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So where are you, Anna?" Maggie Shea spoke around a mouthful of something crunchy, unashamed to munch in her older sister's ear over an already-scratchy cell phone connection. "Made it down through Rocky Mount yet?"
Anna glanced in her rearview mirror and maneuvered her Toyota sedan into the passing lane. "Not even close. Traffic's crawling. Drivers are road-raging. There's a reason why I hate traveling over the holidays, you know."
"But this is my first Christmas in my fi rst house...Mom and Dad are going to be here any minute, and I can't handle them alone. You know how important it is that you be here." Maggie's voice rose in a plaintive fashion that sent Anna scurrying away from the argument.
"I know how important it is to you," she affirmed quickly, "which is why I'm taking my life in my hands and inching two states through this godforsaken parking lot they call I-95. I wouldn't miss your party for the world."
"Or Christmas with your best sister."
"Or Christmas with my only sister."
"At least you have good weather," Maggie pointed out. "No snow, and you were so worried."
"So the weatherman says." Anna eyed the early afternoon sky through the windshield. One small cloud drifted close to the horizon in a sea of blue. "I just have a funny feeling about this."
"You do?" Alarm sapped the humor from Maggie's voice. "Is it a run-of-the-mill anxiety feeling, which would mean nothing, or a pit-of-the-stomach bad feeling, which would mean psychic intuition?"
"Strictly run-of-the-mill," Anna reassured, giving herself a mental kick. Maggie was so superstitious. "So I'll see you in about three hours."
"Call me every half hour so I know you're safe."
"You're a pain in the ass."
Maggie chuckled and hung up without saying goodbye she'd always believed uttering those magic words would bring bad luck. Such idiosyncrasies had long ago ceased to unnerve Anna. Her younger sister's quirks made her lovable, if a little impossible. Her whole family was that way. Maybe that craziness was what had driven Anna to become a genealogist. She craved explanations for why the leaves of her family tree were so...colorful.
The party didn't start until dinnertime, and two hours into the drive, weariness strung tight bands across the back of her neck. She needed something to fortify her, pep her up, give her a jolt of temporary social enthusiasm, since all she really wanted to do was turn around and go back to Alexandria, Virginia, where her empty apartment and too-small artificial Christmas tree sat waiting.
Coffee would have to do, and a break from the stress of creeping along I-95 with all the other fools too entangled with their families to say, No, thanks, I just want to stay home this year.
It took another mile before a harried driver took mercy upon her and let her into the right lane, and with a sigh of relief, Anna swung off the next exit ramp and into a crowded gas station.
No parking spaces remained, so she pulled into an illegal spot on the grass, beside a dusty maroon Harley, and climbed out.
Despite the vibrant glow of the sun, the cold snatched the breath from her lungs. Icicles hung like crystalline fingers from the eaves of the convenience store, and customers pumping gas into their vehicles huddled against the wind's assault. The frigid currents shoved Anna along, whipping at the thin silk wrap she wore over her velvet minidress and loosening the pins that held her brown hair in its carefully crafted chignon.
Damn, but it was chilly. Whoever had the guts to ride the motorcycle she'd parked beside had a hide of steel.
Stepping into the warmth of the convenience store, she glanced around for the coffee machine and spotted it in the back. A tall man in full leathers and boots stood at the counter beside it, his dark head bowed as he doctored a cup of steaming coffee.
The motorcyclist, no doubt. Everyone else in the store was either elderly or weighted down with kids and junk food, moms and dads dressed in goofy Christmas sweaters and college football jackets.
Anna couldn't have explained why she hesitated in the entryway instead of heading straight for the coffee. The cheery store was crowded, Christmas music trilling under the steady hum of voices. There was nothing particularly scary about the man at the coffee bar, other than the fact that he was the proverbial biker bearded, broad-shouldered and powerfully built. He probably wouldn't bite her if she walked up beside him and reached for the coffeepot.
When the glass doors behind her swung open and a blast of cold air stabbed through her clothing, she jolted from her rumination and forced herself to walk. The biker didn't look at her when she stopped at the counter beside him, but he did move aside to make room for her. Painfully aware of his dark presence, she poured herself a cup of coffee, and glanced around for the sugar.
He was blocking it.
She cleared her throat. "Excuse me. May I...?"
He backed up a step and met her gaze.
Wild blue yonder. It was all she could think. His eyes were the iridescent color of the Caribbean Sea, made all the more electric by his dark beard and mustache, and the stern features they half hid.
An unexpected surge of sexual awareness washed through her as she reached in front of him and grabbed a couple of sugar packets. The scent of piney winter and worn leather emanated from him, and she quickly stepped aside again, surprised at her reaction. She liked clean-cut, polished, cerebral men who were familiar and utterly unthreatening. Grizzled bikers weren't her type. Unpredictability held no appeal for her, and this stranger's somber, fiercely blue eyes radiated it.
