Chapter One

East Winters had three strict rules that, until today, had gone unbroken.

One: Avoid danger.

East huddled on the side of a road with barely enough shoulder for her car. One more step and she’d be knee deep in muddy water that had run off from the rice field. The officer waited for a herd of cars to whiz by, his measuring tape extended like a yellow sword. He swaggered to her mangled car door, measured the black tire marks, and photographed the dents. The tape measure skidded shut, and he dropped it into his pocket.

The officer slid a small notebook from his vest, jotting down the damages on the side of her car. “Ma’am, could you describe the vehicle that hit you?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” East angled her phone, so she would hear if Zoey picked up. “It was gray. They drove away fast, definitely over the speed limit.”

He nodded as if that matched his evidence. His body turned back to the car, but his focus remained on East. His brows scrunched. His lips puckered. His expression said he wasn’t sure she’d told the whole story.

“I was at a complete stop, as far over on the shoulder I could get—”

“You’re well over the white line, but—”

“I didn’t know what to do. My transmission blew.”

He cut her off with a narrow, intense stare she’d only seen on cop shows. It was more effective in person. And cops made her nervous even from a distance, even when she didn’t have anything to hide. She wiped sweat from her upper lip, her hand so damp all she managed was to smear it around. True she’d been a victim of a hit and run, but since her new-used-crappy-death-wish Buick was probably held together with bubble gum and duct tape, she’d broken rule one so hard pieces of it were still scattered on the highway.

East sucked in humid air that did little to calm her heart. It bounced around her ribcage like a rubber ball in a handball court. “The car hit me, and then drove off. Did I say the car was gray?”

“A gray car.” The officer didn’t even write it down.

“More of a silver, actually. Four doors, not a hatchback….” She strained to remember the description, but she’d pulled over when her phone started ringing, and she was trying hard to pretend she hadn’t agreed—willingly—to break another rule.

Rule Two: Never compromise her morals.

East shoved that despicable mental hiccup from her mind, still in denial, and pretended to enjoy the view of the rice fields. Don’t think about dirty phone sex calls. Her cheeks heated.

“Did you see the driver? Male? Female? Did he look distracted?”

“I didn’t notice.” Ashamed that she didn’t have good answer, she snapped the hair tie on her wrist, hoping it would block her anxiety. After a dozen snaps she pressed her thumb to her pulse, as if she could manually slow it.

“Is there anyone who wishes you harm? Any recent threats?”

“No.” She held her phone away from her ear, the side of her face covered with sweat. The officer held his gaze waiting for more explanation. Was he analyzing her? Thinking she was a drug dealer? A prostitute? The last thought caused a flutter in her intestines. “Not that I know of.” Her voice squeaked so she covered it up with a laugh meant to sound blasé, but it tapered off into a titter.

The officer kept his eye on her, as if he were expecting her to elaborate. To be truthful there was one incident, a few days back, but the people in question had more reason to believe East might harm them, not the other way around. Her cheeks flamed, remembering the awkward encounter. Ethan had ordered the New York strip with Gorgonzola and rosemary mushrooms on top, side salad, with whole uncooked carrots. His date had a soup and salad.

She’d seen the order go by the kitchen for another table. Ethan’s usual. His parents owned the restaurant, and Ethan had taken her on a few dates there. He had given her a shoulder  when she lamented about budget cuts and needing cash. He had even talked his parents into letting her pick up some hours until she heard back from the surrounding school districts.

She followed the food to Ethan’s table and found him with a perky box-blonde. Her teeth were bleached, they had to be, nobody’s teeth were that naturally white.

“Is this your friend you’ve been telling me about?” his date smiled and held out her hand. She recognized the woman from a political flyer. Her father was a judge and her mother a neurosurgeon.

“Oh, my manners, East this is my girlfriend, Abby.” He’d paused, taken in the look on East’s face of complete shock. “Are you all right? You seem pale.”

“Your girlfriend?” East had said it part mixed with disbelief, part anger, part wounded.

“Yes, my—Oh my. Oh dear. Did you think…?”

Of course she thought. After seven dates and three overnights at her place, she’d thought a lot of things about Ethan. First, she’d thought they were a couple. Second, she’d thought he felt the same way. Third, he’d never mentioned Abby, and Abby clearly knew all about her. So the last thought through her head was that she was definitely the other woman.

“What is it Ethan? Is everything all right?” Abby looked between them.

“I think East might have gotten the wrong idea…”

The girlfriend’s mouth formed a little O of sympathy. “I’m so sorry you found out this way. You know, Ethan has this way about him. Women just assume…”

“Is there a problem?” A familiar voice said behind her.

Her boss. The Superintendent of Schools. A commotion of whispers erupted at the table he stood from. She read the nametags with hazy recognition. Leticia Bordeaux, Jorge Sanchez-Gomez, Tyron Jones, Agni Patel. There were all superintendents, for all the surrounding counties. She’d forgotten about the convention that weekend.

