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"Sam? Where the hell are you?" Southern Oregon's dense coastal fog absorbed Heath Stone's words, rendering his words useless in the search for his dog, who lately felt like his only friend.
Heath had let him out the previous night at 2200 for his usual evening constitutional, but the dog had caught the scent of something, and a chase ensued through the forest thick with sitka spruce, western hemlock and red cedar. Heath had spent the entire night searching the pungent woods, his footfalls silent on winding pine needle-strewn paths, all the while fighting the urge to panic.
Now, in dawn's fragile light, with his heart empty from mourning Patricia and the pain still too raw, he couldn't even consider suffering another loss. "Come on, Sam! Quit fooling around!"
Heath clapped, then whistled, hoping the shrill sound carried.
It did not.
Thirty minutes later, he'd wound his way back to the one-bedroom log cabin that for the past year he'd called home. After relieving himself, he washed his hands and splashed cold water on his face.
He took an energy bar from the cabinet alongside the propane stove and a bottled water from the fridge. Stopping only long enough to retrieve his wallet and keys from the metal bucket he stored them in beside the door, he soon sat behind the wheel of the 1960 Ford pickup that his grandpa had bought new.
The trek down the cabin's single-lane drive proved daunting, with visibility being a few feet at best. After rolling down both windows, he called periodically out either side.
By the time he reached the main road, the fog had thinned to the point he could at least make out the double yellow lines on the pavement. Usually, at this time of the morning, he and Sam set out to fish on the Umpqua River. Most weekdays, the road was deserted. Hell, most weekendsunless his hometown of Bent Road was hosting a holiday festival or fishing tourney. Most tourists traveling north from Coos Bay on Oregon Coast Highway 101 blew right by the lonely road leading to the largely forgotten town. With no trendy B and Bs or campgrounds, visitors had no reason beyond curiosity to ever stop by. A fact that suited Heath just fine.
"Sam! You out there, boy?" Crawling along at the harrowing rate of fifteen miles per hour, Heath continued calling, intermittently scanning the faded blacktop for the potentially gut-wrenching sight of his woundedor even deaddog.
"What the" He'd driven maybe five miles before pumping his brakes, having damn near hit not his dog, but a womana very pregnant womanstanding in the road's center, waving her arms. "What's the matter with you?" he hollered, easing the truck onto the weed-choked shoulder. "Got some kind of death wish?"
Upon killing the engine, he hopped out and slammed the door shut behind him. The dense fog stole the thunder of a gratifying bang, leaving him with a less satisfactory thud.
"Th-thank you so much for stopping." The ethereal blonde staggered his direction. Was she drunk? "M-my car broke down yesterday. I tried walking, but"
"It's a good thirty miles to town."
She placed her hands protectively over her bulging belly. "If you could just take me to a phone, I'd " Before finishing her halting sentence, she crumpled before him like a building that had suddenly lost its foundation.
He rushed to her, checking her pulse and finding it strong.
Abandoning his worries for Sam, he hefted the woman's deadweight into his arms and then onto his truck's passenger seat.
He then retrieved her giant purse from the road.
"W-what happened?" she asked, stirring when he buckled her in and set her purse beside her.
"You fainted. How long has it been since you've had a decent meal?"
"II don't know. I'm saving my cash for gas."
The fog had lifted enough to reveal a VW Bug as old as his truck. The backseat was crammed so tightly with the woman's belongings, daylight couldn't even be seen through the front window.
"I'll run you to my cabinget you fed and call for a tow."
"Thank youbut I don't have the money for a tow or mechanic."
He closed her door. "You prefer I leave you out here for the crows?"
Groaning, she pressed her fingertips to her forehead.
"What I'd prefer is to have never wound up in this position."
All too well, he knew the feeling.
Libby Dewitt struggled to stay awake while the stranger drove. Exhaustionphysical and emotionalweighed down her shoulders, making even turning her head an effort.
"Stay with me " the man urged. "Sure I shouldn't take you straight to a doc?"
"I'm fine," she assured. It took much of her remaining energy to meet his curiously hollow stare. "Just tired and hungry."
"I can help with both of those issues. And since you're low on cash, I'll see what I can do with your car. But fair warning, I'm good with a lot of things, but engine repair has never been one of them."
From somewhere inside she managed a laugh. "At this point, a cracker and glass of water would be downright gourmet. To expect more would be greedy."
