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Running away from home at twenty-eightthat's gotta be a first.
Keeping her movements broad and slow, the motorcycle responded to Samantha Crozier's shifting weight. Waterproof gear snugged around her, repelling the worst of the weather. Through the visor of her full-faced helmet, the world flowed past in shades of gray and the water-shattered reflections of passing cars.
Sam's mind moved in broad sweeps, but unlike the bike, it didn't respond well to direction, drifting onto dangerous curves that ended in blind alleys.
I'm not running. Ohio just didn't fit me anymore. Not after Dad died. Besides, how could she become someone new while living in the same house, the same town that made her what she was to begin with?
Sam rolled her shoulders to ease the tension of the all-day rain ride. As much as she'd enjoyed her first glimpse of the Pacific, the wind had edged its icy fingers into her leathers, making her grateful to turn inland at Highway 101 past San Luis Obispo. A road sign announced Widow's Grove in five miles.
An ominous name, but it somehow fit the rainy day. The road slipped between rolling hills covered in a grass the color of a child's sun-bleached hair. Live oaks dotted the slopes, their gnarled branches spreading more horizontal than vertical. The trunks seemed to squat in the soil, as if cringing from an unseen force, their fallen branches a testament to the siege.
New scenerynew life. Who would she become, down the road? She wasn't sure. Except she did know she'd be someone who spoke her mindwho said it right out loud. Someone she could be proud of. The classic road anthem, "Turn the Page," echoed through her mind for the eight zillionth time in its tedious, endless loop.
It's impossible to outrun your thoughtseven on a motorcycle.
Imagining a hot bowl of soup and a warm, dry bed, she crested a hill. Dammit! A line of red taillights flashed ahead. Too close. Her stiff fingers scrabbled for the brake. Fueled by panic, her muscles clamped down. The front tire locked in a skid.
Instinctively, she released the lever then reapplied it slowly, downshifting to scrub off some speed. The bumper of the blue Honda ahead grew large in her face shield. She shot a glance at the shoulder drop-off. Too fast. Her stomach dropped. She'd end up in the steep ditch for sure.
She put her feet out to act as outriggers. Her boots slid across the wet pavement, slower, slower. She feathered the brake, applying as much pressure as possible without locking it up.
Just when she knew the bike wouldn't stop in time, with a twisting, gut-clenching skid, it did. Until the car behind slammed into her.
Sound came back first. Rain, pattering on the asphalt beside her head. A car engine idling. A man's voice yelling. A siren in the distance, getting closer.
Then the pain hit. With every indrawn breath, a white blade of agony slashed her side. She flopped like a fish on the wet pavement, trying to suck in air turned liquid.
Small breaths. It wasn't enough. Her lungs screamed for more, but when she gave in, the blade slashed again, and she writhed. Small breaths.
Focused on sucking air, the sound of running feet barely registered.
"Check his neck before you take his helmet off," a deep voice ordered.
Although she liked the anonymity her helmet and leathers afforded her, she hated that. Why did they always assume the tall one in the biker gear was a man? Something tugged at her neck and she jerked, trying to fight off the threat to her meager trickle of air. Only one hand obeyed.
"Does your neck hurt?"
"No," she wheezed.
"Okay. Just relax."
Easy for him to say. He could breathe. More hands slipped beneath her neck, supporting it as they carefully pulled off her helmet. A plastic mask touched her face, covering her mouth. She opened her eyes and tried to twist away.
A baby-faced paramedic hovered over her. "This is going to help you. Don't fight it. Just breathe."
Oxygen hissed into the mask, smelling of metal. The cool ecstasy brushed her lips and her windpipe unlocked, allowing air to her starving lungs.
Greedy, she sucked the oxygen in, then froze as the knife plunged again. She tried once more, shallower. That worked. While she practiced breathing, the paramedic ran his hands over her, feeling for breaks. She shifted, cataloging pain: a tweak in her shoulder, a hot coal burning on the side of her knee and the knife hovering at her ribs, waiting to slice.
Overall, not bad, considering. She blinked rain out of her eyes and pulled at the mask. "Let me up."
The paramedic again appeared over her. He pushed the mask gently back to her face. "What hurts?"
"My ribs." Now that she could breathe, she tried lifting her arms again. An electric current shot to her collarbone. Her lips pulled back from her teeth. "And there's something wrong with my shoulder."
