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The sweet, clean aroma of freshly harvested fields invaded the low-slung sports car as it flew along the narrow ribbon of road, its sun roof open to the autumn breeze. Tyler sucked in a deep breath, feeling the last of his tension drain away, as if a great weight had lifted from his chest. Finally.
When he'd walked out of the board meeting in Dallas, almost four hours ago now on this last day in a long and difficult week, his only thought had been to find some peace somewhere. For Tyler this meant shutting off his cell phone, climbing into his expensive cinnamon-red car and hitting the road for a good, long drive. Operating from sheer impulse, he'd headed north, avoiding the most well-traveled roads, and now he found himself in Oklahoma on Highway 81, a smooth, level two-lane stretch with little traffic for a Friday afternoon.
A blinking yellow light brought his attention to the dashboard. He depressed a button on the steering column and saw via a digital readout that at his current rate of speed he could drive exactly 8.9 miles with the fuel remaining in his gas tank. Time to pull over. A glance at the in-dash clock showed him that the hour had gone six already.
Glancing around in the dusky light of an autumn evening beginning to fade into night, he saw nothing but empty fields bisected with the occasional lazily drifting line of trees and railroad tracks running at twenty or thirty yards distant alongside the highway. Bowie, the last town he'd passed before crossing the Red River, lay many miles behind him to the south, many more than he could cover with the fuel remaining in the tank, anyway. There must be a local source of gasoline, however. People had to drive around here, didn't they? Wherever here was.
Tapping the screen of his in-dash global positioning system, Tyler noted that the small community of Eden, Oklahoma, some 2.3 miles ahead, offered a gasoline station. Confident that he would find what he needed there, he sped off.
Moments later, a female voice announced, "Right turn ahead." Seconds after that, the GPS intoned, "Right turn in two miles." Less than a minute later that changed to, "After two hundred yards, turn right. Then turn left."
Braking, he reached over and shut off the voice prompt. "Thank you, darlin'. I'll take it from here."
When he turned off the highway onto the broad, dusty street, given the appearance of the few buildings he passed, the whole place seemed deserted, and the quaint three-pump filling station that he pulled into some moments later proved no exception. The overhanging shadow of an immense tree all but obscured the faded sign that identified the station as Froggy's Gas And Tire.
Engine throbbing throatily, Tyler eased the sleek auto close enough to the door to read the posted business hours, which were 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Used to twenty-four-hour service, Tyler felt his jaw drop. Six to six? And closed on Sundays? Talk about turning back time.
Shaking his head, he tapped the GPS again and learned, to his chagrin, that the next nearest station could be found in Waurika, some 19 miles distant. A check on his fuel status showed a mere 6.1 miles left in his tank, thanks to his burst of speed back there, which meant The implications hit him like a ton of bricks.
Stuck! He was stuck in the middle of nowhere. At least until six o'clock in the morning.
His intent had been to get away from the fighting, arguments and manipulation for a while, not to disappear for a whole night. He hadn't brought so much as a toothbrush with him, let alone a change of clothing. Clearly, he had to do something.
Finding solutions had become his stock-in-trade. In fact, that very trait had prompted his father to choose him over his older sister and younger brother to head the family company, much to the angry disappointment of his siblings.
Tyler reached for his cell phone. As with most businessmen, the mobile phone constituted both a necessity and an irritant for Tyler Aldrich. In the ten months since he'd been named CEO of the Aldrich&Associates Grocery store chain, it had become more headache than help, giving his family unfettered access to his ear, into which they never missed an opportunity to pour complaints, arguments and increasingly shrill demands. No doubt by now they'd filled his mailbox with as many acrimonious messages as it would hold. Nevertheless, the phone was his ticket out of here. He'd simply call for assistanceor would have if he'd had service.
Tyler sat for several moments staring at the tiny screen in his hand, disbelief rounding his light blue eyes. He'd switch to a satellite phone the instant he got back to Texas!
