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"Help! Fire!" Rorie Campbell cried as she leaped out of the small foreign car. Smoke billowed from beneath the hood, rising like a burnt offering to a disgruntled god. Rorie ran across the road, and a black and white cow ambled through the pasture toward her, stopping at the split-rail fence. Soulful brown eyes studied her, as if the cow wondered what all the commotion was about.
"It's not even my car," Rorie said, pointing in the direction of the vehicle. "All of a sudden smoke started coming out."
The cow regarded her blankly, chewing its cud, then returned lazily to the shade of a huge oak tree.
"I think it's on fire. Dan's going to kill me for this," Rorie muttered as she watched the uninterested animal saunter away."I don't know what to do."There was no water in sight and even if there had been, Rorie didn't have any way of hauling it to the car. She was so desperate,she was talking to a cow—and she'd almost expected the creature to advise her.
Rorie whirled around to discover a man astride a chestnut stallion. Silhouetted against the warm afternoon sun, he looked like an apparition smiling down at her from the side of the hill opposite Dan's car.
"Hello." Rorie's faith in a benign destiny increased tenfold in that moment."Boy, am I glad to see another human being." She'd been on this road for the past two hours and hadn't encountered another car in either direction.
"What seems to be the problem?" Leather creaked as the man swung out of the saddle with an ease that bespoke years of experience.
"I…I don't know," Rorie said, flapping her hands in frustration."Everything was going just great when all of a sudden the car started smoking like crazy."
"Steam! You mean the car isn't on fire?"
The man flipped the reins over his horse's head and walked toward the hood of the sports car.It was then that Rorie realized the man wasn't a man at all, but a boy. Sixteen,or possibly a little older.Not that Rorie was particular. She was just grateful someone had stopped. "A friend of mine insisted I drive his MGB up to Seattle." She sighed. "I should've known that if anything went wrong, I'd be at a total loss about what to do. I should've known…"
The boy whipped a large blue-starred hankie from the hip pocket of his faded jeans and used it to protect his hand while he raised the hood of her car.The instant he did, a great white cloud of steam swirled up like mist from a graveyard in a horror movie.
"I…thought I'd take the scenic route," Rorie explained, frantically waving her hand in front of her face to dispel the vapor."The man at the gas station a hundred miles back said this is beautiful country. He said I'd miss some of the best scenery in Oregon if I stuck to the freeway."Rorie knew she was chattering,but she'd never experienced this type of situation before or felt quite so helpless.
"It's not only the best scenery in the state, it tops the whole country, if you ask me," the boy murmured absently while he examined several black hoses beneath the raised hood.
Rorie looked at her watch and moaned. If she wasn't in Seattle before six,she'd lose her hotel reservation.This vacation wasn't starting out well—not at all. And she'd had such high expectations for the next two weeks.
"I think you've got a leak in your water pump," the teenager stated, sounding as though he knew what he was talking about."But it's hard to tell with all that fancy stuff they got in these foreign cars. Clay can tell you for sure."
"Is he a mechanic?" Rorie's hopes soared.
"He's done his share of working on cars, but he's not a mechanic."
Rorie gnawed on her lower lip as her spirits plummeted again. Her first concern was getting to a phone. She'd make the necessary arrangements to have the car repaired and then call the hotel to ask if they'd hold her room. Depending on how close she was to the nearest town, Rorie figured it would take an hour for a tow truck to arrive and then another for it to get her car to a garage. Once there, the repairs shouldn't take too long. Just how hard could it be to fix a water pump?
"How far is it to a phone?"
The young man grinned and pointed toward his horse."Just over that ridge…"
Rorie relaxed. At least that part wasn't going to be much of a problem.
"…about ten miles," he finished.
"Ten miles?" Rorie leaned her weight against the side of the car.This was the last time she'd ever take the scenic route and the last time she'd ever let Dan talk her into borrowing his car!
"Don't worry, you won't have to walk.Venture can handle both of us.You don't look like you weigh much."
"Venture?" Rorie was beginning to feel like an echo.
Rorie's gaze shifted to the stallion, who had lowered his head to sample the tall hillside grass. Now that she had a chance to study him, she realized what an extraordinarily large animal he was. Rorie hadn't been on the back of a horse since she was a child. Somehow, the experience of riding a pony in a slow circle with a bunch of other six-year-olds didn't lend her much confidence now.
