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The only thing worse than being lost was being lost in Texas. In August.
Kris Demetrious slumped against the back end of his borrowed, screaming-yellow Ferrari, peeled the shirt from his damp chest and flipped his phone vertical. With the new orientation, the lines on the map still didn't resemble the concrete stretching out under the tires. Lesson for the day—internet maps only worked if they were accurate.
The Ferrari was no help with its MP3 player docking station but no internal GPS. Italian automotive engineers either never got lost or didn't care where they were going.
Mountains enclosed the landscape in every direction, but unlike L.A., none of them were marked. No mansions, no Hollywood sign and no clues to use to correct his wrong turn.
He never got lost on the set. Give him a controlled, detached position behind the camera, and if the scene refused to come together, starting over was as simple as yelling, "Cut."
So what had possessed him to drive to Dallas instead of fly?
A stall tactic, that's what.
Dying in the desert wasn't on his to-do list, but avoiding his destination was. If he could find food and water, he'd prefer to stay lost. Because as soon as he got to Dallas, he'd have to announce his engagement to America's Sweetheart Kyla Monroe. And even though he'd agreed to her scheme, he'd rather trash six weeks' worth of dailies than go through with it.
He pocketed the phone as bright afternoon sunshine beat down, a thousand times hotter than it might have been if he'd been wearing a color other than black. Heat shimmered across the road, blurring the horizon.
Just then, churning dust billowed up, the only movement he'd seen in at least fifteen minutes. A dull orange pickup truck, coated with rust, drove through the center of the dirt cloud and pulled off the highway, braking on the shoulder behind the Ferrari. Sand whipped against Kris in a gritty whirlwind. He swept his hair out of his face and went to greet his rescuer.
Really, once he ran out of gas, he could have been stuck here for days, fending off the vultures with nothing more than a smartphone and polarized sunglasses. He'd already spun the car around twice to head in the opposite direction and now he'd lost his bearings. The truck driver's timing was awesome and, with any luck, he would be able to give Kris directions to the main highway.
After a beat, the truck's door creaked open and light hit the faded logo stenciled on the orange paint. Big Bobby's Garage Serving You Since 1956. Dusty, cracked boots appeared below the opened door and whoomped to the ground. Out of the settling dust, a small figure emerged. A girl. Barely of driving age and, odds are, not Big Bobby.
"Car problems, chief?" she drawled as she approached. Her Texas accent was as thick as the dust, but her voice rolled out musically. She slipped off her sunglasses, and the world skipped a beat. The unforgiving heat, lack of road signs and the problems waiting for him in Dallas slid away.
Clear blue eyes peered up at him out of a heart-shaped face and a riot of cinnamon-colored hair curled against porcelain cheeks. Not a glimmer of makeup graced her skin, unusual enough in itself to earn a second glance. The sun bathed her in its glow, a perfect key light. He wouldn't even need a fill light to get the shot. She was fresh, innocent and breathtakingly beautiful. Like a living sunflower. He wanted to film her.
She eyed him. "Problema con el coche, senor?"
Kris closed his mouth and cleared his throat. "I'm Greek, not Hispanic."
What a snappy response, and not entirely true—he'd renounced his Greek citizenship at sixteen and considered himself American through and through. How had such a small person shut down his brain in less than thirty seconds?
"Wow. Yes, you are, with a sexy accent and everything. Say something else," she commanded and circled a finger. The blue of her eyes turned sultry. "Tell me your life is meaningless without me, and you'd give a thousand fortunes to make me yours."
Somehow his mouth was open again. "Seriously?" She laughed, a pure sound that trilled through his abdomen. A potent addition to the come-hither she radiated like perfume. "Only if you mean it," she said.
There was too much confidence in the set of her shoulders for her to be a teenager. Mid-twenties at least. But then, how worldly could a girl from Nowhere, Texas, be? Especially given her obvious fondness for romantic melodrama and her distinct lack of self-preservation. For all she knew, he might be the next Charles Manson instead of the next Scorsese.
With a grin, she jerked her chin. "I'll cut you a break, Tonto. You can talk about whatever you want. We don't see many fancy foreigners in these parts, but I'd be happy to check you out. I mean check it out." She shook her head and shut her eyes for a blink. "The car. I'll look at it for you. Might be an easy fix."
The car? She must work as a mechanic at Big Bobby's. Intriguing. Most women needed help finding the gas tank.
"It's not broken down. I'm just lost," he clarified while his imagination galloped back to the idea of her checking him out, doctor-style, with lots of hands-on analysis. Clawing hunger stabbed through him, as unexpected as it was powerful.
