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Sam Pirelli grinned as he hit the gas on the classic Corvette he'd finished restoring that morning. The body still needed workdings and dents on the faded red paint showed a lack of appreciation by the vehicle's former owners. But under the hood, she was as good as new.
Better than new, he thought, considering the long hours he'd put in to bring her back to her high-speed glory.
On a straightaway, he could push her to the limit and see how fast she'd really fly, but the winding mountain roads leading back to his hometown were a hell of a lot more funthe difference between riding on a train and riding on a rollercoaster. Of course, he couldn't go as fast through the twisting turnshe wasn't a total foolbut he knew these roads. And with the way the car was performing, hugging the asphalt and responding to only the slightest tap on the brake or slide of his hand on the wheel, he would swear she knew the way home, too.
The rush of speed and adrenaline fired his blood like little else could. The towering pines along the side of the road whipped by in a blur of dark green and brown, and the clear blue sky held the promise of a gorgeous summer day. With the wind blowing through the open windows, letting in the warm air and the powerful hum of the engine, Sam felt free.
A feeling he cherished more and more, recently.
Almost against his will, he glanced at the wedding invitation on the passenger seat.
Another freaking wedding.
His little sister, Sophia, had gotten hitched a month ago, but under the circumstances, Sam figured a wedding was for the best. Sophia was pregnant and while her new husband, Jake Cameron, wasn't the baby's biological father, everyone in the family knew he was totally committed to being the best husband and father. Jake and Sophia were crazy about each other, and Sam had come to terms with his baby sister getting married and becoming a mom.
He could almost hear her protesting that twenty-four wasn't that young. And neither is twenty-nine, Sam. So when are you going to think about settling down?
He glanced at the invitation again, already imagining the rented tuxedo's tight fit, and fought the urge to tug at the invisible noose around his neck.
Settling down? Not for him.
He pressed harder on the gas, leaving that thought in the dust.
Of course, less than two months ago, he would have sworn his oldest brother, Nick, felt the same way. He'd been married before and had his heart broken when his wife walked out on him and their daughter. He'd done a hell of a job as a single father for the past five years, and Sam would have thought he'd be the last guyokay, second to last guyto take a walk down the aisle.
But then Nick had met Darcy Dawson, and everything changed. Even Sam could see his brother was more relaxed now, quicker to smile or laugh.
And Sam was happy for his siblings, he really was. He just didn't get it. Didn't understand the need to settle down, to take on the responsibility for someone else's happiness, to give up the freedom of being yourself in exchange for being half of something else .
This time Sam didn't stop himself from rubbing a hand over the back of his neck.
He'd tried talking to his middle brother, Drew, about the crazy rash of weddings striking their family, but when Sam complained about renting a tuxedo again, what had his brother said?
Maybe we should think about buying instead of renting.
It was a logical, cost-efficient suggestion, the kind Drew normally made, but something in his brother's distant gaze worried Sam. A look that said Drew wasn't thinking dollars and cents when it came to future weddings but hoping for one of his own.
Sam swore beneath his breath, feeling like the only single guy not to drink the commitment Kool-Aid.
Of course his parents were overjoyed. His mother was in a constant state of motion, helping plan one wedding after another with a baby shower for Sophia already in the works. His father was wise enough to stay out of the way, but he hadn't stopped smilingproud and happy with the additions to the family.
Vince and Vanessa were all about family ties and loyalty and responsibility. Yeah, that word had come up more than once recently.
So had love, a voice whispered through his thoughts. A lasting love A love of a lifetime.
And maybe he had wondered for a lost-his-mind second what it would feel like to have a woman love him the way Sophia loved Jake, the way Darcy loved Nick. But the moment had come and gone faster than the speed limit sign that flew by as he took the next turn.
To have a woman love him that strongly, that completely, well, he'd have to fall for her, too, wouldn't he? And Sam knew he didn't have that depth of emotion inside him. Not anymore. Feelings, like women, came and went.
