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They say life imitates art.
Which wouldn't have been so bad if I'd met a hot guy like Shaelynn did in my story. But no. My life imitated art because on my way to Sonoma the next day, my car broke down.
Worse, the lock on my SUV was busted because I hadn't taken the car in to the dealership to get it fixed after some creeps had vandalized it last week. So all that I owned sat on the shoulder of Highway 1, just south of Bodega, California. Any thief who came by would have the easiest job everif he happened to be interested in my prized collection of bonsai plants or size-eight flip-flops in every color known to man.
Yet as I walked up the road, the winter sun shining on my shoulders to tinge my fish-belly skin a lively pink, I knew the potential loss back at my used vehicle was not the worst of this day. My cell phone battery had died, so I couldn't call for help. Or make sure Damien Fraser had gotten the text I sent just before my phone died, saying I'd be late for our appointment. Now, I would miss the meeting with the owner of a property I'd been dying to purchase. It was a little plot of land with a perfect-sized building, on which I'd pinned all my hopes for the future.
I'd driven six and a half hours with my entire life packed into the back of that SUV in the hope I'd relocate up here. That I'd be able to move right into the charming little structure that had once served as a farm stand, close to a main road. I would rent it from the owner before the closing, and start fixing it up to be the tearoom of my dreams. Unrealistic? Maybe. But in his Craigslist ad, Damien Fraser had sounded very interested in unloading it ASAP.
Plus, I had a respectable down payment. I carried a cashier's check for 10K in my backpack, thanks to my Gutsy Girl winnings. Thieves would have done better to rob me as opposed to my SUV. I'd been careful not to touch a cent of the money after winning, knowing it was my ticket out of Los Angeles and out of the spotlight.
But now, thanks to my phone crapping out, the owner of my future tearoom might never know I was running late for our appointment. What if he ended up giving control of the sale to some hardball Realtor when I didn't show up, and I'd end up paying more and waiting longer for the deal to go through?
Damn it. Damn it.
I might have slid my backpack off and sat on the side of the road to sob at my misfortune if I hadn't held out a smidge of hope that maybe the building I was searching for was just around the next corner amid the olive groves crowding the northbound lane. I'd been telling myself that for two hours as I trudged up the road, because I was just enough of a glass-halffull girl that I maintained a shred of optimism. I had to be close.
When a truck pulled off the highway on the opposite side, I didn't think anything of it at first. I assumed the driver probably needed to make a phone call or send a text or something. Still, thinking about that cashier's check in my bag, I monitored the situation. I hadn't survived in Hollywood that first year I moved to the West Coast from Nebraska by being oblivious.
So when the door of the oversize pickup opened with a squeak, I looked.
And saw the hottest guy ever.
Now, maybe it was the heat that seemed to spotlight this hunky slab of muscle and manhood as he stood beside the open door of the truck. He glistened with sweat despite a temperature that probably reached only the mid-sixties. He took the tail of a well-worn T-shirt and used it to mop his forehead.
In that moment, his abs were exposed to my dazed, spellbound eyes. He was pinup sexy. Lean and taut, he looked like he'd pulled about two million inverted pushups to achieve so much delicious definition in that six-pack. Better yet, he was tanned bronze and I felt like I'd been given a VIP pass to the hottest show on earth.
What a gift in an otherwise hellacious day. My heroine Shaelynn couldn't have done any better.
"Are you Miranda Cortland?"
I shook my head to clear it of fantasies that grew more explicit by the minute. The demigod across the road did not just talk to me.
I realized I'd stopped to stare, and felt just the slightest twinge of embarrassment to be caught in the act.
Giving him a lopsided smile, I told myself to keep moving. Then realized he'd somehow known my name.
"Excuse me?" I had to shout, since two cars barreled by in either direction.
"Are you Miranda?" he asked, his deep voice carrying easily over the distance. He slammed his door shut and jogged closer.
I blinked. Confused. Dry-mouthed.
