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In the dead of night, Julia Kelley could barely see through the heavy sheets of rain pounding her car's windshield. The fact that there were no streetlights lining the desolate highway made it worse. For miles now, she'd been unable to read the road signs and could honestly say that she had no idea where she was. At this point, what did it matter?
Her depression deepened. The life she once knew was over. The farther she was from Atlanta, the better. The events from the past month filtered through her mind. A small part of her wished that she could turn back time. If she could, maybe her husband would still be alive.
A loud bang startled her from her reverie. The car lurched and her heart skipped a beat. Suddenly there was a strange clicking noise as the car slowed. In a panic, she floored the accelerator.
"Please, don't do this. Now now," she begged, clutching the steering wheel. But the car refused to respond. She veered off the side of the road just as the engine cut off.
Fear washed over her in waves, and her heart raced in double time. She tried to restart the car but it was no use. It was dead.
"This can't be happening," Julia mumbled under her breath, shivering against the cold. She glanced down at the wet clothes clinging to her body. The last thing she needed was to catch pneumonia.
Rain continued to bounce and scatter across the windshield, making it nearly impossible for her to see more than two feet in front of the car. Leaving the car was out of the question, but she entertained the thought all the same. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Swiveling around in her seat to scan out the windows, Julia was both relieved and fearful that there weren't any other cars on the road. Now that she thought about it, she hadn't seen a car for miles now.
"Oh, dear God, what am I going to do?" She closed her eyes. At this point, she wouldn't be surprised if He had abandoned her as well. She needed a plan—something. Her mind drew a blank. She had been so preoccupied with getting the hell out of Atlanta that she hadn't given much thought to where she was going.
For what seemed like the millionth time, she thought about calling the authorities, but she'd already tried that route before and it had nearly cost her her life. Her gaze lowered to the small form curled up in the backseat. Now there was more at stake. She had her daughter, Robin, to consider.
A car's high beams appeared off in the distance. Julia's first thoughts were that she'd been caught. She tried to pacify her jumbled nerves, but couldn't. As the car drew near, her heart hammered against her rib cage and her mind scrambled for logic.
Her thoughts instantly flew to the gun stashed in her glove compartment. She would use it if she had to, but she prayed that it wouldn't come to that.
The mysterious car zoomed past; her car rocked in its wake, yet she was spared a major heart attack. Julia exhaled in a long, shaky breath; her body trembled worse than before. She turned back around in her seat and twisted the key in the ignition, but got the same results.
She looked up into the rearview mirror, where she stared at her reflection. She touched her botched haircut, thinking that it looked as though she'd run her once curly mane through a rusted chain saw. It wasn't much of a disguise, but it was the best that she could do, especially given the limited time she'd had.
Could she truly say goodbye to her life—to everything that she had achieved as a mother, a wife, and a doctor? The answer: she had no choice.
Finally Julia focused on the problem at hand—getting the car started. She turned again toward the backseat and reached down to the floorboard to grab her jacket. It wasn't going to protect her from the downpour outside, but it was better than nothing.
After jerking the jacket on, she reached under the dashboard and pulled the lever to pop the hood. Looking inside the glove compartment, she ignored the .357 Magnum and retrieved a small flashlight, then braced herself for the worst. When she stepped out of the car, she was instantly drenched and miserable. She lifted the hood with no idea what she was looking for. What did she know about cars?
The small light that jetted from the flashlight was useless. There was no smoke or flashing signs pointing to the problem, as she'd partially hoped. Despair washed over her with the same velocity as the rain. She hung her head and struggled to keep her tears at bay, but she couldn't honestly say that the rain was the only moisture on her face.
Off in the distance, another set of high beams drew her attention, and another series of heart palpitations followed. It never occurred to her to get out of the rain, or even to move, for that matter. She watched the car approach, hoping against hope that it, too, would pass her by. But if she wasn't mistaken, the vehicle seemed to be slowing.
She was right.