Even as he wondered how the people around here got along without cell-phone service, the thought of satellites calmed him. The phone might not work, but the car's satellite uplink obviously did or he'd have no GPS. Duh. He hit the button on the dashboard and put his head back, waiting for the connection to be made and an operator's voice to offer help through a tiny speaker just above the driver's door.
After Tyler identified himself and stated his problem, the customer service rep assured him that help would reach him in four to six hours. Dumbfounded, Tyler began to shake his head, wondering how he might pass the time.
He looked around him. A sheet-metal fence enclosed what appeared to be a scrap yard, flanked on one side by the filling station and on the other by a small, shingled house with a tall, concrete stoop. The house stood as dark and silent as the station. Otherwise, Tyler would have been tempted to knock on the door in hopes of rousting the station's proprietor.
With no immediate options presenting themselves, he checked out the local accommodations via the GPS. He found just two listings, a café and the Heavenly Arms Motel.
He'd passed the motel on his way into town. Not at all up to his usual standards, it had appeared neat and clean, at least, but he could not quite resign himself to spending the night away from home when a tank of gas would have him on his doorstep beforehe checked his watch3:00 a.m. If he was lucky. Better check out that café and tank up on coffee.
A short drive around town revealed a liberal sprinkling of oil pumps across the landscape. One even occupied a bare patch of dirt next to the tiny city hall, a modern contrast to the three blocks of storefronts that seemed to comprise "downtown" Eden. Most looked as if they'd been built in the 1930s. And every one sat locked up tight as a drum, including the Garden of Eden café.
In fact, except for the old-fashioned streetlights and a few silently glowing windows of the modest homes lining the broad streets, Eden, Oklahoma, might have been a ghost town. That evoked an odd sense of loneliness in Tyler, as if everyone had a place to go except him. Well, he'd wanted peace and quiet; could be, he'd gotten more than he'd bargained for.
Easing the expensive sports car back out onto 81, he noted wryly a small sign that proclaimed, You're In Eden, God's Country And The Land Of Oil!
God apparently closed up shop at 6:00 p.m. sharp. Someone, thankfully, had forgotten to tell the local motel, though.
The low, lit sign that stood in a narrow patch of grass in front of the small motel glowed invitingly in the deepening gloom. The Heavenly Arms Motel, it read, Low Rates, Monthly, Weekly, Nightly. Family Owned And Operated.
Surely he could spend a few hours there. At the very least, he ought to find some information and possibly even assistance. All he needed were a few gallons of high-test, after all. Failing that, he could always get a room. He made a left just past the sign and pulled up beneath the overhang at the end of the main building, which looked more like a stylized ranch house than a motel lobby. A sign on the edge of the overhang proclaimed, Vacancy, which did not surprise him one bit.
Tyler killed the engine and got out of the car. The air held a crispness that he had not yet noticed in a Dallas October, which accounted for his lack of an overcoat. Bypassing a small side window to be used, according to the accompanying sign, after 10:00 p.m., Tyler followed a concrete ramp to the narrow porch that ran the length of the front of the building.
He opened the door marked Welcome and walked into a homey room complete with a polished wood floor, worn leather couches and, in the very center of the room, a six-sided game table surrounded by an equal number of chairs. A potbellied stove squatted in one corner. In another stood a chest-high, L-shaped counter with a pair of black painted doors behind it.
The far door bore a sign proclaiming it the office. The other door was marked Private. Through that door a young woman appeared mere seconds later, smiling as if greeting a lifelong friend.
"Hello. How are you?"
A pretty little thing with thick, light auburn hair that fell from a slight widow's peak in a long braid down the center of her back, she stood no more than average height, the comfortable jeans and faded chambray shirt beneath her white bibbed apron somehow emphasizing her slight frame, just as the widow's peak emphasized the shape of her face, a slender, slightly elongated heart.
