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Hope Ashton leaned her forehead against the wet edge of the lifted hood and tried not to give in to a growing sense of defeat. Her brand-new rental Jeep was dead, and she was stranded miles from nowhere in the middle of a mean Montana storm. Strong north winds drove cold spikes of rain through her T-shirt and jeans and she shivered, wet to the skin.
How was she going to get to her grandmother now?
Just get back inside the Jeep and think this through. There was nothing else she could do. Hope took a step in the dark and felt her left foot sink into water. Cold sticky mud seeped through the thin canvas mesh all the way up to her top lace. She jumped back, only to sink up to her right ankle in a different puddle.
Great. Just great. But hadn't her life been one obstacle after another since she'd received the call about her grandmother's fall? It was emotion, that's all. Frantic worry had consumed her as she'd tried to book a flight across the Atlantic.
She'd come too far to lose heart nowNanna was only a few miles away. God had granted Hope two good legs. She would simply walk. A little rain and wind wouldn't hurt her.
Lightning cut through the night, so bright it seared her eyes. Thunder pealed with an earsplitting ring. Directly overhead.
Okay, maybe she wouldn't start out just yet. She ached to be near Nanna's side, to comfort her, to see with her own eyes how the dear old woman was doing, but getting struck by lightning wasn't on her to-do list for the night. Hope eased around the side of the Jeep, resigning herself to the cold puddles, and into her vehicle.
Warmth from the heater still lingered, and it drove away some of the chill from her bones. As lightning arced across the black sky and rain pelted like falling rocks against her windshield, she tried the cell phone one more time on the chance it was working. It wasn't.
The electrical storm wouldn't last long, right? She tried to comfort herself with that thought as the wind hit the Jeep broadside and shook it like an angry bull on the rampage. Shadowed by the flashes of lightning, a tall grove of trees rocked like furious giants in the dark.
Okay, she was getting a little scared. She was safe in the Jeep. The Lord would keep her safe. She'd just lived too long in cities and had only spent a year of high school here in Montana, on these high lonely plains.
Round lights flashed through the dark behind her, and she dropped the phone. Rain drummed hard against the windshield so she couldn't see anything more of the approaching vehicle. Twin headlights floated closer on the unlit two-lane road, and she felt a little too alone and vulnerable.
Maybe whoever it was would just keep going, she prayed, but of course, the lights slowed and, through the rain sluicing down her side window, she could see the vehicle ease to a stop on the road beside her. Her heart dropped as his passenger window slid downward, revealing a man's face through the dark sheets of rain.
She eased her window down a crack.
"Got trouble?" he asked. "I'd be happy to give you a lift into town."
"No, thanks. Really, I'm fine."
"Sure about that?" His door opened.
Years of living on her own in big cities had fine-tuned her sense of self-preservation. Habit called out to her to roll up her window and lock her doors. But instinct kept her from it. For some reason she didn't feel in danger.
"Don't be afraid, I don't bite." He hopped out into the road, stopping right there in the only westbound lane. "If you don't mind, let me take a look at your engine first. Maybe I can get you going again."
Relief spilled through her. "Thanks."
Through the slant of the headlights, she could see the lower half of his jeans and the leather boots he wore, comfortable and scuffed. He approached with an easy stride, not a predatory one, but she couldn't see more of him in the darkness, and he disappeared behind the Jeep's raised hood.
Maybe it was something easily fixed. Maybe this man with a voice as warm as melted chocolate was a guardian angel in disguise.
Then his boots sloshed to a stop right beside her. "Hope Ashton, is that you? I can't believe you'd step foot in this part of Montana again."
And then she recognized something in his voice, something from a life that felt long past. When she was a millionaire's daughter from the city lost in a high school full of modest Montana bred kids. She searched her memory. "Matthew Sheridan?"
"You remember me." His voice caressed the words, as rich and resonant as a hymn. "Good, then maybe you'll stop looking as if you expect me to rob you. You've got a busted fan belt. C'mon, I'll give you a lift."
