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"Are you know what you're doing?"
Lauren Baker watched the road before her with no small bit of fear. She was just south of Tucson, and to say the route curling down into the desert canyon was steep was an understatement. Raised in Connecticut, she'd never in her life encountered such death-trap roads as she was discovering in Arizona. It wasn't exactly the time, and definitely not the place, to be distracted by the question her best friend, Becky Saunders, had asked her this morning when they'd spoken on the phone.
Was she sure? Hell, no. That was the whole point. She was a week and a half into her no schedule, no destination, no obligations trip around the country. She had a map, two credit cards, her cell phone and what clothes and extras fit into the trunk of her Toyota Corolla. Everything elsenot that there was a whole heck of a lotshe'd left with Becky for her to sell.
Lauren inched around another excruciatingly sharp curve, ignoring the drop of several hundred feet to her right, fighting the impulse to shut her eyes. Roads like this would challenge any driver, but since acrophobia topped her long list of fears, not freaking out was her main challenge at the moment.
"C'mon Lauren buck up!" she told herself.
"This is all part of your new, no-wimping-out life, remember?"
An only child of parents who'd wanted a large family but didn't end up having one, she'd grown up center stage. "Overprotected' would be a mild description of her childhood. Not that it had been bad or anything, but it had led her down a certain path and now she was trying to carve a new one for herself.
Her mom and dad didn't shower her with love, they'd drowned her in it. Knowing so much of their happiness revolved around her, she'd grown up not wanting to do anything that would disappoint them.
They'd supported her decision to divorce Wes. However, it hadn't all been smooth sailing. They'd been very upset when she'd refused their offer to come back home after the split. They hadn't understood how she needed to strike out on her own, after escaping Wes's smothering possessiveness.
She'd never had an argument with her parentsnot onebecause she'd never rebelled. At twenty-nine, it was long past due, though it still made her sad to have hurt them at all. She wanted to be her own woman, but in their eyes, she'd be their little girl forever. Thank God the same could not be said about being Wes's wife.
One of her father's ace employees, Wes had been Lauren's first lover, her husband and her first big mistake. She intended to learn from it.
Wes had her parents' stamp of approval, which she realized now was in part because they had figured marrying Wes would keep her close. Although they'd assumed he'd continue to work for Lauren's father, they'd been very supportive when Wes had decided to break away and start his own business with Lauren. Equal partners, supposedly.
Instead, it had been the beginning of her personal nightmare. Wes had never been physically abusive. He hadn't even been verbally abusive in the technical senseunless you counted him asking her to account for every minute of her day and his endless questions about her activities, friends and whereabouts. Eventually, explaining everything to him had become impossible, and she'd just stopped going out, which had been a big mistake.
Together they had operated a successful, and profitable, consulting business. Lauren's specialty was as an efficiency expertshe would go into businesses and streamline their production methods and anything else that was causing losses within a company. As a sideline, she'd also started consulting on the home fronthelping people with time management and organizing their space.
Wes had put the kibosh on that just as she was building a substantial client list of her own. When she'd received flowers from a man she'd helped, an innocent thank you, Wes had made her life miserable until she had given up her home consulting.
Little by little, he'd stopped scheduling her for outside appointments, hiring a new employee to take over her accounts, relegating her to the home office. In an attempt to save her marriage, she'd gone along. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
By the time she'd recognized she had a serious problem, she had no friends, rarely saw her parents and almost never left the house. Deciding to take back some control, she'd called an old friend to go shopping. When Wes arrived home and discovered she wasn't there, he'd flipped out. He forbade her to ever leave the house without his knowledge again. That week she'd moved in with Becky, and the next month served Wes with divorce papers. And so here she was, driving down these winding desert roads.
Tears stung her eyes as she tried to focus on the road. Her parents would be happy once she figured out her life, even if they remained baffled in the meanwhile.
Taking a deep breath, she applied slightly more pressure to the accelerator and worked her way more smoothly around the next curve. Smiling, she let out a whoop of success.
No more letting anyone run her life but her, no more living in fear of what lay around the next corner. No more playing it safe. Playing it safe had only led her down the wrong roads, living her life for everyone except herself. There was so much she had to experience, and now was the time to do it.
According to the map, there was a town called Soul Springsnice nameat the bottom of this canyon. Maybe she'd stay awhile, who knows? No plans, no limits. That was her motto.