Maybe the lack of sex a year's worth since her last breakup had addled her brain. Or maybe it was just the idea of spending yet another Christmas as a single girl.
Somehow her relationships always met a tragic end just short of the holidays. It was a running joke in her family. Even Anna never bought her boyfriends Christmas presents anymore, because inevitably they would hit the high road by December 25th. And this year was the worst, because this year, for the first time, she really felt alone in the world.
So she gave her steaming coffee a slow stir and let herself indulge in the wayward pleasure of standing beside a man she didn't know. A mere five inches separated them; they stood too close, really, but he didn't seem to notice, and just the sheer thrill of breaching his personal force field pumped her pulse into a high, erratic dance.
A quick sideways glance told her his profile was more handsome than she'd thought, even with all that facial hair. She'd never kissed a guy with a mustache or beard. It might be prickly on her lips, too distracting. More likely it would be silky soft, delightful. It would glide a shivery path across the sensitive column of her throat along with his lips as he kissed his way down her naked body. Maybe when those lips found the curve of her breast...and then closed hot and hungry over her nipple, drawing on it, tonguing it, and that beard and mustache tantalized every inch of her aroused flesh...she would never want to go back to a clean-shaven lover. And oh, to feel the brush and tickle of that bearded chin on the tender flesh of her thighs, between her legs, and then the probe of a soft, wet tongue sliding down her cleft, savoring her, while his strong hands cradled her ass and lifted her like a loving cup...oh my God.
Pre-orgasmic shivers fluttered through her muscles, and she felt herself go wet beneath the velvet dress. How insane to get so excited simply by standing next to a complete stranger. Maybe she was having some kind of holiday mental breakdown.
Face burning, she stirred her cooling coffee one last time, then glanced around for a top.
The biker was, of course, standing directly in front of the stacked lids, and she wasn't about to reach past him again. Shouldering her purse, she started to turn away when he said, "Need a cap on that?"
His voice was low, quiet.
"Oh." She swung back and looked everywhere but at his face. "A medium one, please."
He retrieved the plastic top and handed it to her.
"Thanks." Delight quivered in her stomach as she stared at the front of his leather jacket, and out of sheer nervousness, she continued, "I can just see myself sloshing coffee all over this velvet dress."
"Going somewhere special?"
She glanced up at his gaze and away again, seared. Yep, those eyes were still blue. "A Christmas party."
"Have fun," he said without smiling.
Jesus. He didn't look like he was headed anywhere fun. There was a starkness to his features that belied holiday cheer of any kind.
"Merry Christmas," she added uselessly as he walked past her. He might not even celebrate Christmas. It didn't matter. He was a stranger, a passerby in her day, no one she'd ever see again, although she would remember those gorgeous baby blues for a while. A woman didn't forget eyes like that. And if she ever had the guts to replay the intense sexual fantasy she'd conjured about that beard...it would definitely have to be somewhere private. Like in her lonely apartment, with her lonely vibrator, which probably needed dusting off by now, for all the action it saw. The morose thought stole the vague excitement lingering inside her.
She sipped her hard-won coffee without tasting it and watched through the store window as the biker climbed on the Harley parked beside her white sedan, slipped on his full-face helmet and rolled out of the parking lot. It was a sexy sight, a man straddling his motorcycle, sheer roaring power between his strong thighs, his face a mystery beneath the black-shielded fiberglass mask.
Only when the rumble of his motorcycle faded did Anna recognize the hollow sensation in her chest. She felt as though she'd been left behind.
It took her a while to notice the dense clump of clouds that had dulled the glaring afternoon sun. She set her coffee cup in its holder and directed her sedan onto the interstate, where traffic had miraculously resumed moving at a pre-holidays pace. Spirits lightened by this heavenly phenomenon, she dialed Maggie for her thirty-minute check-in, dutifully reported her location and after hanging up, adjusted the radio to a festive slew of Christmas tunes.
That was when the first snowflake hit her windshield.
Glancing up in horror, she studied the fast-growing cloudbank and groaned as flakes drifted across the hood of her Toyota. How could this be happening when the weatherman had proclaimed Christmas weekend to be blue-skied and crystalline all the way down the Eastern seaboard? How, in this day and age of radar, computers and high-tech gadgetry, was it possible to miss the gigantic storm now brewing over North Carolina?
Within minutes the highway surface was wet and dusted with fine talc, and the heavens had turned to steel. Anna slowed her car to a crawl, noting with increasing anxiety that the traffic around her had thinned dramatically. People were actually pulling over on the shoulder of the road, hazards flashing their sense of alarm, unwilling to forge through what was fast- becoming the impossible.
"No freakin' way," she muttered, and picked up the cell phone to dial Maggie.
An automated voice on the other end announced there was no available signal.