What appeared to be a white truck pulled up behind her car. Julia remained rooted where she stood. This is it, she recited in her head. This was the end. They were going to kill her and Robin on the side of the road and she was helpless to do anything about it.
Carson Webber squinted at the vision before him and immediately thought how unfortunate it was for anyone to be stranded on the side of the road on a night like this. He was already an hour late for dinner and held no illusions that his sister wouldn't let him have it as soon as he arrived. Sometimes he swore that she forgot who was the eldest.
If his eyes weren't playing tricks on him, it appeared to be a woman standing on the side of the road. She was completely drenched and made no attempt to shield herself from the downpour. Crazy woman.
Carson parked and made a quick search for an umbrella, which he could never find when he needed one. The role of knight in shining armor was never easy, he thought.
After a few well-chosen expletives, he finally found the umbrella buried under mounds of paper, maps and God knew what else. In a mad rush, he pushed open his car door and was immediately pelted by the rain. He pressed the release button near the bottom of the umbrella's handle and was disappointed when the blasted thing refused to open. He waved it around and ended up having to manually push it open, only to discover that one side was broken, rendering the thing useless.
Another stream of curses followed while he had just as much trouble closing the umbrella as he had had opening it.
Finally, out of frustration, he jumped out of the truck and discarded the worthless piece of junk into the back of his truck. By the time he headed toward the car, his features had twisted into a scowl.
Julia took a nervous step backward. The man storming angrily toward her looked more like a giant than anything else. He had to be at least six-three or six-four and had the sinewy physique of a bodybuilder.
"Are you having some problems, ma'am?"
The man's deep baritone was silky smooth, even seductive.
Julia opened her mouth to respond, when he stopped in front of her and the friendliest face she'd ever seen greeted her. Handsome was too mild a word to describe him. Breathtaking was close. As he looked at her, his warm brown eyes reflected kindness and concern.
"Ma'am, are you all right?"
Shaking off her brief trance, she managed to nod before sweeping her hand toward her car. "It just died on me," she shouted above the rain.
"You mind if I take a look?"
"By all means." She handed him the flashlight.
"Tell you what—why don't you wait in your car so you can get out of the rain and I'll see what we got here?"
He must have read the uncertainty in her face because he added, "Please. By the way you're trembling, you'll be lucky if you don't catch your death out here."
Julia stiffened at his choice of words.
"It should only take me a few minutes."
"All right," she shouted after deducing that she had little choice in the matter. Circumstances being what they were, she should count herself lucky. She turned around and half ran to the driver side, then slipped into her car.
There was a small moan from the backseat, shortly before Robin spoke.
"Mommy, I'm cold."
Julia twisted around and dug for a blanket from the floorboard. Within seconds Robin had drifted back to sleep. Julia stared down at her and was again attacked by guilt, and questioned whether she'd done the right thing by running from her problems. If only her problems hadn't carried such large guns….
There was a tap at the window. She jerked around, breathed a sigh of relief, then rolled down the glass.
"With this rain, I can't see what the problem is right off. We're probably going to have to wait till morning."
Julia's heart sank. "But I can't sit out here until the morning."
A breathtaking smile curved the stranger's lips.
"I'm not recommending that you do. Do you live somewhere near here? I don't mind dropping you off somewhere."
That nearly won a laugh from her. She was a long way from home.
"No. We were just passing through," she confessed, then remembered to be cautious.
The man's gaze skittered behind her, and she couldn't help but turn in her seat to see Robin now sitting up and rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
"Mommy, where are we?"
"Don't worry, sweetie. We're almost there," Julia lied. In truth, she hadn't told Robin where they were headed. She'd just teased her that their destination was a surprise.
Julia returned her attention to the stranger, fully aware that they were in a vulnerable position with very few options—or, more precisely, none.
Her rescuer surprised her with another smile. "Quite an angel you got there. I got one myself. She's eight years old and wishes that she were a boy."