She didn't care that she wore only underwear beneath the one-piece leather suit. Or that the rubber-gloved fingers skimming the skin of her sides were wet and cold.
"Unhh," she grunted. He had found the spot. Poked, prodded, then moved on.
"You've broken your collarbone. Your ribs could be cracked, or just bruised. An X-ray will show for sure."
"Just help me upI have to check out my bike."
"In a minute." He ran his fingers under her hair, at the base of her skull. "What day is it?"
"April fifth. No, wait, the sixth?"
"Where are you?"
"In the mud, on the side of the road, in California. Now can I get up?"
He frowned. "Not unless you sign a release first." He thrust a pen into her working hand and held up a clipboard with a damp form and tiny writing.
Painfully, she signed the form, and with help, sat up. She checked the burning on the outside of her kneeroad rash. Blood trickled from a scraped hole in her leathers. Damn. The skin would heal, but those leathers had set her back three hundred bucks. Maybe they could be repaired.
The legally absolved paramedic helped her move slowly to her feet. As she came vertical, her shoulder protested, the heavy throb matching the beat of her heart. At the chunk-clunk sound of a diesel engine, she looked up. A tow truck idled on the road beyond the line of carsand her bike.
She took a sharp breath, then grimaced. Her heart pinched. Her baby lay sandwiched between the Honda and a silver Mercedes: bars bent, headlight smashed, front fork seals blown. Brake fluid leaked like blood onto the wet road.
"Oh, no." A hollow ache that had nothing to do with her injuries filled her chest. She laid a protective hand over it.
"Back it up." The tow driver in a hooded windbreaker gestured to the driver of the Mercedes.
She limped to her bike. The frame didn't look bent, but the chrome was scratched, the gas tank dented. Deep gouges marred the leather side bags, but they were intact, and her sleeping bag and duffle still sat wrapped in plastic and bun-gee corded to the passenger seat.
"A Vulcan 750," the tow driver said with an in-church voice. "I haven't seen one of these in forever." He trailed reverent fingers over the one pristine side of her cherry-red gas tank. "What year?"
"'85." Sam glanced to the tow truck, grateful to see it had a flatbed.
A man in a rumpled business suit jogged up and stopped, too close. "I'm so glad you're all right. I came over the hill and you were right there. I tried to stop, but I just slid"
She took a step back. "I didn't think I was going to stop in time, either."
He leaned in. "Here's my cell number and my insurance information." He handed her a business card with writing on the back. "Do you live around here? Let me drive you home. Or do you need a room for the night?"
Her eyes skittered away. "I'm just passing through. I'm fine. I don't need your help."
The man's face showed shock at the harshness of her voice. He looked her over, then shrugged and walked away. She turned to the tow driver's raised eyebrow and curious look. Heat pounded up her neck to flood her face.
Well, screw him, too.
The EMT stepped in front of her. "Look, I either have to take you to the hospital, or you have to sign another waiver."
"I think my ribs are just bruised." If she kept her breaths shallow, the pain only throbbed in cadence with the lugging truck engine. But the collarbone was another story. No longer distracted by the damage to her bike, the pain from her own damage cranked up.
"You really should let me take you in. Do you feel dizzy?
"Not dizzy. I'm sure the weakness is from the adrenaline hangover. I've got to see to my bike, then find someplace to stay."
The tow driver said, "You go ahead to the hospital. I'll get her on the truck." When Sam opened her mouth to protest, he held up his hands. "I'll be careful, I promise."
He looked at the bike, then back at her. "We mostly work on foreign cars. But I'm a bike mechanic, and take a few in on the side. If you'd like, I can try to track down parts for you."
The sign on the tow truck's passenger door read Pinelli's Repair and Tow.
"Or I can haul her wherever you'd like. Just let me know."
She looked him over. Tall as she, with dark hair that was combed back on the sides and curling onto his forehead. He had a classic '50s bad-boy look. A cigarette pack would look right, rolled in the sleeve of the white uniform shirt peeking from beneath his windbreaker.
She remembered his light touch running over the gas tank as if it were a rare piece of art. "Are you in Widow's Grove?"