Ahead, red lights fl ashed as the pickup driver in front of her unexpectedly hit his brakes. Instead of slowing, the truck skated sideways and made a helpless, graceful slide into the grassy median.
Anna clutched the steering wheel with both hands, hunched forward to see the road, her heart hammering. The highway ahead was almost deserted. It seemed she'd moved into a foreign, cold, frightening land, where the only sign of humanity was the gentle tinkle of Christmas music beneath the roar of her heater.
Soon her entire world shrank to the two feet barely discernible in front of the car. No exits appeared. Nothing but hardwhipped snow, which clumped in the windshield wipers as fast as they could clear the glass. If this kept up, the blades would freeze and she wouldn't be able to see anything.
Anna swallowed the lump in her throat and tried again to call her sister, but it was no use. The storm must have knocked out a tower. Either that, or she truly had entered The Twilight Zone. Praying she wasn't overshooting the highway altogether, she eased into the right lane and took her foot off the accelerator in preparation to pull over.
Suddenly a pale red dot appeared through the miasma ahead, a ghostly neon orb that swayed and then shot hard into her path. She gasped and hit her brakes, slid a little and finally maneuvered the Toyota to a stop. In the dim glow of her headlights, a black-garbed figure lay in a tangled heap on the abandoned powder-coated highway, his motorcycle's rear tire still spinning.
Anna threw her transmission into park and leaped out into the storm. She couldn't tell if the rider was a man or woman; the black-shielded helmet hid his face. "Are you okay?" she called, slip-sliding with little aplomb to his side.
For a second the motorcyclist didn't move, and then he slowly pulled his legs free of the bike and sat up in the snow.
Hunkering down beside him, Anna brushed the white powder off his back and helped him pull off his gloves. "Oh God, did I mow you down?"
"No," his low voice was muffled. "I cut across your lane. I didn't see you." He unfastened his helmet and pulled it off, leaving his dark hair ruffled, but suddenly all Anna could see was a familiar pair of piercing blue eyes.
"Funny meeting you here," he drawled with no humor whatsoever.
She scrambled back, slid, and hit the snow on her bottom. "You're the guy...the...coffee..."
"Right." He raked a hand through his hair, straightened his spine, winced a little as he rubbed the thigh on which he'd landed. "We must be the last two fools left on the interstate."
"I was looking for an exit," she said foggily, her heart pounding.
"Me too. There aren't any."
"I noticed." Drawing a deep gulp of frozen air, she let her worried appraisal move down his long legs. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah." He got painfully to his feet, his breath puffing out in rapid clouds beneath the whirling snow, and offered her his hand. "Are you?"
"Oh. Yes." She grasped his fingers and allowed him to help her up, then quickly withdrew from his warm touch and backed up against the hood of her car.
The snow seeped into her velvet pumps as she watched him set his motorcycle upright. He was incredibly strong to handle the machine with such ease. Young, too, more than she'd thought the first time she saw him. And those amazing eyes...
The shiver that quaked her frame didn't have everything to do with the frigid air snaking beneath her thigh-length skirt.
He didn't appear to harbor the same romantic notions. After giving the motorcycle a once-over, he swiped his helmet from the ground and flashed her a solemn glance. "You should get back into your car where it's warm."
"I'll wait to make sure you get safely on the road."
With a shrug that said suit yourself, he pulled on his helmet, flipped down the face shield and straddled the bike. "Take care," his voice came muffled at last.
"You too." She picked her way around to the Toyota's driver's side, shaking hard from the cold and excitement. Any second and the roar of his bike would fill the air, he'd ride off and she'd never know why their paths had crossed.
Hell, who needed a reason? She sounded like Maggie, searching for keys to the universe. Maybe the insanity was genetic after all.
Inside the car, Anna pulled on her seat belt and cranked her heater, all the while taking guilty pleasure in the sight of the biker's strong form straddling the motorcycle as he tried to start it.
And tried. And tried.
Her pulse jumped in her veins, a wayward thrill tickling her nerves. Frustration wrote itself in every lean line of his body as he attempted again and again to start the Harley, and failed.
His bike was dead. She couldn't leave him stranded out here in the middle of a blizzard.
She couldn't take him into her car, a dark, unpredictable stranger.
The motorcycle fired finally...and sputtered out. His head dropped forward in abject frustration. And all the while, Anna's heart performed impressive acrobatics, because it had already made the decision for her.
He dismounted, kicked down the stand and stood with his hands on his hips, studying the Harley. After a minute, he gave its exhaust pipe a scolding nudge with the toe of his boot, then gathered his backpack and trudged over to her car door.
Butterflies swooped and soared in her stomach as she lowered the window expectantly.
"I hate to ask you to do this," he said, leaning low to meet her eyes through the full-face helmet, "but "
"Just to the nearest exit."
And hitting the unlock button, she invited him in, a dark, bearded stranger with the bluest eyes she'd ever seen.
Copyright © 2009 by Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.