Read an Excerpt
It was just a few days before Lucy Christie's thirtieth birthday when she finally had the epiphany.
"This is my life," she said to her traveling companion Carmen. They were both sitting in a roadside diner, Lucy staring at the detailed travel itinerary she'd formulated. "Point A to point B in a certain window of time. No deviations, every moment laid out to the minute."
She glanced up to find her best friend putting down her digital camera and studying her. And why not? Only seconds before, Carmen had been aiming her lens at a framed poster of Marilyn Monroe amidst the clutter of a memorabilia-filled wall, and they'd both been bopping in their booth to a Petula Clark song. Now, it was suddenly all about Lucy's Major Life Crisis.
The epiphany still made her head feel like a gong that'd been rung. "I was looking at travel day five, and I realized I've suspected the truth all along. I've had my hours, my months, my years planned out since I was old enough to make lists. I'm boring, Carm, and that's only one reason Greg broke up with me. That's why they all have. I'm boring, I have impossible expectations for my relationships and I'm so afraid of not reaching them that I've become Needy Woman."
"You're nothing of the sort."
But Lucy knew it was true. Greg's parting words to her kept vibrating her eardrums, even now, three months later.
"I feel like we've already been married for seven years," he'd said, "and we've been going out for only four months."
On that note, she'd let him go, too pained to ask for more of an explanation. She didn't need one. All she'd ever wanted was to have a happy familykisses in the morning, two cars in the garage, a swing set in thebackyardjust like her parents had provided. But when had she started putting such pressure on her boyfriends to get it?
When had she started becoming so afraid that she never would?
Carmen sent Lucy a sympathetic glance. "You're freaking out because you're turning the big three-oh. That's all. I went through it, too, Luce."
A confident smile tilted Carmen's red-lipstick mouth as she relaxed against the back of her seat, one bare arm riding the top of it.
There'd never been a lack of confidence with her, Lucy thought. Then again, Carmen Ferris, with her punky tank top advertising a garage band, her red-tinted hair layered in saucy abandon down to her ears and the glint sparkling in her gold eyes, had never done self-esteem issues. Not even in college at San Diego State, when Lucy had met her in a lower-level business administration course. Lucy had considered herself so very serious and a bit mousy, but Carmen had had no tolerance for that, telling her classmate to get over herself and come to a dorm party with her that night.
Now, Carmen continued, aiming her camera around a room choked with the aroma of grilled meat and fries. "Two weeks of utter brainless joy inVegas and then it's on to the road. We came on this vacation to have some good prebirthday fun, get away from the grind of work and cheer you up after the Greg thing."
The breakup, Lucy thought. The latest kiss-off, just another link in her chain of failed romancesnone of which had lasted beyond the four months she'd spent with Greg. Maybe this one had left her reeling extra hard because it'd been a record for how long a guy had stuck with her.
Carmen was escaping the aftermath of a breakup, as well, but she'd been dating her now-ex-boyfriend for years. Aeons, as far as Lucy was concerned.
Glancing back at the itinerary, she sighed. She had planned their time to a T, charmed by all the guidebook descriptions of Route 66, where they could see the mythos of the West disappearing into the sunset and eat at a string of greasy spoons while witnessing the kitsch of a more romantic time. Just scanning her schedule, each stop didn't seem like an adventure so much as a future accomplishment, an item to check off a master listexactly like the one she'd silently kept with every boyfriend.
With care, she tucked the itinerary into a leather folder. There. She hadn't exactly ripped it to shreds and let it fly away, but it was gone. After all, wasn't that the purpose of this trip? To liberate themselves from what was weighing them down back home?
It was supposed to be a trip that could make a girl like Carmen forget about going back to planning conventions in her cubicle back at the office, where she actually misspent most of her day flitting about the Internet and updating a blog that she said needed more spice. And maybe their jaunt could even take Lucy's mind off all those rules she had to deal with on a daily basis. As a human resources specialist for Padme Software, she had been comfortably steeped in manuals and dos and don'ts for a few years now. However, she'd evidently been applying rigid standards to her relationships, too, without even realizing it.
Their waitress, decked out in a pink-and-aqua uniform, checked to see how they were doing with their meal. After smiling in approval and refusing to count all the calories she'd already consumed, Lucy glanced around Peggy Sue's 50's Diner. It was a cluttered lunchtime homecoming of truckers, locals and faded golden-age movie stars captured in photographs.
She breathed in the grease-thickened air and relaxed. Ah, the romance of life on the road. See? Better. Not freaked out anymore about being thirty or as boring as static on a TV screen at 3:00 a.m.
Or maybe she still was that old Lucy. But why? Couldn't she truly leave the other woman behind just to see what it felt like to have no stringent goals or expectations?