"Yep. Just off Main, near downtown." He tucked the clipboard under his arm, reached into a pocket, and handed her a business card. His open smile told her he knew he was being judged. He put out his hand. "Nick Pinelli."
With only a slight hesitation, she shook it with her left hand. "Samantha Crozier."
He noticed her wince. "You're lucky you were ejected."
She shuddered, imagining her legs taking the blow the bike had taken. "My body may not agree, but I'm with you."
Man, this is going to be a hassle. But the pain was already wearing her down, and she didn't want to imagine what the night would be like without painkillers. "Would you grab my stuff out of the saddlebags?" At his nod, she followed the paramedic to the back of the ambulance.
At the emergency room, the paperwork took longer than the examination. X-rays showed a clean break in the collarbone, but luckily, the ribs were only bruised, albeit badly. By the time she walked out to the taxi they'd called for her, the drizzle had thinned to a fine mist.
As she eased in, the cab cocooned her in warmth and the smells of oily rags and old heater. She put her scratched helmet and bag of essentials on the seat, then snapped herself into the seat belt, ducking under the harness to avoid having it touch her shoulder.
The cabbie settled into the driver's seat, closed the door, and dropped the clipboard into a holder on the dash. He checked his mirror, waiting for a break in traffic. "Where do you want me to drop you?"
"Can you recommend a hotel in Widow's Grove?" She thumbed open the bottle of pills and, after reading the label, popped two and dry swallowed them.
He looked over his shoulder, then back to the mirror. "Are you looking for a room, or a bed-and-breakfast for a king's ransom?"
She smiled for the first time in what seemed like days. "Do I look like a B-and-B kind of girl to you?"
He shot her an assessing glance. "I've got just the place."
They rode two miles to the turnoff in silence, then slowed at the main street of town. The view made her forget the pain.
Wow. This is how to treat cottage architecture with respect.
Neat Victorian facades lined both sides of the street. She recognized Gothic Revival and Queen Anne styles, among others. Each house sported gingerbread scrollwork, and intricate spandrels above porches displayed traditional strong colors: green, maroon, yellow, or blue.
Sam looked around as they drove through downtown, wishing she had access to her camera. On the right, they passed a yellow, single-story adobe building with leggy wild-flowers in the yard. The sign over the door said Santa Inez County Grange Building. From its look, she thought it probably housed the county library.
They idled at a four-way stop where a tall flagpole graced the center of the intersection. She couldn't read the weathered bronze plaque on the concrete base, but imagined it stood in memory of the founding of the town, or of its brave departed soldiers.
She glanced up the cross street lined with beautiful bed-and-breakfast hotels. Although the architecture had a Victorian flavor, they were spanking new. It reminded her of Main Street in Disneyland, everything so perfect and "in period" that it flirted with parody.
Nestled between them were antiques stores, art galleries and souvenir shops. The rain-drenched streets were deserted. They rolled through the intersection, past an empty coffee shop. White wrought iron tables dotted the patio, and a flock of small sparrows, looking as bedraggled as she felt, took shelter under the bright umbrellas. The entire town seemed like a carnival after hourswithout the crowds it seemed pointless and lonely.
A half mile farther, the cab pulled in a graveled drive just past a sign for Raven's Rest, a cluster of tiny wooden cabins, their heyday probably dating to the '60s. Huge pines hovered over them, branches resting on moss-covered roofs. Each cabin had a small porch with a rusting metal chair that had once been white.
The driver glanced at her in the rearview mirror. "It doesn't look like much, but it's clean and safe."
"No, this is good." She unbuckled the belt, and bent carefully to retrieve her saddlebags.
She paid the driver from her dwindling wad of bills. "Can you tell me how far I am from Pinelli's Repair?
"It's less than a mile from here. Just turn left at Hollister. Nick's is a block down."
The taxi backed out, then pulled onto the road. The rain began again, this time more of a cold, soaking mist. The office seemed a distant island in a vast sea of wet gravel. She almost sighed, but caught herself in time. She trudged, helmet and suitcase banging her leg, the pain in her ribs and shoulder pounding.
A buzzer sounded as she opened the creaking door and squeezed into a tiny office. Grumbling emanated from the recesses of the cabin, something to do with idiots out in bad weather. The curtain behind the desk whisked aside, and Sam faced well, the first thing that came to mind was a troll.