His sideways glance spoke volumes, but at the same time, nothing at all. Again, she had the sense that part of him was emotionally missing. What had he been through?
He turned the truck onto a dirt lane so narrow the weeds grew between twin tire ruts.
Woods, dark and brooding, surrounded them, yet over a small hill, sunbeams punched through the fog, the soft light promising to end the day's gloom.
Over the next hill stood the sweetest log cabinsun-and weather-faded with rich green moss growing between the logs' seams. Two smallish paned windows flanked a wooden front door. A wide, covered porch held two rockers and a pair of dead hanging ferns. The Pacific glistened in teasing strips just beyond massive pines.
"I-it's beautiful," she said, not trying to disguise her awe. "How lucky you are."
Parking the truck, he shrugged. "It's okay."
Okay? To be jaded about such a view implied he wasn't really alive at all. Despite the lousy circumstances she found herself in, Libby hoped she'd never lose her ability to be wowed by Mother Nature showing off.
"You able to walk under your own steam?"
"II think so " To prove it she opened the door with an echoing creak, then placed her feet firmly on the ground. Her legs wobbled a little at first, but then held strong as the stranger set his arm about her shoulders, assisting her into his home. In another world she may have appraised his warm, strong touch, but for now she was merely grateful for the help. "By the way, I'm Libby."
"Nice to meet you. I'm Heath."
Inside, it took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness.
"Sorry about the mess." After leading her to a dilapidated yet comfy brown plaid sofa, he plucked a couple dirty shirts from the back of a wood rocker and a ladder-back kitchen chair. "It's just me around here, and, well " He shoved his hands in his pockets. "There's not much need to clean."
She waved off his concern. "Considering I've spent the past two years in a tent, the fact that you have an actual roof ranks this place right up there with the Taj Mahal."
"A tent, huh?" He'd ducked in the fridge and emerged with milk, cheese and a carton of eggs. "Sounds like a good story." He set his finds on the butcher-block counter lining the cabin's front wall, then took an energy bar from a cabinet and tossed it to her. "Eat this, then tell me more about how a woman willingly spends two years sleeping under the stars."
Three bites later she'd devoured her snack and drank half the bottled water he'd also given her. "Thank you. That was delicious." She finished off the water, then patted her hands to her bulging belly. "Long story short, the father of this little gal considered himself a free spirit. He believed houses were the equivalent of cells, and marriage a life sentence."
Beating eggs, her savior asked, "You're talking about this guy in the past tense. Is he dead?"
"Gosh, no." Though too many times than she'd liked, she could've cheerfully clubbed him. "Liam left me for a woman who makes fresh flower headbands. We all traveled together in an unofficial craft show circuit. I'm a potter."
"No kidding?" She didn't miss his raised eyebrows when he shot her a glance. Used to be, that kind of look by so-called acceptable society sent her dashing off for a discreet cry, but no more. She was done apologizing for the life she loved. "You make bowls and vases and stuff?"
"Eat up." He handed her a plate filled with eggs scrambled with cheese and two slices of whole wheat toast with butter.
"Oh, wow. This looks delicious. Thanks."
"No problem." After handing her another bottled water, he spun a kitchen chair around and straddled it, resting his forearms on the back. "Should've asked sooner, but want me to call anyone for you? There's gotta be someone you know who'd want to help."
She shook her head. "It's complicated."
"Yeah, well " He looked to the door. "Make yourself at home, and I'll see what I can do with your car."
"I should probably tag along." She reached beside her for the oversize hobo bag serving as her purse.
"Don't sweat it. I've got this."
"Yeah. But I'll need your keys." His half grin did funny things to her insidesor maybe it was just the satisfaction of for once having a full stomach. Regardless, she took her first in-depth look at her new friend and was duly impressed. Dark, slightly overgrown buzz cut and the most amazing pale green eyes. He wore desert camo fatigues, boots and a sand-colored T-shirt that hugged his pecs in a way a woman in her condition shouldn't notice.
Distracting herself from the unexpectedly hot view, she fished for her keys and handed them over.
"Thanks," he said. "Be back soon, okay?"
She nodded, and then just as abruptly as he'd entered her life, he was gone.
Hugging her tummy, she said, "Baby, if your daddy was as nice as our new friend, we might not be in such a pickle."