He liked keeping things fast and fun. He never saw any reason to start digging deeper. He certainly didn't want any woman drilling into him, looking beneath the surface, only to find out what you see is what you get.
Trying to be something he wasn't would only lead down a road to failure, and Sam hated to fail. Hated the raw disappointment of trying his best and knowing it would never be enough.
Shaking off those thoughts, he slowed as he neared town. The sheriff was a good friend's father, but that would only make Cummings come down that much harder. He was glad he had slowed to a reasonable speed as he swerved around some debris in the middle of the roadbroken bits of a lumber and trash. A blown-out tire was the next obstacle, and he slowed even more.
Up ahead, he could see a driver who hadn't been as lucky. A light blue minivan was pulled off on the shoulder. It was one of those newer typesthe kind meant to fool a family guy into thinking he wasn't really driving a mini-van. Only it wasn't a guy who'd been behind the wheel.
A blonde woman stood beside the vehicle, holding up a cell phone as if testing wind speed.
Sam didn't see enough room in the narrow gap between the road and the tree line to pull up behind her, so he drove past. He half expected the woman to try to flag him downbut the blonde stayed fixated to her useless phone, expecting technology to come to her rescue.
Sam grinned as he parked some yards ahead and climbed from the car. He liked rescuing damsels in distress. Broken-down vehicles were his specialty, of course, but he'd helped more than one ex-girlfriend move and had offered strong and silent support as they gave a current boyfriend the boot. He'd even stepped in a time or two when a whiskey-fueled drunk at the local bar started coming on too strong to a pretty waitress.
He wasn't unfamiliar with a mixed expression of relief and gratitude. But it was not the expression he saw on this woman's face as he drew closer.
Her hair was cut straight to her shoulders in a style that seemed to defy the possibility of a single strand falling out of place. Oversized sunglasses hid her eyes, but beyond the dark frames Sam could see a straight nose, high cheekbones and soft pink lips. Those features were perfect and perfectly free of makeupthis was a woman who thought she had to downplay her looks for the world to see beyond them. Yet it was the stubborn lift to her jaw and the frustration in this woman's stance that caught his attention. She might look calm and cool on the outside, but inside
He didn't bother hiding a grin as loose gravel crunched beneath his work boots.
The woman was either passing through town or, he hoped, a tourist planning to stay awhile. No way was she local. She was dressed casually enough for travel in dark jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, but even though the soft cotton hinted at curves beneath, the relaxed style didn't seem to fit her the way a pinstriped jacket and pants would have.
Not the type to normally catch his eye. He went for casual, carefree women who matched him one-on-one when it came to having a good time. Except lately, well, he hadn't been enjoying those good times as much as he used to. It wasn't anything he could put his finger on, exactly. More a sense of something missing.
"Need some help?"
Sighing, she dropped her arm but kept her focus on the phone's tiny screen. "I don't suppose your phone would find a signal out here, would it?"
"Nope. But even if it did, it wouldn't do much good since I don't really need it to call myself."
Reaching out, he took the phone from her hand. He powered the tiny thing down and gave it back. Their fingers barely brushed, but the jolt Sam felt in that brief moment should have been enough to fire that phone up for life and send a signal clear to Mars, he thought, unnerved by the instant attraction.
The blonde froze in that same moment, too. A flush rose in her cheeks and her pale lips parted on an unspoken word, a silent awareness that he wasn't alone in the powerful feeling.
Shaking off the crazy thought, he said, "Tow truck, roadside assistance, local mechanicit's all me."
"All.. you." This whispered word held a note of recognition as the woman stepped back. The heel of her shoe landed on a rock, and her ankle twisted. She caught her balance before he could reach out to help, her arms held out almost as if warding him off.
Fighting the urge to lift up his own hands in an innocent-man gesture, Sam took a closer look. He swore that behind the dark shades she wore her eyes had widened almost as if she knew who he was. But he didn't see how that was possible.