Despite delicate features and a smattering of freckles across the nose, her finest assets were large, hazel eyesa vivid amalgam of gold, silvery-blue and muted green thickly fringed with platinum and framed by slender brows. She wore no cosmetics and no visible jewelry, but then she didn't need to. Such beauty required no accessory beyond wholesomeness, and that she possessed in abundance.
Tyler might have brusquely stated his problem, could even have complained. Instead, he found himself returning her smile, a sense of delight eclipsing his irritation. Natural, well-used charm effortlessly oozed forth.
"Since you asked," he replied lightly in answer to her question, "I'm stranded. Yourself?"
Her smiled widened, and his spirits unaccountably lifted.
"Never better, thank you."
She untied the strings around her slender waist and lifted the apron off over her head before neatening the rolled cuffs of her long sleeves. Her thick braid swung over one shoulder, and her waist nipped in neatly where her shirt tucked into the band of her jeans. Tyler abruptly found himself thinking that he might as well spend the night.
For once he didn't have a Friday-evening engagement. Maybe, he thought, he'd even forget tomorrow's plans and stay the whole weekend. Why not? Might do his contentious family some good to wonder where he'd gotten to.
His mother didn't need an audience in order to complain about his late father's grasping second wife, anyway, and his sister and brother would just have to argue between themselves. He didn't give a second thought to the luxury stadium box where he routinely hosted guests less interested in professional football than in being seen with the right people, none of whom would ever think to look for him here.
For the first time in memory, he could simply let down his guard and be. It almost seemed foreign, such relaxation. Yet he shoved aside the niggling thoughts of responsibility, albeit responsibilities he'd strived to earn and fought to keep. Sometimes, responsibility just seemed to weigh too much. He deserved a little break, and Eden, it suddenly seemed, really did exist.
At least for the moment.
Charlotte recognized money when she saw it, especially when it stood right in front of her. One got used to all sorts in this business, from the most hopeless and downtrodden of God's children to the most flagrantly unlovable, and in her experience, those with the most money often fell into the latter category. They came in demanding more than they surely knew they could expect and often went away angry and dissatisfied, in spite of her best efforts to provide what they needed. That possibility was not what disturbed her about this particular gentleman, however.
For some reason, with barely a flick of his pale blue gaze, he made her nervous, self-conscious in ways she hadn't felt in years. Tall and fit with stunning pale blue eyes and thick, dark hair that swept back from his square-jawed face in subdued waves, he differed significantly from their normal clientele.
For one thing, she'd rarelyokay, neverseen such a well-dressed, well-groomed gentleman. Oh, more than one well-heeled type had wandered in after finding themselves stranded, usually in the middle of the night, but something told her that even those folks operated in a social strata below this particular guest.
Other than that, though, she couldn't really put her finger on what made him so different. She only knew that he undoubtedly was, which did not mean that she would treat him any differently than she treated anyone else. Just the opposite, in fact. Her Christian principles demanded nothing less.
She ratcheted her smile up another notch and asked, "How can I help you?"
He sighed, making a rueful sound. "Unless you've got a few spare gallons of gasoline around, I guess I'll be needing a room for the night."
No surprise there. She'd heard this story before. Obviously, he should've kept a closer eye on the gas gauge. Giving her head a shake, she jerked a thumb over one shoulder.
"Sorry. That old truck out back runs on diesel. The room I can manage, though, if you can do without a kitchenette." She plunked down a registration form and pen, explaining, "Our regulars prefer them, so they're almost always taken."
"Regulars?" He sounded surprised, even skeptical.
"Most are oil-field workers who come to town periodically to service the local lines and pumps."
"You've got plenty of those around," he murmured, scribbling his information on the form.
"We sure do," she replied, taking a key from the rack hidden beneath the counter. "You're in"
"Oil country," he finished for her, glancing up with a smile. "Or is that God's country?"
"Both," she confirmed with a smile, "but I was going to say number eight. Back row, south end. That's to your right. Your covered parking will be to the left of your door."
"Covered parking," he mused, clearly pleased by that.
"That'll be forty dollars and sixty-six cents, including tax."