It was an accident. A misunderstanding. One minute she was holding the soup for table seven, and the next it was in Ethan’s lap. She must have lost her grip on it when she covered her face to hide her reaction. She didn’t remember slapping him, a light cuff maybe on the side of his ear? She did remember the sting on her palm. But that would not be how the story was retold.

Her stomach groaned—she’d skipped lunch in her hurry to leave town. The police officer jotted her account, not reacting to her digestive system’s revolt. At least she had the California summer heat to stifle her appetite. Besides, she didn’t need food, she needed to be approximately three thousand, three hundred, thirty-nine miles away (according to Google Maps), she needed reliable transportation to do that, and she needed a job.

She might get a job if she could get three thousand, three hundred, and thirty-nine miles away. The farther away from her humiliation she could get, the better. Funny how all her problems were flopping around in a squeaky-never-ending hamster wheel.

“Are you sure you don’t need a ride?” the officer asked.

East counted the tenth ring—one more and she’d hang up, not leave a message, and call again. She pinched the hair tie around her wrist. Snap. Snap. “No. My cousin will come get me.”

Snap,snap,snap,snap,snap.

The officer tilted his head and fixed a hard stare through an arched eyebrow, calling her on her baloney. Reminding her of the violation of the next rule.

Rule three: never depend on anyone.

Definitely don’t depend on mistaken-not-really-boyfriends-who-seemed-too-good-to-be-true. Even family. Mostly family. Ha! They were the worst. “I should try again later.”

But if she hung up her phone, it would mean it could ring, and chances were it wouldn’t be Zoey calling her back, but something much worse. Worse than not realizing someone was not that into you. Something embarrassing. Something amoral. Something scandalous.

The officer’s feet crunched in the gravel, walking to his squad car. He pulled up his computer, tapping, reading, tapping.

Snap. What exactly did his little computer tell him about her? Snap. Was he running a background check? Snap. Snap. Squeeze. How much information was on those things anyway? Did he know she was now homeless and unemployed? Did he know she was a liar? East shook herself from a foggy awareness, realizing something had bitten her. She peeled her fingers from her arm and rubbed at the moon creases in her skin.

The second rule, the compromising morals rule, beckoned to be broken with each blink of the call waiting on her phone. These phone calls weren’t exactly illegal, East reminded herself.  All she had to do was answer it and cash would magically flow into her bank account. She’d have bus fare, she’d have food, she’d have means to keep herself from breaking rule one, sub paragraph b: always wear clean underwear.

Okay, so technically she had more than three rules.

“Ma’am, are you sure you don’t want a ride to the station?” The officer managed to make the question more of a command. His dark, bushy eyebrows drew a straight line and not a curved invitation. It took all her will power not to follow him into his cruiser.

East held her phone up like a plea. “Let me try one more time.” She dialed, noting the minutes left from her pay-as-you-go account slowly ticking away.

She rubbed her sweaty palm against her polyester trousers. Polyester was a bad idea in this heat, she’d lost all sense in her rush to leave the state. Organic cotton was the way to go once her pocket book matched her morals.

The ringing continued. Each ring was probably ten-cents worth of pay-as-you-go. Come on Zoey. Pick. Up. The. Damn. Pho—

“Hello?” Zoey’s voice crackled through the tinny speaker, filled with sleep.

“Zoey! Thank God.”

The officer retreated over to the crash site nodding and talking to the other first responders who’d arrived on the scene. East turned away from the grim sight of her new-used car’s crunched backend, glass scattered along the road, and a detached tire tread propped up against a lump of road kill.

“East? Oh East. It’s like you know when I need you! I told Boon I couldn’t possibly date right now. You’re right. I need to be my own person. I can take this time before the baby is due to reset my life. Start over. Just like you. I’m so lucky to have a good role-model as a sister.”

“Except we’re cousins,” East said, keeping her tone controlled, not quite a reprimand to upset Zoey, nor an optimistic wish for a contrary argument. She waited for Zoey’s automatic response with hopeful anxiety.

“But we were raised together. You’re more like a sister to me.”

And there it was. Although East tried to protect herself from it, her heart melted for Zoey. Zoey loved with all her heart and had loyalty to spare—Zoey cared about East, even when she abandoned her. She rubbed her chest.

East dug in her purse for her stopwatch. She couldn’t let her conversation go on too long and use up her minutes. East attempted to set aside her money trouble to focus on the immediate concern. “Look, Zoey. I really need you—”

“Oh my gosh! Did you get the New Hampshire job?”

East stammered for a second, caught off guard that Zoey remembered. “It’s in Maine, and the interview’s next week.”

“But you left really early this morning.”

“It takes a long time to drive across the country.”

“Why didn’t you just fly?”