She sang along with the music blaring from her radio, chasing away the crippling ghosts of the past. The clear blue desert sky spread out before her. Dizzying heights aside this was some of the most spectacular scenery she'd ever laid eyes on.
"Whoa!" she yelled, sucking in a breath and hitting the brake, panic overcoming her when a motorcycle zoomed out from behind her, feeling as if it were going to rip off her hubcaps it skimmed so close. The loud rattle of the bike's powerful engine deafened her momentarily, adding to the shock of its sudden appearance. In a flat second, the speeding cyclist was gone, literally leaving her in his dust.
Pulling to the side on a small turnout, she put the car in Park and took several deep breaths, stilling her shaking hands and pounding pulse. "Jerk!" she spat belatedly along with a number of other choice words at the daredevil who'd almost scared her to death. Who drove these roads like that? It was irresponsible, dangerous and just plain stupid.
"Might as well stretch my legs and let that moron get as far ahead as possible," she muttered. Getting out, she walked over to the passenger side, a safe distance from the edge, trying to enjoy the view.
Frowning at her own apprehension, she took a step forward. There was nothing to be afraid of the guardrail was there, and it wasn't like someone was going to push her over the side. It was a stunning landscapeshe should take a look.
No wimps allowed.
One more step forward, then another. Adrenaline pushed through her, the crazy motorcyclist forgotten as she stared out over the valleys and mountains, awestruck. The dry wind was hot on her face, but the heat relaxed her, permeating her skin, claiming her.
"Oh my God," she breathed the words out, feeling overcome. It was just so beautiful. Opening her arms to the vast space, she laughed, and then laughed again at her echo.
"You've come a long way, baby," she joked to herself, feeling cocky and brave. She risked a look down past the rail and stepped back quickly.
"Okay, well, baby steps," she reassured herself, shuffling back to the solid safety of the car, but still smiling.
Back behind the wheel, she was looking forward to what she'd find at the bottom of the canyon more than ever.
Switching the radio channel as she took the next curve, she looked up, surprised to see that daredevil motorcyclist again. She thought he'd be long gone by now, but no, there he was.
The bike was parked, its slanted posture mimicking the way the man who rode it leaned against the guardrail as if there weren't a sheer drop on the other side. More amazing, he was standing there in a tux, the collar ripped back, his black tie hanging crookedly.
She drove up, got a closer looksquare jaw, dusty, sun-bleached sandy hairshe wasn't sure what to make of him. Part GQ model, part Road Warrior. Maybe she'd give him a piece of her mind for passing her so hazardously, but something about his expression and his posture suggested that maybe she'd be better off driving by. A lifetime of training in good manners wouldn't allow it though; he could be in need of help.
He was tall. The wind had apparently whipped the crap out of what was once a lovely boutonniere. When he fixed intense green eyes on her, she met his stare. There was something wild in that look, a feral gleam.
She rolled down the window. "Is everything okay?"
Nice voice, not as smooth as she would have expected, given the tux. The voice was definitely Road Warrior, low and dry.
"Lucky you're alive at all," she said under her breath. He might have heard, but he didn't say anything. She tried again.
"On your way somewhere?"
"Do you have someone coming to get you? Triple A?"
Lauren weighed what to do. He wasn't being very cooperative.
"Do you want a ride?" The words were past her lips before she could reconsider them.
He appeared to consider, too, pausing, and answered her with one short, curt nod. As he reached for the door handle, she wondered what the heck she was doing. He settled into her small front seat, looked at her and smiled ever so slightly, wiping out every coherent thought she'd ever had.
She never picked up hitchhikerswhat rational woman did? But he wasn't exactly hitching, was he? In her experience, most hitchhikers weren't hanging around in designer tuxes, either.
He paused again, staring out the window, and shrugged. "Surprise me."
BRETT WALLACE was sure he was going to lose his freakin' mind if the woman didn't hit the gasmy God, his eighty-year-old grandmother drove faster. He should have known when he saw the Connecticut license plates. At this rate, they'd never make the bottom of the canyon by dark, and then what? There weren't any streetlights up here, and she was a city girl, obviously. She could barely handle the roads in broad daylight. In the dark, she'd just pull over and quit. He snorted to himself. Tourists.
He passed a few moments by studying her profile. Not that he couldn't think of a few things they might do in the darkafter all, nothing holding him back now, was there?