"You…you want me to ride double with you?" She was wearing a summer dress and mounting a horse might prove…interesting. She eyed the stallion, wondering how she could manage to climb into the saddle and still maintain her dignity.
"You wearing a dress and all could make that difficult." The boy rubbed the side of his jaw, frowning doubtfully.
"I could wait here until someone else comes along," she offered.
He used his index finger to set his snap-brim hat further back on his head."You might do that," he drawled, "but it could be another day or so—if you're lucky." "Oh, dear!"
"I suppose I could head back to the house and grab the pickup," he suggested.
It sounded like a stroke of genius to Rorie. "Would you? Listen, I'd be more than happy to pay you for your time."
He gave her an odd look."Why would you want to do that? I'm only doing the neighborly thing."
Rorie smiled at him. She'd lived in San Francisco most of her life. She loved everything about the City by the Bay, but she couldn't have named the couple in the apartment next door had her life depended on it. People in the city kept to themselves.
"By the way," he said, wiping his hands with the bright blue handkerchief,"the name's Skip. Skip Franklin."
Rorie eagerly shook his hand,overwhelmingly grateful that he'd happened along when he did. "Rorie Campbell."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"Me too, Skip."
The teenager grinned."Now you stay right here and I'll be back before you know it." He paused, apparently considering something else."You'll be all right by yourself, won't you?"
"Oh,sure,don't worry about me."She braced her feet wide apart and held up her hands in the classic karate position. "I can take care of myself. I've had three selfdefence lessons."
Skip chuckled, ambled towardVenture and swung up into the saddle. Within minutes he'd disappeared over the ridge.
Rorie watched him until he was out of sight, then walked over to the grassy hillside and sat down, arranging her dress carefully around her knees.The cow she'd been conversing with earlier glanced in her direction and Rorie felt obliged to explain."He's gone for help," she called out."Said it was the neighborly thing to do."
The animal mooed loudly.
Rorie smiled."I thought so, too."
An hour passed, and it seemed the longest of Rorie's life.With the sun out in full force now, she felt as if she was wilting more by the minute. Just when she began to suspect that Skip Franklin had been a figment of her overwrought imagination, she heard a loud chugging sound. She leaped to her feet and,shading her eyes with her hand, looked down the road.It was Skip,sitting on a huge piece of farm equipment, heading straight toward her.
Rorie gulped.Her gallant rescuer had come to get her on a tractor!
Skip removed his hat and waved it.Even from this distance, she could see his grin.
Rorie feebly returned the gesture, but her smile felt brittle. Of the two modes of transportation, she would have preferred the stallion. Good grief, there was only one seat on the tractor.Where exactly did Skip plan for her to sit? On the engine?
Once he'd reached the car, he parked the tractor directly in front of it."Clay said we should tow the car to our place instead of leaving it on the road.You don't mind, do you?"
"Whatever he thinks is best."
"He'll be along any minute," Skip explained, jumping down from his perch. He used a hook and chain to connect the sports car to the tractor."Clay had a couple of things he needed to do first."
Rorie nodded, grateful her options weren't so limited after all.
A few minutes later, she heard the sound of another vehicle. This time it was a late-model truck in critical need of a paint job. Rust showed through on the left front fender, which had been badly dented.
"That's Clay now," Skip announced, nodding toward the winding road.
Rorie busied herself brushing bits of grass from the skirt of her dress.When she'd finished, she looked up to see a tall muscular man sliding from the driver's side of the pickup. He was dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, and his hat was pulled low over his forehead, shading his eyes. Rorie's breath caught in her throat as she noticed his grace of movement—a thoroughly masculine grace. Something about Clay Franklin grabbed her imagination. He embodied everything she'd ever linked with the idea of an outdoorsman, a man's man. She could imagine him taming a wilderness or forging an empire. In his clearly defined features she sensed a strength that reminded her of the land itself.The spellbinding quality of his steel-gray eyes drew her own and held them for a long moment. His nose had a slight curve, as though it had been broken once. He smiled, and a tingling sensation Rorie couldn't explain skittered down her spine.
His eyes still looked straight into hers and his hands rested on his lean hips."Looks as if you've got yourself into a predicament here."His voice was low,husky—and slightly amused.
His words seemed to wrap themselves around Rorie's throat, choking off any intelligent reply. Her lips parted, but to her embarrassment nothing came out.