Maybe he should remember his own age, which wasn't seventeen. Women propositioned him all the time, but with the subtlety of a 747 at takeoff, which he'd never liked and never thought twice about refusing. He had little use for any sort of liaison unless it was fictional and part of his vision for bringing a story to the screen.
This woman had managed to pull him out from behind the lens with a couple of sentences. It was unnerving.
"Lost, huh?" Her gaze raked over him from top to toe. "Lucky for me I found you, then. Does that put you in my debt?"
Everything spilled out of her mouth with veiled insinuation. When combined with her guileless demeanor and fresh face, the punch was forceful. "Well, you haven't done anything for me. Yet."
Slim eyebrows jerked up in fascination. "What would you like for me to do?"
He leaned in close enough to catch a whiff of her hair. Coconut and grease, a combination he would have sworn wasn't the least bit arousing before now. Same for the big T-shirt with the cracked Texas Christian University Horned Frogs emblem and cheap jeans. On her, haute couture.
He crooked a finger and she crowded into his space, which felt mysteriously natural, as if they'd often conspired together.
"Right now, there's only one thing I'd like for you to do," he said.
His gaze slid to her lips and what had started as a flirtatious game veered into dangerous territory as he anticipated kissing this nameless desert mirage, sliding against those pink lips, delving into her hot mouth. Her laugh pulsing against his skin.
Kissing strangers was so not his style, and he was suddenly sad it wasn't.
"Yeah? What would you like me to do?" She wet her lips with the very tip of her tongue, heating his blood all the way to his toes.
"Tell me where I am."
Her musical laugh poleaxed him again. "Little Crooked Creek Road. Also known as the middle of nowhere."
"There's a creek somewhere in all this sand?" Water—wet, cool and perfect for skinny dipping.
No. No naked strangers. What was wrong with him?
"Nah." Her nose wrinkled, screwing up her features in a charming way. "It dried up in the 1800s. We lack the imagination to rename the road."
"So tell me, since you're local. Is it always this hot?" Truthfully, he'd long stopped caring about his sticky, damp clothes, but the urge to keep her talking wouldn't go away.
"No, not at all. Usually it's hotter. That's why we don't wear all black when it's a hundred and ten," she said, scrutinizing him with a gaze as sizzling as the concrete. "Though I like it on you. What brought you so far off the beaten path, anyway?"
"I wish the story was more interesting than a wrong turn. But it's not." He grinned and tried to be sorry he'd veered from the interstate but couldn't conjure up a shred of regret. Surprisingly, being in the middle of this scene wasn't so bad. "I left El Paso pretty sure I was headed in the right direction, but I haven't seen a sign for Dallas in a long time."
"Yeah. You're lost. This road winds south to the Rio Grande. It's really not grand or even much of a rio. Can't recommend it as a sightseeing venture, so I'd head back to Van Horn and take the 10 east."
"Van Horn. I vaguely remember passing through it."
"Not much to remember. I was just in town, and it hasn't changed since the last time I came in March. Speaking of which, I need to get a move on. The part I picked up isn't going to magically install itself in Gus's truck." She sighed and stuck a thumb over her shoulder. "Van Horn's that way. Good luck and watch for state troopers. They live to pull over fast cars.
"Or," she continued brightly, "you can go thataway and take your first right. That'll put you on the road to the center of Little Crooked Creek and the best fried chicken in the county."
He wasn't nearly sated enough on the harmony of her voice. Or the charming way she rambled about nothing but piqued his interest anyway. Real life loomed on the horizon, and even if it took him a month to arrive to Dallas, he'd still be unhappy with the creative financing deal for Visions of Black. Kyla would still be Kyla—unfaithful, selfish and artificial—and he'd have to expend way too much energy not caring.
But, he reminded himself again, it was worth it. If he wanted to make Visions, he had to generate plenty of free publicity with an engagement to his beloved-by-the-masses, Oscar-winning ex-girlfriend. A fake engagement.
"Fried chicken is my favorite." And he was starving. What could a couple of hours hurt? After all, he'd driven on purpose so it would take as long as possible to reach Dallas. "What's Little Crooked Creek?"
"The poorest excuse for a small town you'll ever have the misfortune to visit in your life," she said with a wry twist of her lips. "It's where I live."
The Greek god was following her. VJ sneaked another glance in the rearview mirror. Yup. The muy amarilla Ferrari kept pace with Daddy's truck. God had dropped off a fantasy on the side of the road in a place where nothing had happened for a millennium and he was following her.
