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In the sinking afternoon sunlight, Technical Sergeant Bill Hays pulled out of the parking lot of his apartment complex. As he drove onto Highway 98, he glanced at the clock on the new dashboard and frowned. Eight o'clock.
Surely the clock hadn't been properly set before he'd taken possession of his new Jeep. He glanced at the government-issue dive watch on his wrist and muttered. He was running even later than he'd thought.
It was bad enough that the two-week field exercise with his Special Tactics Squadron's Silver Team had made him miss his regular trip to his family home in Alabama, but a maintenance problem on the transport plane bringing him back yesterday had delayed his departure for a week's leave by yet another day. And the long debriefing had made him even later.
Hurlburt Air Force Base might have been the closest Special Tactics Base to his home in Mattison, Alabama, but he might as well have been at his last assignment in California, as difficult as it had been to get home lately. Since he'd been in Florida, it seemed as if circumstances had contrived to keep him away from home.
His late start would keep him from arriving before his mother went to bed. And the fifty miles or so of country road he had to traverse before he crossed the state line would make it impossible to save time. The roads wound and twisted enough in the daylight, but in the dark they were treacherous. He'd traveled these roads plenty of times, but as night had fallen, a thick, clinging fog had formed, making visibility next to nothing.
Hoping that each curve in the road would reveal a break in the fog and clearer conditions, he inched along.
Just after Bill drove into Alabama, he rounded a curve in the road and had to swerve sharply to avoid hitting something barely visible through the mist.
Bill slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt some twenty or thirty feet beyond the apparition. He blinked and looked back over his shoulder to see what he had missed. A girl materialized and loped toward him with a duffel bag in one hand and a backpack slung over her shoulder.
"What do you think you're doing out here in the middle of the road in the dead of the night?" Bill yelled as she reached the car. "I could have hit you."
She yanked open the passenger door without waiting for an invitation and tossed her bags over the seat to the back. "My old Volkswagen Beetle got me all the way through high school and nursing school, but it finally gave up a mile or so back. I was beginning to think that another car would never come along," she said breathlessly.
"You can't" Billy stopped himself. It was late, and they were in the middle of nowhere. "Get in," he muttered.
"Hi, I'm Darcy," she said, sticking out her hand as she slid onto the seat. "You aren't a serial killer, are you?"
"Bill Hays," he said, then laughed. "No," he finally managed between chuckles. "I'm one of the good guys according to Uncle Sam."
"Your uncle's recommendation works for me," Darcy said as she buckled herself in. "Where're you heading?"
Bill didn't know what to make of this unexpected passenger, and he wondered what had made her throw caution aside and hop into his car in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. "Mattison, Alabama," he said. "About three hours up the road."
"You came from Florida, then? Me, too."
He nodded, then glanced sideways at her. Darcy might have said she'd been through college, but she didn't look much older than fourteen in that T-shirt and jeans.
Her hair was short, wispy, and flew around her face as she spoke using animated gestures and expressions. She was clean-scrubbed and fresh-looking, with a delicate mouth that seemed very kissable.
Now, where had that thought come from?
Hadn't he just assured her that she could trust him? It might have been a long time since he'd been out with a woman, but he wasn't that hard up that he'd fall for the first one he came upon. The first one close enough to allow him to smell her perfume.
He had a hard-and-fast rule about remaining free of complications while he was in Special Ops, and this girlwomanlooked like a keeper. He had no room for a woman in his life. Hadn't he seen enough families torn apart because of the demands of the job? Not to mention families broken apart when the service member didn't come home. He would never leave a woman in the same desperate situation his mother had found herself in when his father had died too young and too poor. Or in the same dire straits his sister Lougenia was in when that skunk of a husband had left her.
Women were to be loved, protected, cherished. A man couldn't do a decent job of that if he was off attending to hot spots on the other side of the world.
He shook his head. If he continued to think about kissing her, he might not be able to trust himself. He drew a deep breath and cleared his throat, if not his thoughts. "Where were you going?" he finally managed after he realized that she hadn't said. She hadn't told him much other than that her car had broken down.