Julia swelled with relief. Surely a murderer wouldn't share such intimate details with someone he intended to kill.
"I'll tell you what—there's a motel in the next town. I'd be more than happy to drop you off there. As you see, I have a tow truck. I can just hitch your car up and off we go."
"A motel?" She frowned, certain that her limited funds wouldn't allow such luxuries.
"Or," he said as if sensing her duress, "my sister runs a bed-and-breakfast in Moreland, which is about twenty miles from here. I'm sure she can put you up for the night as a favor to me."
She didn't know what to say. The last thing she wanted was to be indebted, but then again, what choice did she have? "Uh…"
"It's really no big deal. She's used to me bringing home strange women in the middle of the night."
He slapped his open palm against his head. "That didn't come out right. What I mean was…well, let's just say that my sister is one of the most kindhearted women that you'll ever meet, and she'd kill me if she even thought I was going to leave a woman stranded on the side of the road."
Whatever trepidation Julia had felt moments ago disappeared at the look of genuine sincerity in the man's eyes. Was she crazy? How many times had she heard that it was the one people hadn't suspected who turned out to be an ax murderer? But she had a gut feeling that she could trust this man.
She gave him a trembling smile and exhaled as she took a leap of faith. "All right. We'll go with you."
Julia sneaked a peek at the handsome stranger while he concentrated on the road. He was as drenched as she after having hitched the car onto his tow truck. To her surprise, her fear had subsided, and she'd even allowed herself to feel safe in his presence.
He turned and smiled when he caught her stare. "It won't be long now. It's about another ten minutes up the road."
"By the way, the name is Carson Webber."
She hesitated, then replied, "Julia."
His smile broadened as he repeated her name. "Julia. It's a beautiful name. It suits you."
She shifted uncomfortably at the unexpected compliment. "Thank you," she managed to say.
"And what's the little one's name?"
Julia, who thought her daughter was asleep, looked down to discover Robin staring at the stranger.
She kissed the top of her daughter's head, hoping to comfort her and reassure her that everything was fine.
"My name is Robin," the child answered for herself.
"Ah, another beautiful name, and please don't mind me when I say you're the spitting image of your mom."
Robin tightened her arms around her mother, and Julia hugged her back.
"So are you two just passing through?"
"I guess you can say that." Julia made a point to be ambiguous, yet at the same time she didn't want to come off as rude. He was, after all, doing them a favor.
An awkward moment of silence lapsed before Carson cleared his throat and tried again.
"I'm sorry. I really don't mean to pry. I've been accused plenty of times of asking too many questions. I'm not as bad as my sister, mind you, but it's a flaw all the same." He smiled again.
"It's okay." Julia relaxed. She couldn't help it. The man's friendly demeanor made it impossible not to like him. Maybe it had been a stroke of good luck that their paths had crossed.
Weariness crept over her. Since when had she believed in good fortune?
"Mommy, where are we going?" Robin asked almost in a whine.
Julia stiffened as a rush of heat clawed at her neck.
"Don't worry, baby. It's going to be a surprise."
Julia kissed Robin's head again and hoped that her short answer would stifle any further questions. To her relief it seemed to work, and Robin dropped back off to sleep.
Meanwhile, a flicker of disappointment hit Carson as he caught a glimpse of a wedding ring on her hand. Then again, he shouldn't have been surprised. The woman was a real knockout. A man would have to be blind not to see that even through the drenched hair and oversize clothes.
Her honey-colored, cat-shaped eyes held a tinge of apprehension, but were undoubtedly the most intriguing pair he'd ever seen.
"So I take it that you two are on your way to see your husband?" he couldn't help but ask.
Julia clenched her jaw and kept her gaze focused on the road.
When she didn't answer, Carson realized that he was asking too many questions. "Sorry. I'm doing it again."
Julia forced an amicable smile. "Thank you for coming to our rescue back there. I don't want you to think that I don't appreciate it. I do."