"I'm not sure"
"This time of night you'll be lucky to see another car. Lower your pride a notch. Unless you think being seen with me will ruin your reputation."
She winced, remembering with a pang of shame the prideful schoolgirl she'd once been. "My reputation has survived worse than accepting help from an old friend."
"We were never old friends, Hope."
"You're not one to sugarcoat the past, is that it?"
"Something like that." Lightning broke through the dark, flashing bright enough for her to see. He appeared taller, his shoulders had broadened, and his chest and arms looked iron strong.
"That was too close for comfort," he said above the crash of thunder. "Let me grab your bags and we'll get you to your grandmother's."
"I can manage on my own." She hopped out, and wind and rain slammed into her. She wrestled with the back door, but a strong arm brushed hers.
"All three bags?" he asked as if he hadn't heard her, his breath warm against the back of her neck.
She trembled and nodded. Words seemed to stick in her throat. It was the cold weather, that was all. That had to be the reason her heart sputtered in her chest.
"You're shivering. I'll come back for the bags. Let's get you inside the truck where it's good and warm." One strong, warm hand curled around her elbow, seeing her safely through the slick mud at her feet.
His behavior and his kindness surprised her so much, she didn't even argue. "You're a gentleman, Matthew Sheridan. I won't forget it."
He chuckled, warm and deep. "I do what I can. Hop up."
The warm interior of his pickup wrapped around her like a hug. She settled onto the seat, dripping rain all over his interior. The dome light overhead cast just enough of a glow to see the rolled up bag of cookies at her feet.
Matthew reached past her and flicked the fan on high. "There should be a blanket behind your seat. Just sit back and take it easy. I'll be right in."
He shut her door, and the cab light winked off. Rain pummeled the roof overhead, and she saw the faint shadows of tall trees waving angrily in the gusty wind. Lightning blazed, thunder answered. She found the blanket behind the seat, just as Matthew said, and noticed three empty car seats in the back seat of the extended cab.
Funny, how life changed. It seemed everyone she knew was married with children and, while she wished them happiness, she certainly didn't believe that marriage could bring happiness. She felt colder and snuggled into the soft thermal cotton blanket that smelled of fabric softener and chocolate chip cookies.
The driver's door snapped open and the dome light illuminated Matthew's profile. Strong, straight, handsome. He'd grown into a fine-looking man. He stowed her luggage, then joined her in the cab and slammed the door against the bitter storm.
"I'll give Zach at the garage a call first thing in the morning." Matthew didn't look at her as he slid the gearshift into second.
Her teeth clacked in answer, and she snuggled deeper into the blanket. The blast of the truck's heat fanned hot air against her, but she couldn't stop shaking.
"I heard about your grandmother's fall. I bet seeing you will cheer her up some."
"I hope so." Her fingers curled around her purse strap. "I plan to stay as long as she needs me."
"Is that so?" He quirked one brow. "I heard you've never been back to visit her."
"How do you know?" His question set her on edge, as if she didn't love her grandmother. As if all the times she'd flown Nanna out to California for every holiday didn't count. Or the vacation they went on every year. "You didn't show up for the ten-year reunion. Everybody talked about it."
"They did?" Except for a few close friends she'd made, she hadn't even thought of the small town where she'd spent one year of her teenage life. But it had been a pivotal year for her, emotionally and spiritually. "I got an invitation, but I was"
"In Venice," he finished with a lopsided grin. "I heard that, too."
"I was working."
"On a new book. I know." He slowed down as a pronghorn antelope leaped across the road.
"Look at that." Hope's chest caught. The fragile animal flew through the air with grace and speed. The light sheened on the antelope's white flanks and tan markings. In a flash, it was gone, leaving only the dark road behind.
"I've seen thousands of them, but it takes my breath away every time." Matthew's grin was genuine, and for a moment it felt as if they'd touched.
As if they were no longer practically strangers and all the differences in their lives and in their experiences had vanished. She saw his loneliness and shadows.