Giddy. That was the word for the jumpy crickets in her stomach. She'd been waiting a long time for a knight in shining armor of her very own and never in a million years would she have expected to find one until she escaped Little Crooked Creek forever, amen. Yet, here he was, six feet of gorgeousness in the flesh and following her to Pearl's. Shiver and a half.
She pulled into a parking place at the diner and curled her lip at the white flatbed in the next spot. Great. Lenny and Billy were here. Must be later than she thought. Her brothers never crawled out of bed until three o'clock and usually only then because she booted them awake, threatening them with no breakfast if they didn't move their lazy butts.
Hopefully they weren't on their second cup of coffee yet and wouldn't notice the stranger strolling through Pearl's. The last thing she wanted was to expose her precious knight to the two stupidest good ol' boys in West Texas.
The Ferrari rolled into the spot on the other side of Daddy's truck, and the Greek god flowed out of it like warm molasses. He was the most delicious thing in four states, and he was all hers. For now. She wasn't deluded enough to think such an urbane, sophisticated specimen of a man would stick around, but it was no crime to bask in his gloriousness until he flowed back out of her life. Sigh. She grabbed her backpack and met him on the sidewalk.
Pearl's was almost empty. Her stranger was as out of place as a June bug in January, and it only took fourteen seconds for all eight pairs of eyes in the place to focus on them as she led him past the scarred tables to the booth in the shadow of the kitchen—the one everyone understood was reserved for couples who wanted privacy. She plopped onto the bench, opting to take the side sloppily repaired with silver duct tape and giving him the mostly okay seat.
He slid onto the opposite bench and folded his pianist's fingers into a neat crosshatch pattern right over the heart carved into the Formica tabletop, with the initials LT & SR in the center. Laurie and Steve had been married nearly twenty years now, a small-town staple completely in contrast to this man, who doubtlessly frequented chic sushi bars and classy nightclubs.
What had she been thinking when she invited him here? "Interesting place," he said.
Dilapidated, dark and smelling of rancid grease maybe, but interesting wasn't a descriptor of Pearl's. "Best cooking you'll find for miles. And the only cooking."
He laughed and she scoured her memory for something else funny to say so she could hear that deep rumble again. Then she abandoned that idea as he pierced her with those incredible melty-brown eyes. She settled for drinking him in. He was finely sculpted, as if carved from marble and deemed so perfect that his creator had breathed life into his statue and set it free to live amongst mere mortals.
"My name's Kris." He held out a hand and raised his eyebrows expectantly. "From Los Angeles."
Surreptitiously, she wiped the grime and sweat off her palm and clasped his smooth hand. Energy leaped between them, shocking her with a funny little zap.
"Sorry, static electricity. It's dry this time of year." She folded her hand into her lap, cradling it with the other. Was it too melodramatic to vow never to wash it again? "I'm VJ. From nowhere. And I'll keep being from nowhere if I don't get to work. I'm saving every dime to get out of here."
She jumped up, hating to desert him, but it was almost four o'clock.
"You're leaving me?" Kris cocked his head and a silky strand of his shoulder-length hair fell into his face. She knotted her fingers behind her back so she couldn't indulge the urge to sweep it from his cheekbone. Touching the artwork was a no-no, even when it wasn't behind glass.
"Not a chance," she said. "I have to put my uniform on, then I'll take your order."
He glanced at the other customers, who weren't ashamed to be caught in open inspection of the foreigner in their midst. "You work here?"
His accent was amazing. The words were English, a language she'd used her entire life, but every syllable sounded exotic and special. It was the difference between Detroit and Italy—both produced cars, but the end result had little in common other than tires and a steering wheel.
And it was way past time to stop rubbernecking. "Uh, yeah. Five days a week."
Her brothers lumbered off their stools at the counter. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched them hulk over to the booth.
"Who's the pansy?" Lenny sneered. VJ butted him in the chest with her shoulder until he glanced down.
"Back off," she demanded. "He's just passing through and no threat to you. Let him be."
Lenny flicked her out of the way as if she weighed no more than a feather.
Before she'd fully regained her balance, Kris exploded from the booth and descended by her side, staring down Lenny and Billy without flinching. Okay, so maybe he didn't actually need defending. Her heart tumbled to her knees as he angled his body, shielding her, unconcerned about the five hundred pounds of Lewis boys glaring at him. Nobody in Little Crooked Creek stood up to even one of her brothers, let alone two. He really was heroic.
"Kristian Demetrious. You are?" His face had gone hard and imperious—warrior-like, about to charge into battle, sword drawn and shield high. As if she needed another push to imagine him as her fantasy knight, come to rescue her from Small Town, USA.
Then his full name registered.