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Except for that trip to Yellowstone with her parents the summer she turned nine, Angela Adams had never ventured north of the Colorado state line into Wyoming. Had never taken 1-80 west into unfamiliar territory. Certainly not to propose marriage to a man she'd never met.
Fumbling with the map, hastily scribbled on a napkin, she tried to decipher her own handwriting. "Water pump mailbox?''
The answer appeared on her left, a weathered mailbox mounted on an old wrought-iron pump. The missing letters made the name impossible to read. Ignoring the clamor in her head telling her to keep driving straight through the Cowboy State, she slowed to take the unmarked dirt road.
Life so far had been a series of bad choices. Whether she was on the right track now or taking another wrong turn was hard to know. Several bumpy miles later the tires of Grandma Shirley's pink 1980 Cadillac Seville rumbled over a cattle guard, jolting Angela back to reality.
With enough steam rising from beneath the hood to rival Old Faithful, Angela pulled to the side of the road before the engine could vapor-lock on her again. Her grandmother may have been a top-selling Mary Kay rep to win this car, but that was more than thirty years ago.
Long before Angela was born.
The sloped trunk gave the Caddy the look of a classic Rolls Royce, but there was vintage and then there was old. With a sigh of resignation Angela shut down the engine.
She'd seriously underestimated the amount of coolant needed to get her this far. Resisting the urge to drop her head to the steering wheel, she popped the catch for the hood and stepped into the crisp air of a mid-November afternoon.
Once she'd rounded the car she raised the hoodand choked on the smell of burned crayon. With the red rag from her jeans pocket she tested the too-hot-to-handle radiator cap and
The first ping got her attention. The second, definitely a gunshot, had her ducking for cover behind the Caddy's shiny grill.
Heart pounding, Angela glanced over her shoulder at the bullet-ridden no trespassing sign swinging from a rusted-off-its-hinges cattle gate, half-hidden in the scrub. Granted, the sign was several yards to her right, but she'd never been downrange of gunfire before.
Her recruiter wouldn't have sent her here were she in any real danger. Would he? He'd merely said, "i might know a guy.'
On the off chance that this "guy" with no cell phone and no computer would say yes to her proposal, she'd driven four hundred miles with a leaky radiator and next to no gas money in her pocket. She'd need more than a couple well-intentioned warning shots to scare her off.
She'd left Denver with little more than the guy's name and whereabouts written on the back of her recruiter's business card. But in the town of Henry's Fork, where she'd stopped for further directions, folks had warned her he'd likely shoot first and ask questions later.
Angela raised the dirty red rag. She didn't have a white one to signal surrender.
When he didn't shoot the rag out of her hand she took it as a good sign. In case it wasn't, she got out her cell phone and searched for a signal so she could call for help. She didn't know how long she crouched by the carbut several hundred heartbeats passed. Was she supposed to just wait him out?
She glanced at her smartphone. Not so smart. Still no signal.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep enough breath to give herself the courage to stand, and moved from the relative safety of the Cadillac, her hands held high. "I'm coming out! Please, please don't shoot."
Surrounded by barren trees, she scanned the bluffs. No sign of life anywhere. Even the dry creek bed appeared dead. A lone brown leaf blew from one rock to the next. Dressed in her Ugg boots and matching suede and lamb's wool vest, Angela stood in the middle of the dirt road, unsure of her next move.
This was by far her dumbest idea to date. And the longer she stood there, rag and phone in the air, the more she proved that.
What was he waiting for? Was he watching her now?
The wind kicked up and she shivered. "You can put your hands down, darlin'." Angela whirled.
The one-eyed grizzly bear of a man wore mud-colored camouflage and cradled a military-grade rifle with a high-powered scope in hands sporting fingerless rawhide gloves. As big as he was, he'd somehow sneaked up along the passenger side of the car.
Well, at least he wasn't pointing his weapon at her. "You should put that away before someone gets hurt," she said.
"Missed you by a mile." He propped himself against Shirley's prized possession and drilled Angela with his single-eyed stare. "Then again, my aim ain't what it used to be."
She shifted her gaze from his piercing-blue left eye to the black patch over his right. With his overlong hair hanging in his face and his overgrown beard shading the rest of it, she couldn't read his expression. But he had to be kidding, right?
Civilized people didn't go around shooting each other.
Oh, waityes, they did. And he fit the stereotype. Ex-military. Loner. "But he was always so quiet," the neighbors would say when the media interviewed them. What had the townspeople called him? The Hermit of Henry's Fork?
The guffaws of the old men sitting at the counter in the diner, drinking their coffee black and eating their pie a la mode, mocked her now. "We tried to tell her."
She glanced at the sign. "You dotted the i in no trespassing from what, a good two hundred yards out?" She had no idea what she was talking about. Except her dad had taken her to a rifle range once.
"Nice to know you can read. The private property signs start a mile back. Once your car cools down I expect you to turn around and get yourself headed the right way."
So much for small talk.
Angela twisted the rag in her hands. "I'm not lost."
"What are you, then?" He eyed her curiously. "Looking for you."
"I'm not a novelty act, darlin'. You need to get the hell off my property." He pushed away from the Caddy and continued in the direction Angela had been driving. As he passed the sign, he tapped it with the butt end of his rifle. "I wasn't aiming to dot the i. Next time I won't miss."
Under different circumstances she might have let him scare her off. His calmness seemed even more dangerous than his weapon. But she'd come to know the worst kind of fear: desperation. And she'd driven too far to give up now. "please, Hatch!"
He ground to a halt. "Do we know each other?" Even if he hadn't emphasized the word know,
Angela would have felt his meaning in the way he looked at her. As if every inch of her was his for the taking. Heat crept into her cheeks as she shook her head.
"Who sent you?" His question and the way he scanned their surroundings showed an edge of paranoia.
He moved in so close she had to scrunch her nose. He smelled earthy. And that was being kind.
Was this really the man she wanted to marry?
Building hysteria bubbled at the back of her throat. Did what she want matter anymore? A short laugh escaped. "Nobody."
He cocked an eyebrow. "Liar."
Startled by the clarity of his gaze, she found herself searching his face. If eyes were the windows to the soul, then his was dark and stormy. But not out of touch with reality.
His pupil appeared normal. Black like onyx and in sharp contrast to the cobalt-blue iris, somehow softened by spiky black lashes.
"Don't make me ask you again."
An unexpected jolt of electricity shot through her at the intensity of his stare. "My recruiter thought maybe you'd help me."
"Ah." He took a step back and studied her with renewed interest. "Help you how?"
"I need a husband."
"And I'm supposed to find one for you?" The rag in her hand became a tangled knot. "You're the one." Her words sounded more like a question than a statement.
He let out a snort, but at least he'd found some humor in her announcement. "Tell my buddy Bruce Calhoun that's the best laugh I've had in a long time. Thanks, but no thanks. I don't need a wife."
"It's not like I want an actual husband." She recoiled at the thought. "Just a piece of paper that says I have one. To enlist."
So much for appealing to, what, his sense of duty? patriotism? pride?
Loyalty to the gunnery sergeant who'd sent her here? Why would the man standing here, or any man for that matter, marry her so she could join the Marine Corps? He'd have to be loony.
And while this might be debatable she hoped he wasn't that crazy. Just crazy enough to say yes.