"Don't really know," she told him after what seemed to be a long, pregnant silence. "I just graduated nursing school, and I haven't quite figured out what to do with my life. I just knew I had to get away from my family and be on my own for a while."
Bill thought about that for a minute. Maybe her reluctance to talk about herself told him volumes more than if she'd prattled on. He shrugged. "I can take you to the next town," he allowed. "You can get a motel and somebody to tow and fix your car."
He wondered about this small woman who had apparently climbed into a stranger's car without a second thought. She was either desperate or stupid.
He glanced at her and decided that desperate was more the thing. He'd bet she was escaping an abusive family, and climbing into a car with a man she didn't know was probably preferable to going back to a situation she did.
"You sure you want to ride with me?" he wondered out loud before he put the car into gear.
She did what almost seemed to be a double take, then flashed a grin that seemed impossibly large from that small mouth. "I'm game," she said. "It beats walking."
Darcy settled against the seat and breathed in the wonderful, new-car scent. She had worried that she'd be picked up by some weirdo, and that she'd have to fight for her life. But the minute she'd seen the clean-cut man in the driver's seat, she'd known she'd be fine. As soon as her gaze had settled on his face, her doubts had vanished.
One look and she knew she'd be safe in his arms.
In his arms?
What had made her think that? The last thing she needed was to be thinking about another man, considering the close call she'd just had. No, as soon as they reached civilization, she was going to thank Bill Hays sweetly for picking her up, then she'd get out of his car and do her best to get on with the rest of her life.
Darcy risked a glance at the man driving, his eyes trained steadfastly on the dark road ahead. It was hard to tell much in the dim glow of the dashboard lights, but what she could see was pleasing to the eye.
He was young, maybe a few years older than she. His clothes were clean, and he smelled like he'd just come from a shower. Was he hurrying to meet a sweetheart?
If he was, Darcy thought, she was one lucky girl.
Though he'd made that remark about Uncle Sam, he didn't look much like a soldier. He looked like the college boys she'd known in school, a little bigger, maybe, and rougher around the edges. He wore jeans, faded but not too worn. His pullover shirt stretched tight across a broad chest, not too muscled, but lean and taut. Physical activities were obviously a regular part of his life.
"Say, Darcy," Bill said, interrupting Dar-cy's thoughts. "I took off without eating. I could sure use a burger or something. What say we stop in Brewton for some eats?"
Why was he asking her? Darcy wondered as they rolled into the marginally congested area of a small, country town. He was the one doing her the favor. She spotted the brightly lit sign of a familiar fast-food chain looming above the trees. Though she'd recognized the fast-food logo, she had yet to see a chain motel she was familiar with. After all, he was just supposed to take her to a motel so she could arrange to have her car towed.
There was no harm in stopping for a bite, though. Sure, she wanted to get as far away from Hurlburt and Dick as she could, but a ten-minute delay to grab a burger wouldn't make that much difference in the scheme of things.
"Thank you. I'd like that," she finally said. "I skipped dinner, too." And breakfast and lunch, thanks to pre-wedding jitters, she didn't say. Darcy pressed her hand against her stomach to silence the rumbling that Bill surely must have heard. Maybe that's why he'd decided to stop.
She felt her face grow hot, and Darcy thanked the powers that be that the car was dark, and Bill wouldn't see her red face.
Maybe he wasn't hungry at all, and he'd only decided to stop because of her noisy stomach.
"Let me buy your meal," Darcy suggested. "My way of thanking you for rescuing me. It's the least I can do."
She glanced over at him as they pulled into the parking lot. Hoo boy. His expression looked like a thundercloud on a sultry summer afternoon. She must have wounded his sense of macho. She shrugged. Tough. If he wanted to pay for his dinner, she couldn't stop him. But she wouldn't let him pay for hers.
Truthfully, she was too hungry to argue. She just wanted to eat. Anything to quell that empty feeling in her belly, not to mention her heart.