Because now that I saw the guy's face, he was a whole lot more than just hot abs. Streaked with sweat and a light coating of dust, he looked like a local laborer in his T-shirt and jeans. Although, knowing good clothes when I saw them, from years of shopping vintage, I realized he wore very good clothes. Those boots and jeans were both out of my price range.
"Lady, are you okay?" He was now just a few feet away.
Hazel eyes narrowed in concern, he stood a good six inches taller than me. His dark hair was close cropped and matched the dark stubble sprinkled along his jaw. Wicked cheekbones made him look a bit Native American. A prominent blade of a nose and full lips only added to his appeal.
I remembered the words I'd written to describe the hero of my book. An arresting face. Strong. Handsome.
"I'm fine," I said, with a bit too much enthusiasm.
What I meant to say, actually, was "You're fine." But he stared at me like I might have mental health issues, so I struggled to pull myself out of the sexy-man-induced delirium. He looked like the hero I'd dreamed up before I even laid eyes on this guy. "That is, I broke down a few miles back, but I don't think I'm far from my destination."
Belatedly, I realized I should have asked to borrow his cell phone. Or truck. Or his body.
"Right. Miranda Cortland?"
Holy crap. He really did know me. For a moment, I worried that he'd recognized me from Gutsy Girl. But he didn't fit the show's demographic. And now that I started to get a grip on the situation, I comprehended that he appeared very irritated. Highly annoyed.
Downright surly, even.
"Oh, God." I put the pieces together and felt like an idiot. "Are you Damien Fraser? Did that last text message I sent actually go through?"
The screen had faded to black a second after I'd hit Send on my SOS message to him.
"I didn't get it until a few minutes ago. I was working in one of the pastures." He didn't confirm his identity, but I guess he didn't need to. His gaze roamed over me, assessing. As if I was the one who was sweaty and dirty from a day in the fields. Somehow, I'd assumed "Fraser Farm" was meant more as a picturesque description than an actual farm with animals.
But Damien Fraser of Fraser Farm was technically listed as the seller of the property that I wanted so badly. I stood straighter, wishing we'd met when I looked more like a serious real estate buyer and less like a college student on spring break. Or a fugitive from Tinsel Town. I'd stripped off my neon-green lace shirt an hour ago to wrap around my head, turban-style. I'd warmed up in a hurry once I started my long walk with a heavy pack on my shoulders. Plus, wrapping the shirt around my hair helped prevent me from being recognized after my recent notoriety. But it left me wearing a pink floral tee that occasionally exposed my belly-button ring. A snake with a sapphire eye. It had been my gift to myself for meeting my weight loss goals a few months after moving to L.A. and away from my dysfunctional family.
"I'm just so glad it reached you," I blurted, yanking the lace off my head, a trick that probably left my thick, ash-blond curls standing on end. "I mean, I've had a few hours to obsess over what might happen when I didn't show up for our appointment. Like, that you'd sell to someone else. Or refuse to sell to me on principle, because I wasted your time
Midsentence, it occurred to me that I'd broken every rule for savvy real estate shopping. I'd let the seller know how much I wanted what he had.
"Would you like to see the property now?" He hadn't interrupted me or anything, but I sensed he didn't want to waste time chatting about my "might have" scenarios.
Which I respected. But between my outfit and my chattering, I just knew he thought I was some flighty Hollywood chick with more hair than brains.
"Sure. But can I ride with you?" I had checked him out online and he had big-time ties to the community as a Thoroughbred breeder developing an upscale business selling mega-expensive racehorses.
He didn't strike me as the serial-killer type, even if he was a bit dirtier than I'd expected. Was I too swayed by his broad shoulders? Or by the fact that he was just what I'd pictured when I dreamed up the guy in my secret novel?
Now I'd never be able to see any other face but his when Shaelynn got back to her hot tub adventures. Lucky girl.
"Where'd you break down?" Frowning, he squinted against the glare from the late afternoon sun as he peered down the road behind me. "Is your car out of the way of traffic?"
"It's on the shoulder," I assured him, feeling an unreasonable need to have him view me as a responsible citizen. "It should be fine except.."