Scanning farther, her gaze brushed over a table full of obvious tourists, then a couple whose body language indicated that they were in a fight.
Lucy's attempt to stop and smell the roses or burger patties or whatever continued, past the couple, into a back room, where a cowboy sat in a darkened corner, his hat pulled low over his brow.
Her investigation came to a halt, although she couldn't say why.
Maybe it was because he fit in with her idealized notion of what a gritty Western sojourn should be. Shadow covered most of his face, but she could still discern a hint of pale eyes and stubble. Hunched over an emptied plate, he wore a T-shirt, faded jeans and boots like a careless attitude.
Broad-shouldered, big, muscled
As something melted from her chest downward, Lucy realized that she was watching him.
And that he was watching her right back.
A bolt of fearor excitement?split through her, zapping straight down to her belly, then lower, where it settled into a churning, charged pool.
She held her breath, shocked by the sudden stiff ache that had settled between her legs.
She'd had sex before, but only when she and her boyfriends had a commitment, which usually happened in month one. By month two, they would have found a groovenothing explosive in bed, but nice. Just vanilla, dependable nice.
This wasn't nice.
Turning back to her Mickey Mouse Club Sandwich, she tried to act as if she hadn't really noticed the stranger. That she hadn't been rattled by all the primal cells in her body finally waking up because they were excited about being away from home.
She shifted in her seat, and the ache only intensified. She felt herself going damp and excited by the thrill of being singled out.
Maybe she should just eat her food and ignore what her body was doing. That's why they'd come into this diner, right? They were still scheduled to visit Calico Ghost Town before checking into the MGM Hotel later. No time for detours.
Or maybe there should be.
As her epiphany rang through her head once more, she tried to chase it away by sipping from her cherry shake.
Then again, all she wanted to do was glance back at the cowboy, encouraging the slight throb of her sex until it became something bigger.
Was he was still watching her?
Just as she felt herself losing the battle to not look, a burst of noise sounded from the dining room's entrance. Both Lucy and Carmen turned to find a group of seven college-age kids plopping into a nearby booth. Carmen put down her bite of chicken-fried steak and followed them with her interested gaze.
Meanwhile, one of the spring-breakers eyed Carmen, too. Tall, with a flop of sandy hair nearly covering his green eyes. A devilish grin. Definitely Carm's type in that respect, at least.
Lucy cleared her throat loudly and ate a French fry while the new group got settled with their laminated menus.
"What?" Carmen asked, all innocence after she turned back to Lucy. "A girl can't look?"
Lucy laughed. "Cradle robbing. You know he was probably in second grade when you entered high school?"
"Well, just suck the fantasy right out of my head, why don't you." Carmen went back to her meal, but not before she grabbed her camera again and thought to photograph the half-eaten down-home dish. This vacation was great fodder for her blog. "Here I am, prepared to have a good post-bye-bye-boyfriend time and you put me on the straight and narrow."
The back of Lucy's neck tingled, sending shivers over her skin. The cowboy was looking, wasn't he?
Don't look back, she thought, even though she was dying to.
"Someone's got to be your chaperone," Lucy said. "Your family will thank me. Believe it."
"Ay," Carmen said in exasperation. Her father was from the North, Anglo as could be with no old-country traditions to speak of. But her Mexican-American mother? So traditional. One look at Carmen's four married-with-children sisters showed exactly what was expected of the only single sibling left.
"As if I'd ever give in to Mama's begging and go back to Mal," Carmen added, using the nickname Lucy had recently given the man Carmen had been dating since college. Ex-boyfriend. Mal Odorous or Malcolm Ortega, as he was known in better days. Even if he'd blown it with Carmen by practicing his machismo on other women a couple months back, traditional Mama still adored him because Carmen hadn't told her what Malcolm had done yet. It would break Mama's heart to know that the perfect husband for her eldest daughter wasn't so great, and Carmen was dreading having to share the news.
Hence, yet another reason for this little trip to the desert. It was also supposed to give Carmen leeway to figure out a way to tell the family that Malcolm was permanently out of the picture, even if they still considered him a part of the brood in the hopes that she would come to her senses.
But Lucy knew that Carmen was merely procrastinating.
"Maybe you shouldn't have told the family that you wanted a couple of weeks to think about getting back together with Mal," Lucy said. "You gave them hope when you knew darned well that there isn't any."
"I just need time away to think about how I'm going to handle all the changes that this breakup brings, Luce. Besides, Malcolm begged me not to tell Mama exactly why we called it quits because he's afraid of Mama's disappointment, which we know she wields so well. He's trying to avoid the big moment of revelation just as much as I am. But for some reason, he seems to think I'm going to change my mind and everything will go back to the way it was, even though I've told him it won't happen. Not in a million years."