“Too expensive at the last minute.” East set the timer and shoved it back into her bag, uncomfortable that talking about herself would take up too much time. She’d rather spend it on Zoey, the one family member and friend she had left in town. “Plus I had a few errands to run.” Like getting an actual car with only five hundred dollars in her travel budget and hiding from the town’s people who might have seen her making a spectacle with Ethan. She should have broken a rule and bought bus fare. Sure buses weren’t safe, but in hindsight…

“So,” Zoey’s voice lowered to a sexy drawl. “Have you gotten any phone calls yet?”

The vein in East’s neck throbbed. “Yes. No. Yes.” She gulped a huge breath. “It’s rung a few times, but I didn’t answer it.”

Zoey giggled. At least one of them could find humor in this set-up, East certainly didn’t see it. A hot-cold flush crept up her neck.

Zoey whispered into the phone. “Secret confession. I don’t want you to get the job. You’ll be too far away. I like having my own private counselor.”

East shivered. “I’m not a counselor. I’m a school psychologist. And I work with kids, not adults.”

“But you can do both. I think I’m depressed.”

East sighed. This part she hated. She wanted to be there for Zoey, because East still believed she could turn her sister-cousin around, but she wouldn’t be any good to either of them broke. She also wanted to give Zoey an opportunity to solve her own problems. East wasn’t doing her any favors by rushing in before Zoey could fall. East bit her lower lip, to keep from offering to come home and make it all better.

“I’m going to take it easy today and just have some me time.”

“Could you first pick me up?” East squeezed her eyes closed, hating how horrible she sounded.

“I’m out of gas,” Zoey answered her voice dipping. At least she sounded shameful. East had filled her tank a few days ago.

She chose her next words tactfully. She decided not to mention the car accident. Last thing she needed was for people to think she’d gone on a bender and crashed her new-used car. ‘Just like her father,’ they’d say. “Who used up your gas? Call them up and tell them you need them to pay you back.” Zoey was still deeply involved with the lifestyle East wanted to shed herself of. “I need a ride to Bradford’s Trucking. I need to ask one of dad’s old friends for a favor.”

“Which friend?” Zoey’s voice laced with too-sweet inflections.

Something nagged in the back of East’s mind, a warning like she was a canary about to be led into a mine. She answered regardless of the cautious feeling. “Tom Bradford.”

“Why?” Zoey’s tone became less bouncy and something more murderous.

Crap, East had forgotten Zoey dated Tom’s youngest son before he was sent to the pen for grand theft.

“I just need a favor,” East stuttered through a few words before finally settling on the truth, “a ride, actually.”

“But you said you were going to buy a car?”

“It broke down.”

Zoey huffed into the phone as if this were her problem more than East’s. “I don’t believe this. Can nothing go right for us?” East twitched a smile, the Winters were notorious for bad luck. “I can send Crypt. He’s off work right now.”

“Crypt?” East searched her memory of Zoey’s extensive friend list.

“Curly red hair with a beard. He converted his bike to run off recycled fast-food grease so he always smells like French fries,” Zoey prompted, her voice melting into a dreamy sigh. “He took me for a ride yesterday,” she lowered her voice and giggled, “His bike vibrates at just the right speed.”

Although it was endearing that Zoey’s friend was so environmentally progressive, East hung on the word ‘bike.’ She imagined her limbs exposed to the open air as she whirled through town on a pony-sized dildo, bugs pelting her skin like gooey missiles, narrowly missing aggressive soccer moms numbed out on iced mocha lattes in SUVs, and all the while hugging a sweaty, unkempt Ronald McDonald.

“No,” East said a little too harshly until she centered herself and tried again. “No bikes. I’m bordering on an anxiety attack just thinking about it. But thank you for the suggestion. Who borrowed your car?”

“It was for a good cause. Don’t be mad. And I can’t pick you up because I have an appointment in twenty minutes. Afterwards, I’m delivering some resumes around town. I can’t find anyone else! Crypt is a decent guy! Okay, he’s good. Well, maybe he is marginal and there was that one thing he’s still doing community service for…” Even though Zoey was stressed, it was nice that she was starting to take some initiative and look for a stable job, do something for someone else. East had questioned Zoey’s decision to become a surrogate, but it marked a turn in Zoey’s behavior. Although Zoey was far from independent, she was attempting to make steps to get there. One good side effect of East leaving would be forcing Zoey to grow up a little more. “And the baby! I have to stick close to the hospital.”

“The baby isn’t due for another nine weeks.” East bit her lip to keep from correcting Zoey’s fears any further. The baby wouldn’t just pop out unannounced, even if she were closer to giving birth. She’d most likely have hours of labor, but Zoey didn’t think rationally on a normal day.

“Think of a ride with Crypt as a mini adventure. You have to live a little, East. You can’t wrap yourself in bubble wrap! You’re missing out on so much. Why can’t you see that?”

