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The sun was directly overhead.
Logan's vehicle was headed south. Down the highway toward Cypress Hillsoasis on the Alberta prairie and vacation home of Logan Napier's grandfather and parents.
Logan Napier should have been happy. No, Logan Napier should have been euphoric.
Usually the drive through the wide-open grasslands of the prairies put a smile on his face. The tawny landscape, deceptively smooth, soothed away the jagged edges of city living. The quiet highways never ceased to work their peace on him, erasing the tension of driving in Calgary's busy traffic.
Usually, Logan Napier drove one-handed, leaning back, letting the warm wind and the open space work its magic as he drove with the top of his convertible down.
Today, however, his hands clenched the steering wheel of a minivan, his eyes glaring through his sunglasses at the road ahead. In his estimation a single man moving up in the world shouldn't be driving a minivan. Nor should a single man be contemplating seven different punishments for ten-year-old twin nieces. And his mother.
All three were supposed to be neatly ensconced in the cabin in the hills. He was supposed to be coming up for a two-week holiday, spending his time drawing up plans for a house for Mr. Jonserad of Jonserad Holdings. If he was successful, it had the potential to bring more work from Jonserad's company to his architecture partnership.
Instead his mother had just called. She was leaving for Alaska in a day. Then the tutor called telling him that she was quitting because she wasn't getting the support she needed from Logan's mother. Each phone call put another glitch in his well-laid plans.
He hadn't planned on this, hebrooded, squinting against the heat waves that shimmered from the pavement as he rounded a bend. Logan hit the on button of the tape deck and was immediately assaulted by the rhythmic chanting of yet another boy band, which did nothing for his ill humor. Every area of his life had been invaded by his nieces from the first day they came into his home, orphaned when their parents died in a boating accident.
Grimacing, Logan ejected the tape and fiddled with the dials. How was he supposed to work on this very important project with the girls around, unsupervised and running free?
How were they supposed to move on to the next grade if they didn't have a tutor to work with them? And where was he supposed to find someone on such short notice? It had taken him a number of weeks to find one who was willing to go with the girls to Cypress Hills and to follow the studies their previous teacher had set out.
Glancing down, Logan gave the dial another quick twist. Finally some decent music drifted out of the speakers. He adjusted the tuner then glanced up.
He was heading directly toward a woman standing on the side of the road.
Logan yanked on the steering wheel. The tires squealed on the warm pavement as the van swung around her.
He slammed on the brakes. The van rocked to a halt, and Logan pulled his shaking hands over his face.
He took a slow breath and sent up a heartfelt prayer, thankful that nothing more serious had happened. He got out of the van in time to see the woman bearing down on him, a knapsack flung over one shoulder.
Her long brown hair streamed behind her, her eyes narrowed.
"You could have killed me," she called, throwing her hands in the air.
"I'm sorry," he said, walking toward her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. You missed me." She stopped in front of him, her hands on her hips, her dark eyes assessing him even as he did her.
She was of medium height. Thick brown hair hung in a heavy swath over one shoulder. Her deep brown eyes were framed by eyebrows that winged ever so slightly, giving her a mischievous look. Her tank top revealed tanned arms, her khaki shorts long, tanned legs. Bare feet in sandals. Attractive in a homegrown way.
"What were you doing?" she asked.
Logan blinked, realizing he was studying her a little too long. Chalk it up to loneliness, he thought. And he must be lonely if he was eyeing hitchhikers. "Just trying to find a radio station," he said finally.
She shook her head, lifting her hair from the back of her neck. "Checking the latest stock quotations?"
In spite of the fact that he knew he hadn't been paying attention and had almost missed her, Logan still bristled at her tone. "Why were you on the side of the road?" he returned.
A few vehicles whizzed by, swirling warm air around the two of them.
"Thumbing for a ride." She let her hair drop, tilted her head and looked past him. "I suppose you'll have to give me one now, since you've almost killed me and then made me miss a few potentials."
She didn't look much older than twenty and about as responsible as his nieces. He wasn't in the mood to have her as a passenger, but he did feel he owed her a ride.
"I didn't almost kill you," he said, defending himself. "But I am sorry about the scare."
"So do I get a ride?"
Logan hesitated. He felt he should, though he never picked up hitchhikers as a rule.
"I won't kill you, if that's what you're worried about." Her lips curved into a smirk. "And I won't take your wife and kids hostage or try to sue you for taking five years off my life."
"I don't have a wife and kids."
"But you have a minivan."
Logan frowned at her smirk and decided to let the comment pass. He wasn't in the mood to defend the necessity of his vehicle to a complete stranger, not with the sun's heat pressing all around. "Look, I'm sorry again about what I did. But I'm running late. If you want a ride, I'm leaving now."
He didn't look to see if she had followed him, but she had the passenger door open the same time he had his open.
"Nice and cool in here," she said, pulling off her knapsack. She dropped it on the floor in front of her and looked around. "So, what's a guy like you need a minivan for?" she asked, as Logan clicked his seat belt shut.
"What do you mean, a guy like me?" Logan frowned as he slipped on his sunglasses and checked his side mirror.
"Near as I can see, I figure you for an accountant," she said, glancing around the interior of the van. "Laptop in the seat, briefcase beside it. All nice and orderly. Someone like you should be driving a sedan, not a van."
"Do you usually analyze the people who pick you up?" Logan asked as he pulled onto the road, regretting his momentary lapse that put him in this predicament. He had things on his mind and didn't feel like listening to meaningless chatter.
"I need to. I hear too many scary stories about disappearing women."