Tilting her head back, Libby groaned.
Despite this temporary respite, she could hardly bear thinking of the hours, let alone days and weeks, to come. She'd thought the journey home would be relatively simple, but it was proving tougher than she'd ever imagined.
"Sam!" During the short return trek to Libby's car, Heath squashed his many questions about the woman by continuing his search for his dog. "You out there, boy?"
The fog had burned off, making for an annoyingly hot and sunny day. No doubt everyone else in town was thrilled, but sun reminded him of days spent on the beach with Patricia and all of the perfect days they'd spent planning out the rest of their perfect lives.
On the main road, again looking to the shoulders for Sam, Heath's stomach knotted in disgust for the guy who'd left Libby on her own while carrying his child. Who did that? Here he'd have selfishly given anything for Patricia to have been with him long enough for them to have a kid, so he'd at least have something tangible beyond pictures to remember her by, yet that lucky asshole was about to have a son or daughter and didn't even care.
Within minutes he made it to Libby's Bug.
He veered his truck around to try giving her vehicle a jump, but the engine wouldn't turn over. The car was an older model he'd only seen while on missions with his navy SEAL unit in developing countries, meaning it didn't even have a gas gauge. Back under the hood he checked the fuel level the way he'd check the oil on any normal car. The stick read nearly a quarter-tank. Which meant he'd reached the end of his personal bag of tricks.
Good thing his cell got better reception on the side of the road than at his cabin.
Thirty minutes later, Hal Kramer arrived with his tow truck.
"Haven't seen one of these in a while," he said, backing out the driver's side door to climb down from his truck. He sauntered over to where Heath stood, wiping sweat from his forehead with a red shop rag. While appraising the situation, he twirled the left side of his handlebar mustache. "Girl I used to date up in Portland drove one of these. Whenever she drank too much wine, I drove. My legs were so long I usually ended up turning off the engine switch with my knee."
"Good times." Heath said with a faint smile.
The burly town mechanic walked to the vehicle's rear, then lifted the engine cover. "You happen to check the gas and battery?"
"Yep." Hands in his pockets, Heath tried not to remember how frightened he'd been when Libby collapsed at his feet. He'd done his best to hide his fear from her, but inside, he'd been a wreck. Sam's disappearing act already had Heath on edge. The reminder of how frail Patricia had been at the end finished the job of making a normally unflappable guy a nervous wreck.
"All right, old girl." Hal crouched in front of the engine. "Let's take a peek under your knickers ."
While his longtime friend tinkered at the rear of the car, Heath looked inside. A pottery wheel occupied the passenger seat and an assortment of suitcases and boxes had been crammed into the back. When Libby told him she was a potter, he'd honestly thought she'd been joking, but maybe not. Did that mean she'd also been telling the truth about spending two years in a tent?
Oddly enough, if he counted the total time he'd spent on missions, he'd probably slept under the stars more than her, but that was different. Given a choice between a bed and dirt, the bed would always win.
"Try starting it!" Hal called.
Heath gave the engine another try. "Nothing!"
A few curses later, Hal appeared, wiping his hands on his rag. "Thought there might be a quick fixloose hose or somethingbut I'm guessing this is electrical. Let me run it into my shop and I'll see what I can find."
"Sounds good." Heath would take Libby to town, where she'd be someone else's problemnot that he'd minded helping, just that with her gone, he could focus on finding his dog. "Have any idea how long it'll take?"
Hal shrugged. "Ten minutes. Ten days. If I need parts, depends on where they are and if the owner has the Ben Franklins to buy 'em."
Heath released a long, slow exhale. "Yeah. What if the owner's short on cash?"
"Is he from around here?"
"Nah. Belongs to a womanshe's passing through. The reason I ask is she's very pregnant, broke and must weigh less than a soaked kitten."
Scratching his head, Hal said, "Sorry to hear it. I'll certainly do what I can to keep costs down, but with vintage models like this I can't make any promises."
"I understand. I'll bring her round a little later. You two can sort out an arrangement."
Heath shook his old friend's hand, then helped him load Libby's car. With any luck the repair would be fast and cheap, getting her back on the road to wherever she'd been going.
And if the fix wasn't fast and proved expensive?
He closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. He hated being an ass, but if Libby had to stick around, he'd just have to make sure she stayed away from him.