East could see it. She witnessed living life on the edge watching Zoey. Sure, Zoey was sweet and loyal, but she had a string of doomed relationships with drug-addicted criminals, terminated from more jobs than there were months in a year. Zoey didn’t exactly become a surrogate out of the goodness of her heart; she didn’t have many options. She partied when she was younger but managed to stay healthy even though she made all the wrong kinds of friends. Zoey took full advantage of the connections Jake Winters had provided as a father figure. Good ol’ dad. Which was the exact reason East needed to leave or she’d never crawl out of the stigma her father had created.

She couldn’t continue to let her family’s dirty lifestyle threaten her career. She thought she’d found a way out when Ethan seemed to take an interest in her. Respected member of the community, sweet, helpful—dating Ethan would have removed the stain of her past—except she’d misread the situation. Ethan had some open relationship agreement that she wasn’t privy to, and nobody would believe her side. If she stayed, it would just get worse. She’d given people a reason to believe she was just like all the other Winters. Sure she was a school psychologist. She had a graduate degree. But it was hard to get hired into the good schools. People talked. Gossiped. Not to mention the pink slip that awaited her each year in March, the never-ending threat of budget cuts, and a job that was whittled down to so few hours that teachers thought East was a stranger breaking into the school once a week.

She also needed to get Zoey out of that soul-sucking town, too, but first East needed a stable job. Then she could get something lined up for Zoey to lure her away.

The stopwatch beeped.

“Is that the timer?” Zoey laughed, but it had no mirth in the sound, more like a pity sigh. “You need this ride with Crypt more than I thought. You’re wound up too tight.”

East fumbled around her purse to stop the timer, feeling the tingle of blush rush to her cheeks. “No, Zoey, it’s fine, perfectly fine.”

“I’ll send him over. Where are you?”

The police officer hovered nearby, darting his gaze from East to the tow truck loading her car. She couldn’t gaze in the cop’s direction without breaking into a sweat that had nothing to do with the heat. Maybe she could hitch a ride with the tow guy.

“What do you know!” East’s voice slipped into an embarrassing squeak. “I just found a ride.”

“Where are you? I hear construction or something.”

East clicked off her phone. Fifteen minutes left on her pay-as-you-go account. She was down to emergency minutes until she added more.

“Any luck?” The officer asked.

“Well, no,” She tried to act natural, but the overwhelming feeling the police could tell she’d broken some unknown law crept into her thoughts. She let out a nervous giggle. “The tow guy can just take me. I need to get to Bradford’s trucking in the next town over. He can drop me off at the bus station next door.”

“Good. I can’t leave you here without a ride.” He handed her his card, his earlier suspicious attitude gone. “Give me a call if you need anything or if you remember anything about the car that hit you.”

He smiled. Not a lets-have-dinner-smile, but a nice I-can-be-your-pal-smile. See, she did know the difference. It would have calmed her fluttering heart, except being the daughter of Jake Winters had instilled a great fear of law enforcement. If she wanted to start being a normal person, she’d need to learn to trust the good guys.

She offered a shaky grin. “Thanks.” Her palms were damp, and her lips felt too dry. She ran after the tow truck guy. “Can you drop me off at the bus station?”

He nodded wordlessly, and she crawled into the seat, taking a breath, closing her eyes, inviting positive energy to flow into her. Until her phone rang, bursting that bubble of calm.

Her heart sped up, and she tensed. A quick glance at the screen “Caller Unknown” confirmed her fears.

Before she left her hometown, she’d planned her trip down to the penny, the mile, the route. Loans to Zoey and her father’s unexpected death led to delay and complications. Desperate for a way to make money quickly, East called a friend of Zoey’s who’d claimed to work at a job placement service. Since East found out Ethan’s girlfriend was the head of the employment office, the usual job placement services weren’t an option. East explained she needed a job that she could do on the road. She listed her skills as counseling, relating to people, help services. She showed the girl her framed masters degree for God’s sake. The friend had nodded, genuine excitement spreading through a smile that was too big for her face. Zoey’s friend had the perfect job. Kismet, she claimed.

“You gonna get that?” The tow guy’s bushy eyebrows perched on his forehead in a look of perpetual surprise. His gaze was casual, but East squirmed in her seat anyway. He shifted the truck into drive.

Her face burned. A zing of anxiety fluttered from her stomach to her chest. She didn’t just have butterflies; she had a whole damn swarm. “I’ll get it later.”

It wasn’t until East got the first call that she realized the perfect job would be a complete destruction of rule two. If she answered the phone, she’d most definitely compromise her morals. She’d become a phone sex operator.

Ansel Andersson shifted in his seat at Patty’s Diner, turning away from the cozy conversation before he lost it. He didn’t know what to ignore most—the pain in his hand, the guilt at pretending to be level when he wasn’t, or the unexplained anger. Well, he had an explanation, and it was sitting right across from him in the form of his co-worker acting clueless that he’d pulled a totally dick move to win the card game. And he devoured his winnings.