"What?" Hazel eyes searched mine, while a passerby shouted something incomprehensible at us out the window of a bright yellow sports car.
"Er.." I noticed the canary-colored vehicle threw on its brakes. Now I really wished I'd kept the turban on my head. "The lock is broken on my SUV"
"C'mon." Damien Fraser gestured for me to follow him toward the road and his massive pickup truck. "I've got some chains in the back."
Okay. I won't say where my mind went on learning that particular bit of trivia. Maybe I'd been spending too much time daydreaming up plot points for my secret novel. I focused on darting across Highway 1 without getting killed, all the while keeping a weather eye on the situation with the vintage yellow Porsche, which had pulled over fifty yards ahead.
"Miranda Cortland?" a woman shouted out the window of the Porsche, alerting me to potential trouble.
I scrambled into the passenger seat of the Ford 450a fact I knew only because it said so in chrome along one side.
"Friend of yours?" Damien asked as he climbed into the driver's seat, his size, warmth and general masculinity filling the cab. He kept his eye out the window on the sports car.
"No." I didn't need to look. I had become a recognizable face after the ten-week reality show I'd been on had turned into a surprise hit. I'd fallen into the job after a nice casting director who'd turned me down for virtually everything I'd ever tested for with her had recommended me.
While the show featured a few C-list celebrities competing in acts of daring to see who was the "Gutsiest Girl," there were also a few "real people" to fill out the cast. I'd been one of them, and the directors had focused on my waitressing job in an upscale tearoom. I'd been the Nice Girl competitor. The contestant no one expected to win. But when the other women had started plotting against each other, everyone forgot about me because honestly, I'm not that memorable and I'm just too nice. So the last one standing had been yours truly.
"She sure can't drive worth a damn," Damien Fraser observed as he pulled into traffic and stomped on the accelerator, his triceps flexing as he cranked the wheel.
I gripped the armrest as the powerful engine all but threw me backward into the seat. We put distance between us and the sports car in no time, and I decided I liked Mr. Surly. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy, different from the men I'd run across in Hollywood. I pictured him revving the engine of his badass truck to send members of the paparazzi scattering like ants under a boot.
"Thanks for doing this." I knew I'd start chattering soon if he didn't say something to fill the silence. Was he wondering how the woman in the Porsche had known me? Was he thinking I was a moron for not getting my SUV tuned up before a big trip? Joelle had told me to, but I hadn't wanted to spend any of the money I might need for start-up cash. "I guess I left in such a hurry this morning I didn't prepare as well as I should have."
I yanked the green lace top over the pink one, covering up the belly-button ring and making me look a tad less disheveled.
"That you?" He pointed out my vehicle sitting at an angle on the shoulder, so that it looked as if it had already given up the ghost.
"Yes. Whoa!" I slid sideways into the passenger door as he flipped a U-turn and parked the truck in front of my broken-down SUV.
He shoved open his own door without another word.
"Wait." I hurried to unbuckle and follow him. "I can help."
I hated being Ms. Needy Female, but he was already hooking a metal cable around my front bumper.
"I thought you were using chains?" Stepping carefully around some brush off the side of the highway, I watched him work.
"The winch kit will work best for starters." He pressed a lever to tighten the cable between my car and his. "Then we'll add a couple of chains for good measure. You want to put it in Neutral and flip on the hazards?"
"Uh, sure." I hoped this was safe. And while I was grateful to get my vehicle off the side of the road, I just hoped he wouldn't hold it against me that I'd really inconvenienced him.
More than anything, I wanted to get settled in my new digs, since I was technically homeless.
And yes, I knew most people would call it insanity to leave one apartment without securing another, but I had never been one to play it safe. For me, there was never a plan B. When trouble came my way, I dodged it and moved forward. Some might call it conflict avoidance. Whatever. I considered it taking charge of my life. In my own way, I overcame obstacles and moved on.
I put the old Highlander in Neutral as he'd asked, and switched on the hazards, then hurried back to his truck, since Damien was already climbing into the driver's seat. I got the impression he'd never wasted a second of time in his life.