Then she tore her gaze from his. She was being foolish, really. She and Matthew Sheridan had nothing in commonthe three car seats in the back were proof of that.
Silence settled between them as he drove, and she welcomed it. The loneliness she'd witnessed in Matthew's eyes troubled her. Maybe because she didn't want to be reminded of the loneliness in her life, a loneliness that had no solution. She didn't want love, she didn't want marriage. She didn't even want to feel her heart flicker once in the presence of a handsome man.
She was surviving just fine on her own. God was in her corner, and that was enough. Even on the loneliest of nights.
"Thanks for the ride, Matthew." Her fingers fumbled for the door handle in the near dark. "I know you had to go out of your way."
"Not too far. And it's always my pleasure to help out one of Manhattan, Montana's most esteemed citizens. Or ex-citizens." His gaze didn't meet hers as he hopped out of the truck.
Maybe he'd felt the same way as she did, that when their gazes had met, she'd seen something far too personal. Her feet hit the muddy ground. "Matthew?"
He didn't look up as he tugged out her carry-on, heavy with her computer and camera equipment, and two suitcases. "Go on ahead, get out of this rain. I'll bring your things."
"That's not right." She eased around to take her baggage, but Matthew's grip remained firm on the leather handles. "You've done enough. I'm more than capable of carrying my own bags."
"I'll let you know when I've had enough." As if insulted, he shouldered past her. "I was raised to look after stranded women in distress."
"I've been taking care of myself for a long time."
"I'm sure you have." Matthew set the bags down on the front porch next to the neatly painted swing and pulled back the squeaky screen door.
She'd forgotten how macho and strong men were in Montana. Plus, she figured she was right. She'd seen loneliness in his eyes, a loneliness they might have in common, and that bothered her.
His wide knuckles rapped on the wood frame. "I'll get a hold of Zach at first light."
"Matthew, you've done more than enough. You haven't seen me since high school and"
"It's just the way I'm made, Hope. Or should I say Miss Ashton?" He tipped his Stetson and backed down the steps and into the darkness, distant but kind. "Give my best to your grandmother."
She opened her mouth, but the words fumbled on her tongue. She didn't know what to say to make things right between them. He'd gone out of his way to help her, as one good neighbor helps another, and instead of recognizing that, she'd put up the same old defenses.
Some lessons in life were hard to let go of, no matter how much she prayed.
She heard Matthew's truck pull away. Red taillights glowed in the black sheets of rain plummeting from sky to earth. She would have to find a way to make things right, to thank him for helping her when he didn't have to.
The door squeaked open, and a woman in a teal tunic and slacks smiled at her. "You must be Nora's granddaughter. Goodness, she's been talking of nothing else all day. Come in, dear. Heavens, but you're soaked clear through to the skin."
"My Jeep broke down and stranded me."
"No!" The nurse looked stricken. "And on a night like this. Haven't seen a storm as bad as this in some time. Was that Matthew Sheridan's truck I saw driving away?"
"He took pity on me and gave me a ride."
"Matthew's a good man. Shame about his wife, though. Let's get you inside and out of those wet clothes, shall we? My name's Roberta" She made a move to grab the carry-on bag.
Hope managed to get there first, hauling all three pieces into the living room. The nurse had enough work to do without waiting on Hope, too.
"Dear, you're soaked clear through to the skin," Roberta fussed. "Let me draw a bath for you"
"Thank you, but no." Only one thingone personmattered. "How's Nanna?"
"She's been having trouble sleeping."
"Because she was waiting up for me? I called her after supper and told her not to"
"Why, she can't wait to see you.You and your brother are the only real family she has left." Roberta bustled into the kitchen, flipping on lights as she went. "As I see it, she's got the right to worry about you traveling all the way from Italy on your own. And besides, it's given her something else to think about besides the pain."
Hope's stomach fluttered. She hated the thought of her sweet Nanna suffering. "Is she awake?"
"I'm sure she is. Go on up. Do you want to take this to her?"