"You realize Mama's going to pursue what she wants like a bulldog until you come up with a better explanation than 'Me and Malcolm just grew apart.'"
"I know, I know, but "
"But the thought of disappointing her is killing you, too." Lucy emphatically pointed at her friend. "You've always been her baby, and you never want to let her down. I know you too well."
"Do you?" Carmen raised a brow, then turned right around and focused her camera on the college crowd, who was whooping it up at their table.
Lucy noted that Carmen's favorite group member had caught her taking the picture of him. Good-naturedly, he grinned and jerked his chin in her direction, a sexy acknowledgment.
When she turned back around, she flapped a hand in front of her face. "Is it burning up in this place or what?"
Oh, great. Here, Lucy had just been starting to forget about the cowboy and
A flare of heat waved over her as she thought about him in that shaded corner.
Unable to stop herself, she sneaked a glance to where she'd last seen the pale-eyed man brooding at his table.
But it was empty now.
Lucy didn't know why, but her veins seemed to tap out, going empty with disappointment?
Heck, she thought. She didn't know how to flirt anyway. Nope, she usually skipped right over the fun stuff and straight to "serious." But maybe
During this trip, could she figure out how to avoid that from now on? Could she follow in Carmen's more assured footsteps in her own attempt to recover and actually become her own woman?
Now she found her friend snapping another picture of the cute guy in the other booth. But this time he had his own camera aimed at her.
A professional-looking camera, too, from the looks of it.
As they both shutterbugged away, they laughed, and he got out of his seat to saunter over to them. His friends, both male and female, catcalled, but he waved them off.
"You got me," he said in a teasing voice as he came to stand at their table.
"And you got me right back," Carmen said, her eyes all but glowing with the intrigue of this little game.
Lucy's body was still afterburning from her thwarted bout of look-tag with the cowboy. But now it was Carmen's turn, and Lucy held back a smile as her friend went to work.
Watch and learn, she thought, already feeling as if she was leaving the sadder Lucy behind and becoming a little wiser.
All she had to do was get in the spirit of this trip. "I'm Eddie," he said, holding out his free hand to Carmen. In the background, one of his friends called out, "Edward, get back here, you dog."
Eddie cut the intruder off with a tolerant glare, but he was back to being adorable the next second, shrugging off the interruption and grinning at Carmen.
She introduced herself, and then Lucy.
Eddie sent Lucy a charming smile, addressing his next question to her, as if he didn't want to leave her out of whatever was going on. Thoughtful guy. "You two headed to Vegas?"
Lucy placed her hand on her leather folder, reluctant to give out that information to someone who'd wandered over to their table from out of the blue. She might be willing to shed some of her old habits, but not her common sense.
Carmen obviously had a different interpretation of the circumstances. "Yes, we are. Three days of baking by the pool and losing lots of cash, then we're riding down part of Route 66."
"We are, too," Eddie said. "I mean, we're not going to Vegas, but we're taking our spring break to check out the old road." He held up his camera. "It's sort of a hobby of mine. Taking pictures. The Route is full of material. But some of the group might stay back at Lake Havisu while I move on. We'll see."
"Par-tay!" said an obviously eavesdropping girl from the group's booth, a blonde with curls and pink cheeks.
The rest of the crowd laughed and welcomed the waitress as she came to take their drink orders. Beers all around.
Carmen grabbed her pineapple shake and played with the straw. Lucy took note of the coquettish gesture because it looked as if it might work wonders.
"Spring break, huh?" her friend asked before taking a draw from her beverage.
Very subtly, Carmen was actually asking about his age, but either Eddie didn't catch that or he didn't care enough to comment. How old did he think they were?
"Spring break," he repeated. "And if you guys weren't intent on being high rollers, I'd invite you to the modest soiree we'll be having in our motel in Needles tonight. The Timber-line Inn, just off Interstate 40."
When Carmen sent Lucy an interested glance, Lucy widened her eyes. But their itinerary? Surely they were going to keep to that.
If she was going to deviate, it wasn't going to be for some college party.
Lucy picked up the check that the waitress had already left and gestured that she was going to the cashier to pay up. Afterward, she figured she would linger in the gift shop she'd seen on the way in, allowing Carmen some amusement with young Eddie before they went on their way.
Yup, Carmen needed to get it out of her system, because there'd be a lot more Eddies in Vegas. And maybe Lucy would be up for that, too. Who could predict?
She told Carmen that she would either be in the gift shop or waiting in the car, thus setting a time limit for her friend's antics. Then she said a "good to meet you" to Eddie and sneaked off as their new friend slipped into the booth across from a delighted Carmen.
And, as Lucy walked past the table where the cowboy had been sitting, she wondered, ever so briefly, what might've happened if she had taken the risk of smiling at him as Carmen was smiling at Eddie.
If she had just taken that first fork in the road.