Ron, co-worker and opportunist, licked his fingers, savoring every bite of the hamburger like it was the last one on Earth—because well, it sort of was—ok the last of the late Patty Healburg’s of Patty’s Diner secret recipe hamburgers. Ansel had allowed for some exaggeration due to extreme distress. First of all, his coworker ate with no regard to decency. And second, that should have been his fucking hamburger.

Out of habit he fisted his right hand. The bandages prevented the movement, so he squeezed his left fist harder to compensate. He shoved his ball cap lower, shading his narrowed gaze. The curved bill acted as a blinder to the outside world, allowing Ansel a blissful moment of escape.

The smacking and slurping brought him back “…I mean, you should have seen it. Just before you guys left, I knew I had it. Pair of aces, right there, staring at me.”  He watched Ron across the table smiling at the waitress as she passed by, his fleshy lips mouthing “thank you” as she set his bill at the table.

His friend, Jason, tore the straw wrapper into pieces. “Imagine your luck.” Jason’s voice was lined with slight irritation. He’d almost forgotten Jason was next to him.

Ron shrugged oblivious to Jason’s dig and took a short sip of his soda, his attention shifted to Ansel. There was a slight awkward pause. The pause that inserted itself into most conversations people attempted to have with Ansel in the last year. “But, wow, sorry about the burn on your hand, man.”

Ansel’s friend caught his gaze for a minute. Jason sat a little straighter. Shit, he must have seen the glazed indifference. It’s not like he could blame Ron for burning his hand. Nope that was all on Ansel. He offered a smile, but even that felt unsteady. The tension shifted.

Ron had won the card game, but he’d taken advantage of Ansel’s sudden departure. Ansel itched at the edges of the bandage. It took major restraint not to tear it from his arm. This kind of anger couldn’t be normal, but he reveled in it like the first shower after a week of camping. The feeling was a welcomed distraction from the other crap floating around his consciousness.

The hostess, seeming to sense a problem inched her way toward them. Jason motioned the hostess away. She scampered off to the back room like a startled bunny. No doubt shocked to see the new owner, Jason, appear two days in a row. She probably thought he was here to assess the place and sell it for parts.

Ron yelled out a greeting to a group of fellow truckers who’d come in for lunch. Jason took the opportunity to punch Ansel in the shoulder. “Look at me. I want you to try to take a deep breath, imagine your serenity space like we talked about.”

Ansel didn’t need a serenity space. He could calm himself without the psychology. He wasn’t about to lose it.

Jason nudged him. “This anger you’re feeling? It’s likely not about the hamburger. You’re projecting and displacing your feelings.”

Nope. He was pretty fucking sure it was about the hamburger, but he would play nice for Jason’s sake. Not make a scene. Jason had stuck with him through the worst of this last year. As his oldest friend, Jason deserved for Ansel to try his best to be human again. Bros before egos.

He leaned forward, tapping the table to get Ron’s attention. “Congratulations on the…” He choked on the rest of his words, cleared his throat, and sat back in this seat. Maybe not.

Jason looked even more worried, if that was possible. His friend’s eyes danced nervously between Ansel and Ron. Jason should have been ecstatic. After weeks of not feeling much of anything, Ansel had finally mustered an emotional reaction to something.

Ron sucked at his soda until the telltale gurgle indicated the last drop—and then just kept on sucking for longer than necessary. He slammed the drink down with a bang to attack the burger again, a bit of mustard and ketchup dripped from the bottom onto the folded newspaper beside him.

“Oh man this thing is so frickin’ good,” Ron said between bites. “I forgot what it tasted like, real meat.” A chunk of food flung out of his mouth as he emphasized the word meat.

Was Ron doing it on purpose? Didn’t he know Ansel could barely hold it together? Ansel’s jaw tightened. His dentist was going to make a fortune on his grinding habit. Ansel attempted a Zen-like cleansing breath, but breathing calmly felt as pointless as bringing extra alcohol to a frat party. Fuck it if he cared. He shot Jason a warning look.

Jason tugged on Ansel’s arm. “Maybe we should go. You should rest. Or call Kayla, she’s worried about you.”

Ansel ignored Jason’s suggestion. Jesus, Kayla was the last person he needed to talk to; might as well pour some more salt into the guilt wound. Kayla could do better than to wait around for Ansel to heal magically and become the man she deserved.

Ron grabbed his soda again and slurped at the empty cup, repositioning the newspaper.

Ansel smacked the paper down. “You want a refill, buddy?” His voice dropped at the end. And here Ansel had been so proud of himself for holding it together.

Ron threw the last two bites of the burger down, and glared. “You’re pissed? Come on Ansel. It’s just a hamburger.”