If they'd met, he would have remembered. Her face, her name, everything about her, especially this pull of attraction. He'd always been the type of guy to appreciate women, to recognize instant chemistry and follow wherever it might lead, and yet this felt different in ways he couldn't explain. "Are you okay?"
"Fine. I'm fine."
Considering she still looked ready to jump out of her skin, Sam reached for his patented grin, thinking to put her at ease, as he held out his hand. "Sam Pirelli, Clear-ville's local mechanic."
The woman raised her arm automatically, and Sam laughed as he shook her hand around the phone she held. The spark was still there, but he almost breathed a sigh of relief that the wattage was less astronomical this time.
Flustered, she pulled back and slipped the cell into her pocket. "I'm, um, Kara."
"Well, Kara, this van looks pretty new. I figure you have a spare."
"Yes, of course. I took the van to the dealership for full service before the trip."
Somehow, he wasn't surprised. The woman didn't look the type to leave anything to chance. No detours or what-the-heck side trips for her. He stepped toward the van, but she countered his move almost as if blocking his path. Or trying to, at least, since five-five and a hundred pounds of feminine curves wasn't much of a barricade.
"Look, I know what I'm doing," he reassured her.
The breeze blew a lock of hair into her face, the silken strands catching on her bottom lip, and he rethought his take on her lack of makeup. A light gloss coated her mouth with a hint of color and maybe a touch of flavor. Strawberry, he'd bet. Kara didn't seem the type to go for something like cherry or bubblegum, his young niece's favorites thanks to her fashionable, soon-to-be stepmom, who owned a local cosmetics shop.
Without thinking, he reached up to brush the stray strand back behind her ear. "With cars," he amended, admitting his own reluctance to pull back from the softness of her skin and keep an acceptable, we've-just-met distance. "I've spent the past few months restoring that beauty," he added as he finally took that step back and pointed over his shoulder at the Corvette.
"Months, huh?" A world of doubt filled her voice, and his grin came a lot easier this time.
"I know she doesn't look like much, but it's what inside that counts."
Okay, even he had to admit that sounded like a line, but he didn't think he'd been obvious enough to deserve the sudden suspicion tightening her slender body. It was almost as if she knew what lines he would use and had heard them all before.
Shaking off the odd notion, he gestured to her car. "So, the spare? I can have that flat changed and you can be on your way to."
"Clearville," she admitted as she stepped back and let him walk over to her vehicle.
"Hey, what do you know? My hometown." Sam decided not to think too closely about the hairpin turn of excitement his pulse took when he realized Kara wasn't simply passing through.
As he walked by the van, a movement in the side window caught his attention. He did a double take when a small face stared back at him from the other side of the glass. A young boy blinked owlishly as if just waking up. He frowned with surprising seriousness, his expression clearing only slightly when he spotted Kara standing outside the vehicle.
She had a kid. Sam supposed he should have expected it, considering the soccer-mom minivan Kara drove, but what he hadn't expected was the sudden jab of disappointment. Kids meant a level of responsibility miles above what he was used to, so he tended to stay away. From kids and from single moms.
"Cute kid," he said, almost automatically, before taking a second glance at the boy in the van.
He was cute. All that blond curly hair sticking up in every direction, the dimple in one sleep-reddened cheek, the wide green eyes beneath straight-set brows. That sense of deja vu tugged at Sam again. Maybe it was the look in the boy's eyes, he thought. Something a little sad a little lost, that reminded him of his niece, Maddie, who'd had the same sad, lost look to her eyes when she was that age and still struggling to understand why her mother had left.
Or maybe it was simply the resemblance the boy had to his mother, standing still and silent a few feet away, her arms crossed at her waist. The defensiveness and vulnerability of her stance caught hold of something inside him. An unfamiliar feeling that made him want to shoulder whatever burden she was carrying, break down the carefully constructed walls around her, and let her know everything was going to be okay .
Shoving the crazy thought aside, Sam focused on the one thing he could actually do for the woman and went in search of her spare tire.