"So why take the chance?" He glanced at her, and in spite of his impression of her, he was struck once again by her straightforward good looks.
"Sense of adventure. The lure of the open road." She shrugged. "That and the free ride."
"Okay, I detect a faint note of derision in your voice," she said with a light laugh. "If you're an accountant, I would imagine that there isn't a column in your life for freeloaders."
Logan didn't deign to answer that one.
She waited, then with a shrug bent over and pulled a bottle of water out of her knapsack. Twisting off the top, she offered some to him. "Some free water as payment for my free ride?"
He shook his head.
The woman took a sip and backhanded her mouth. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her scrutiny.
"To further answer your previous question about taking chances," she continued. "I have to admit that I don't see you as a threat."
Logan only nodded, unwilling to encourage her. He didn't really want to talk. He preferred to concentrate on his most recent problem.
"You've got the briefcase, which could be hiding a murder weapon," she said, as if unaware of his silence, "but I'm sure if I were to open it, it would be full of paper. Probably the financial section of the newspaper, folded open to the stock market. Let's see, what else," she mused aloud, still studying him. "A calculator, some sort of computerized personal organizer, a variety of pens and pencils, a package of chewing gum, a manual of one type or another and business cards, of course. Lots of business cards. Murderers don't usually carry that kind of thing. But my biggest clue that you're not a murderer is this." She held up the tape that had fallen out of the tape deck. "I don't think boy bands singing 'oh baby, baby, you are a little baby, you baby' is what a would-be murderer would listen to." She stopped finally, turning the tape over in her hands. "Of course, listening to it might drive you to murder."
In spite of the minor annoyance of her chatter, Logan couldn't stop the faint grin teasing his mouth at her last statement.
"Ah, Mr. Phlegmatic does have a faint sense of humor," she said, lifting her bare feet to the seat and clasping her arms around her knees.
"This Mr. Phlegmatic would prefer it if you buckled up," he said finally.
"And Mr. P. talks," she said with a saucy grin. But to his surprise she lowered her feet and obediently buckled up. "So what do you do when you're not running over women on the side of the road?"
Logan shook his head in exasperation. "Look, I already apologized for that," he said with a measure of asperity. "I don't make a habit of that anymore than I make a habit of picking up hitchhikers."
"Well, for that I'm grateful. And of course, very grateful that I don't have to worry about not reaching my destination."
"And where, ultimately, is that?" he asked.
"The next stop on this road," the woman said with a laugh. "The Hills."
"That's where I'm headed, too."
"That's just excellent." She beamed at him, and Logan felt a faint stirring of reaction to her infectious enthusiasm.
He pulled himself up short. This woman was definitely not his type, no matter how attractive she might be. He put his reaction down to a melancholy that had been his companion since he and Karen had broken up.
A gentle ache turned through him as he thought of Karen. When Logan was awarded sole guardianship of his nieces, Karen had decided that the responsibility was more than she could handle. So she broke up with Logan. At the time he didn't know if it was his pride or his feelings that hurt more. He still wasn't sure.
"So what's your name?" he asked, relegating that subject to the closed file.
"Sandra Bachman. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. P."
Logan decided to leave it at that. He wasn't as comfortable handing out his name. Not to a total stranger.
She smiled at him and looked at the countryside. "Do you come here often?"
Logan glanced sidelong at her, realizing that she wasn't going to be quiet. Ignoring her didn't work, so he really had not choice but to respond to her. "Not as often as I'd like," he admitted. "I work in Calgary."
"As an accountant?"
"Ooh. All those nice straight lines."
Logan ignored her slightly sarcastic remark. "So what do you do?"
Sandra lay her head back against the headrest of the car. "Whatever comes to mind. Wherever I happen to be." She tossed him another mischievous glance. "I've been a short-order cook on Vancouver Island, a waitress in California, a receptionist in Minnesota. I've worked on a road crew and tried planting trees." She wrinkled her nose. "Too hard. The only constant in my life has been my stained glass work."
"As in church windows?"
"Sometimes. Though I don't often see the finished project."
"Been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. Not my style."
Sandra Bachman sounded exactly like his mother always moving and resistant to organized religion.
"Do you go to church?" she asked.
"Yes, I do," he said hoping that his conviction came through the three words. "I attend regularly."
"Out of need or custom?"
He shook his head as he smiled. "Need is probably uppermost."
"A good man." Again the slightly sarcastic tone. In spite of his faint animosity toward her, he couldn't help but wonder what caused it.
"Going to church doesn't make anyone good any more than living in a garage makes someone a mechanic," he retorted.
She laughed again, a throaty sound full of humor. "Good point, Mr. P."
She tilted her head to one side, twisting her hair around her hand. "You have a cabin in Elkwater?"
Logan nodded, checking his speed. "It's my grandfather's."
"So you're on holiday."
"Okay, you sound defensive."
"You sound nosy."
Sandra laughed. "You're not the first one to tell me that." She gave her hair another twist. "So if you're not on holiday, why are you going to a holiday place?"
"I have to meet my mother." And try and talk some sense into her, Logan thought. If he could convince his mother to stay, he might win a reprieve.
"So she's holidaying."
Logan glanced at Sandra, slightly annoyed at her steady probing. "My mother has her own strange and irresponsible plans," he said.
His passenger angled him a mischievous glance, unfazed by his abrupt comments. "I sense tension between your mother's choice of lifestyle and yours."
"That's putting it kindly. My mother has a hard time with responsibility."
"Surely you're being a little hard on her? After all, she raised you, didn't she?"
Logan held her dancing eyes, momentarily unable to look away, catching a glimmer of her enthusiasm.