“It’s not about the hamburger and you know it.” Ansel got up from his seat. Jason jumped up, too.

His friend angled his body to face Ansel straight on. “It’s not Ron’s fault. I should have stopped the game when—”

“Ok, so I won the bet.” Ron pushed his plate away; it made a hollow scrape across the Formica tabletop. “How was I supposed to know the person I would beat out was you?”

Ansel leaned forward, bared his teeth. “I was
winning—”

You walked away from the table.”

Ansel froze, remembering earlier that morning. The bang of the pan hitting the tile had echoed off the kitchen’s stainless steel cabinets like a gunshot. His lungs had seized, his breathing was erratic, his blood rushed from his face.

“There was an issue in the kitchen.” Jason angled Ansel aside, not an easy feat. “He got up to check. I’d left him in charge while I cleaned out the storage.”

Ansel noted Jason didn’t mention the panic attack. At some point he’d have to tell Jason to stop covering for him. He needed to get over his problem and the bullshit Jason found on the e-counseling website didn’t work. He was enabling his friend’s enabling. This shit was not going away. He’d burned his hand on the stove because he was reliving ten minutes from a year ago. Hell, would he ever get those damn ten minutes back?

Ron squinted at Ansel’s bandaged hand. “You had to go to the hospital? I thought it was just a minor burn.” His eyes wandered back to his hamburger, his lips forming a dissatisfied line. “I didn’t know, okay?”

So Ron wasn’t a total douche.

Ansel clenched his uninjured hand squeezing hard and looking away. “Let’s just get this over with.” He flipped his wallet onto the table. “What do I owe you?”

Ron set the hamburger on his plate. “We don’t have to do this. It was really about the hamburger for me. I came here every day for fifteen years when Patty was alive. You’ve only been here the last few months. She was a hell of a cook.” He shot Jason a sympathy smile, the kind that doesn’t quite sell the sorrow in the eyes, so it just comes off as pity. “Your aunt was good people.”

“Thanks.” Jason crossed his arms, his grey eyes stared at the floor. “I didn’t know her very well. My sister and I used to come here for summers until we were ten. She needed someone to help with the restaurant when she got sick. I was available. I didn’t think she’d leave it to me.”

Ansel’s shoulders relaxed, guilt eased his tension better than some yoga meditation ridiculousness. If it weren’t for Jason dragging him along to help with his sick aunt during Ansel’s leave of absence at his teaching job, he’d still be dealing with the staring, the looks of pride, horror, fear, relief. He hated the whispered reverence of his name and “hero” in the same breath. He did what anyone would have done. Three others, who had done that same thing that day, were six feet under for their bravery after the shooting. Ten minutes had gone a lot differently for them and only because they were the closest to the campus gates when the shooter burst through.

Ansel patted his friend’s back, mimicking the motions of consoling. Friends comfort each other, right? Wasn’t he supposed to say something too? Ansel struggled to come up with an acceptable phrase. He’d heard I’m sorry for your loss too many times. Really? Like he’d just misplaced a loved one or something. Or worse, She’s in heaven now, singing with the angels. Shit. He had nothing, but his trap opened to offer a few words anyway. “You’re the only goddamn responsible one in your whole goddamn family.”

Jason’s eyebrows lowered. “They don’t seem to think so.”

Jason had announced he was gay right before he left town, which should have been a lot like declaring that ice cream was cold. Instead he’d gotten a lot of are you sure and maybe it’s just a phase and what about children, don’t you want children?

The black hole of anger rushed back into Ansel. “They’re fucking idiots.”

Jason coughed and sputtered. “You teach children with that mouth? And seriously, I’m going to have a bruise.”

Ansel pulled his hand away, realizing he was still patting Jason through the entire exchange. Great, now he looked like a weirdo. He was losing his humanity. He needed to get out of here. Go away for a while. He was suffocating. He made one last attempt, “Patty was, uh, nice.”

Which completely understated it. Patty was a lifesaver. She gave Ansel a reason to want to fight his way out of whatever funk-depression-crap he’d slid into. Patty made him feel confidence again. And in less than a week, Patty had him answering help wanted ads. He went from being a history teacher on indefinite leave to a truck driver. And she made the world’s best hamburgers. She must have put crack in those patties.

All three of the men broke the silence at once, coughing and throat clearing.

“Look,” Ansel turned to Ron. “I’m sick of the short runs. You can make it up to me by trading me for a longer haul. Then we’re even.”

Jason gave him an are-you-sure-about-this look, the kind that mothers gave toddlers right before they did something stupid.

“The kid is having a birthday party later this week.” Ron wiped his fingertips on a napkin, his face a careful neutral mask. The guy couldn’t maintain his poker face though. Ansel had first hand experience. “The Mrs. was none too happy when she found out I’d be gone for the big event. Trucking is hard on the marriage, ya know.”

