoke.
"I will cover the expenses. I mean that."
"I've got insurance."
"But it was my fault. I was the one who barreled into you."
"Now that you mention it, why in the hell were you racing? In case you hadn't noticed, it's pouring out there."
Feeling her first flare of testiness, Sasha sat straighter. "I wasn't racing. And of course I knew it was pouring. I was out in the stuff, or hadn't you noticed!"
He cast a wry look at his saturated clothes. "Oh, I noticed all right. I'd planned on staying dry." His gaze shifted, then narrowed. "Damn. Look at that hand." Reaching across her to the glove compartment, he withdrew a small towel. "Here. This is clean. Press it to your hand while I drive." With a grunt, he started the engine. "Now where's the nearest hospital?"
After no more than a moment's pause, during which Sasha decided that his question made him an off-islander, she gestured stiffly with her head. "It's back that way. You've got to return to Menemsha Cross Road, then cut over to South."
Three deft moves reversed the car's direction. Within minutes Doug was headed back toward where he'd come from. Jaw clenched, he wondered how he'd managed to get himself into yet another sticky situation. Hadn't he left New York in search of peace? Wasn't Martha's Vineyard supposed to have that? It had been bad enough when the skies opened, he mused. Charming as they were, the narrow island roads were treacherous in a downpour, and he'd practically slowed to a crawl. Then, to have this woman plow her cycle into his car . Peace? Hah!
"What were you doing out there anyway?" he growled.
On the defensive, Sasha raised her chin. "Visiting friends in North Tisbury."
"And you don't have a car, or access to one?"
"It wasn't raining when I left this morning. For that matter, it wasn't even raining twenty minutes ago! It just came."
"So you decided to speed on home?"
"Look," she breathed unevenly, "I've said that I'll pay for whatever repairs are needed on your car. But please. No lectures. You can take my word for the fact that I didn't run into your car on purpose. You can also take my word for the fact that I'm a responsible person and that I didn't want, didn't need this any more than you did!" The gingerly way she pushed a long strand of wet hair up into the catch at the top of her head illustrated her point. Her voice grew more weary. "Something happened. I don't know what it was. I must have hit a stone or something going around that curve ."
Her voice trailed off and she frowned, staring out the rain-smudged windshield. If only her imagination weren't as fertile. But then, her imagination was her stock and trade. Unfortunately, it did nothing but frighten her now. Of course she had hit a stone. Or a piece of glass. Or a nail. And if the incident was reminiscent of Autumn Ambush? Pure coincidence. A simple blowout, that was all it had been. "Make a left here," she murmured, forcing her thoughts along a saner route. Yet the fingers holding the towel to her palm were white knuckled and her expression was grim.
Doug drove in silence, the rhythmic slap of the windshield wipers echoing his vacillation between worry for, then annoyance at his tight-lipped passenger. Hesitant to take his eyes from the road, he saw her from the corner of his eyeher body drawn into itself, wayward strands of hair plastered to her neck, one hand clutched to the other, her eyes straight ahead. She was a soggy water rat; she was a lost and injured lamb. She was a hazard on the road; she was an innocent victim herself. However he viewed it, though, she was the last thing he'd needed in kicking off his new life. He wanted nothing more than to deposit her at the hospital emergency room and be done with it. Actually, he amended, squinting with impatience at the roadway ahead, he wanted nothing more than to find the hospital.
"Where is the damn place?" he mumbled half to himself, then cast an anxious eye at Sasha.
"Almost there," she returned. "Go left up ahead."
He slowed at the crossroad, turned left and accelerated. Sasha winced at the slight jolt to her bruised body, but caught herself in time to say, "There's a road coming up on your left." Her voice sounded weak and tired. She felt cold and wet, and wanted only to submerge her aching limbs in a hot bath and stay there forever. "Here," she directed, pointing with her uninjured hand. "Turn here and go straight for a bit. You'll be coming to a fork in the road. Make a right at the fork and we're all set."
Doug turned the small car onto a road even more narrow than the first. As the car jounced over several bumps, he shot a glance at his passenger to assess her condition. Her face remained pale, her jaw tight. "I don't believe this!" he exploded anxiously. "What kind of civilized place hides its hospital down long bumpy roads?"
"You haven't been here long?" Sasha ventured, relieved as the route leveled and smoothed, and the physical punishment subsided.
"Not quite," was the terse response. Attention riveted to the muzzied view beyond his windshield, he managed to spot the fork and bear right onto a road that, though narrow, was well kept. When soon after he found himself in the circle of a deadend drive, he was forced to stop. "What the this isn't a hospital!" He turned his eyes from the single-storied rambling farmhouse to see Sasha slip stiffly from the car.
"It's my house," she answered quietly. "Thanks for the ride. As soon as you get an estimate for the repairs to your car, drop me a note. The name's Sasha Blake." Before he could get in a word, she slammed the door and, head bowed against the rain, started at an uneven trot up the stone walk.
Doug was out of the car and halfway up the walk when the front door closed behind her. Stopping in his tracks, momentarily oblivious to the rain, he stared. She'd tricked him. In her own quiet, insistent way, she'd tricked him! Momentarily indignant, he wondered if he should go after her. Perhaps he should insist she have a hospital checkup. After all, if she'd broken a bone or done some kind of internal harm, she could sue him. That was all he'd need. New town. New home. New lawsuit.
Shaking his head in renewed admiration at how silently she'd bested him, he turned and headed back to his car. He doubted she was seriously hurt; he hadn't felt a thing out of place when he'd touched her. Nor did he truly fear she'd cause him trouble. To the contrary. She seemed more than eager to put the entire incident behind her. There was something quiet, something private, something somehow off limits about her.
Puzzled, he started the car, turned in a wide arc and headed back toward the main road. Sasha Blake. Sasha Blake. Her name had a pretty ring to it. It was pixieish, like her. Small and elusive. And wily. It had been a long time since a woman had sidestepped him as skillfully as she'd done. His lips curved at the corners in a subtle smile of appreciation. If Sasha Blake was an example of what he was to find on Martha's Vineyard, his man-in-control image was apt to be well tarnished before long. Strange, he observed, that that thought didn't bother him as once it might have done. Strange how he felt lighter. Strange how Sasha Blake, accident and all, had knocked those darker, more serious thoughts from his mind.