Ansel didn’t know. He’d never been in a relationship that lasted longer than a milk expiration date. Not for lack of trying. A lot of women took one look at the tattoos, the inability to spew bullshit love poems, and assumed he was just good for a quick lay.

Everyone except Kayla, and he fucked that up before it even could begin. She should have been perfect: from the same town, sweet as syrup, second grade teacher. Perfect wife and mother personality, and she came along at the exact wrong time. Right when Ansel thought he could have found the one, disaster struck, and he couldn’t muster up the right feelings in return. Of course even though he was an asshole who’d lost his ability to love, she still kept in touch, checking in and hoping that he’d come around. Patient and understanding after he’d let her down easy.

Ron crumpled the napkin and shoved it down his soda glass. “I was gonna ask you before all this.” He gestured to the hamburger. “It was mighty kind of you guys to give us old timers a chance to win the last hamburger. I thought maybe you’d swung it my way. I’ve complained a bit too strongly about the dietary restrictions.”

Jason set his knuckles on the table. “I almost wasn’t going to let you deal in.”

“I know.” Ron managed his best sheepish expression. “I thank you for it. Anyway, if you do want the run I’ll call Bradford and get him to switch the roster.”

“Great.” Ansel flagged the waitress down to clear the plates; she waved to let him know she’d be there in a second. He slid into the booth across from Ron. “I’ll take it. Call Tom and make the arrangements.”

Ron didn’t reach for his phone, he swept his hat off his head and wiped at the damp sheen of sweat. There it was, the tell. “That’s the thing…”

Jason glared at Ansel. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Ansel ignored Jason, he was leaving for his own good. Screw Jason and his pop psychology attempts to cure his post-traumatic-stress disorder.

Ron fixed the hat back on his baldhead. “Thing is the haul is scheduled to leave in a few hours, but the delivery times are flexible. If you make them early, you get a bonus.”

Ansel nodded. It was a good deal. He’d been itching to get out of town, a restless feeling had settled over him since he’d arrived, but he’d take his time. He didn’t need the bonus.

“I’ll do it.”

They didn’t shake on it, instead Ron gestured to the last of the meal. “I’m stuffed. You want the last of it?”

Eat the germ infested, slobbered, picked over scraps Ron didn’t want anyway? Did he think Ansel needed a handout?

Yeah, he did.

Ansel snatched the last bite and shoved it in his mouth before Ron changed his mind.

“I’m gonna get some stuff,” Ansel said. “Tell Bradford I’ll be a half hour late.”

Jason jogged behind him, catching Ansel before he could open the door. “You sure about this?”

“I need something different. I don’t feel right in my own skin. I thought coming out to Cali would be it, but I gotta keep moving.”

“Do you hear yourself?” Jason raked his clawed fingers though his hair. “What do you really think you’ll find on the road that you can’t get here or back home?” He crossed his arms and fell against the doorframe. He sighed and motioned for Ansel to follow him out. They stopped under a shady spot in the parking lot. “The truth is, I’m not supposed to leave you alone. Your mom? Total helicopter parent.” Jason waited a beat for some reaction, but Ansel couldn’t even muster up a grunt. Jason slumped, looking defeated. “It kills them that you went from declaring you’d never leave Nebraska to practically begging me to take you to California. You said you could feel that you’d get better here. Change of scenery. Now you can’t wait to get away? Do you see the pattern?”

Ansel clamped his mouth shut. Not wanting to say something he would regret. Although Jason knew the drill. Ansel pushed everyone away. Jason didn’t put up with the bullshit, but it didn’t mean he had to keep shoveling it at him.

Jason must have sensed the tension, he discreetly glanced around, and when it was obvious nobody could see he held out his fist. Secret handshake. When they were kids, they’d come up with a signal. No matter what you had to answer the signal, if you didn’t it meant something was wrong and a pod person had taken over your body.

Ansel’s lips twitched. “Seriously? You think aliens have abducted me?”

“Shut up. I won’t say anymore until you prove it. If you’re not my childhood friend then I’m going to have to put in some calls.”

“It’s fine. I’ll be okay.” Ansel pushed his friend’s fist from between them. “No need to check me into the psychiatric hospital or anything like that.”

Jason planted the fist between them again, his face determined. “How do I know? That’s exactly what pod Ansel would say.”

“I can prove it. Your first kiss was Sheila Matson in eighth grade. You told me she had dog breath. You never kissed anyone again until Mason Turner during high school in the theatre catwalk during an Our Town production. I asked if he had dog breath, and you said he smelled like almonds. Observation: you asked Patty if she’d be okay if you removed all the almond dishes from the menu.” I narrowed my eyes at him and gave him the once over. “Do you still have a thing for your high school crush?”

“That was over ten years ago. What kind of asshole brings up that kind of shit?”

“Real Ansel is an ass.”

His fist wobbled, like he might take the challenge back, but he stood firm. “Nice try. I expected more from the guy who dated all four of the Wright sisters and managed to convince them to keep it secret from each other.”

“False. Jeannette spread around school that I had crabs when she found out. They still call me mayonnaise crotch.”

Jason looked confused.

Ansel shrugged. “I had to Google it. Apparently it’s a cheap way to get rid of lice.”

Jason made a gross-out face. “I’ll keep that in mind.” But he didn’t move his fist.

It would just be easier to get it over quick. Jason would win in a contest of stubbornness. He tapped his friend’s fist three times. On the third bump they made an explosion sound and slammed shoulders. Jason seemed less worried than before.

They both surveyed the area to see if they’d had any witnesses to their display of childishness. Ansel punched Jason’s arm. “It’s part of my job. I’m not running away.”

“The pain killers haven’t worn off, and you’re going to be hurting when they do.”

“I’ll take more pain killers.” Ansel shook his pocket where his meds responded, clinking as if they were a canister of plastic pebbles. “Last thing I need is to sit at home thinking.”

“Maybe that’s exactly what you need—”

Ansel poked Jason in the chest. “Don’t start with this. You’re not my girlfriend.”

“—You’ve been going too fast, take a break for a second. When was the last time you did anything you used to love? Read any new books? How long has it been since you’ve even opened your sketchbook? Or talked to Kayla? You haven’t been yourself since we left Nebraska.”

“Let’s be honest. I haven’t been myself since the shooting.”

Jason glanced away at the word ‘shooting’ as if Ansel had cursed and he was checking the area for anyone who might take offense.

“Oh come on,” Ansel sighed. “I can say it. Maybe if I say it more people won’t tip-toe around the topic.”

“It’s just a sensitive topic to a lot of people.”

Right on schedule, the flood of guilt. This wasn’t a conversation to have in public. Too many kids could overhear. Last thing he wanted was to make them afraid to go to school, that someone could easily at any moment take a place that was supposed to be safe and make it dangerous.

And really, saying it aloud led to talking, and he hated talking about it. Talking about it equaled panic attacks. Thinking about it equaled panic attacks. Doing anything that remotely reminded him of the shooting equaled panic attacks. His breath hitched, a telltale sign of an oncoming attack, as if he’d ordered it on the menu.

Ansel shoved passed Jason. “I gotta go.”

“Wait, Ansel! I didn’t mean. God, you can talk about it. You should talk about it. It’s exactly what you need!”

“What I need right now is for you to turn around and deal with your own demons.” Ansel flicked the “under new ownership sign” on the door, which effectively shut Jason up.

Ansel didn’t need any shit, he’d just go straight to work and get what he needed on the road. Where he’d have days of numbed bliss, not thinking, not talking, and not dealing with anyone.

 

Chapter Two

Bradford’s Trucking had seemed a lot bigger when East was a kid. Back then, the windows didn’t look like they’d been lined with aluminum from a soda can, the building didn’t appear to shimmy when she had knocked, and she had never noticed the weeds creeping up from under the steps like desperate fingers searching for rescue.

She paced outside, stopping and rechecking the sign that claimed, “Closed for lunch.” Be back at—the clock on the sign showed 2:00pm. Since she’d arrived at 2:10, East figured she’d be in for a short wait, but fifteen minutes later she was still waiting. She tapped her foot and peeked inside as if that would increase the probability of Tom returning any sooner.

She slapped at the mosquito that buzzed near her ear. The temporary building, a manufactured one-room home, stood a hundred yards from the rice field to the left, then two acres of big rigs in uninventive colors of black, forest green, and shades of brown. Irrigation water flooded into the lot on a biweekly basis, depending on when the neighbors had control of the water, making it a haven for every pest imagined and unimagined.

She hated waiting, not because it was unproductive wait time (which it was), but because her brain filled the quiet with memories of her first phone sex encounter. Thankfully when she’d answered the person on the other end was well on their way. The conversation consisted of East listening to the heavy breathing and groaning for about three minutes. Then the guy or maybe girl hung up. East had been stunned, just like when she lost her virginity in college to Paul Morgan.

Which she made the mistake of texting to Zoey. Worst phone sex operator. On a scale of flatulence in an elevator with one cute guy, or sex with Paul, it scores even below that. This is terrible and degrading. 

Zoey: You think too much. And when you say degrading all I hear is “I’m not good at it; therefore, it must be wrong.”

East put the phone away, she didn’t need to get into it with her sister-cousin, but Zoey kept buzzing in new messages:

Paul was an asshat anyways.

Did you two ever NOT do it in the missionary position?

Paul had a yellow tooth that looked like a candy corn when he smiled.

East’s old college boyfriend was an endless source of teasing from Zoey. Her sister-cousin didn’t like him because she was used to men with rap sheets. Paul was a youth pastor and a child development major. I have a strict but reasonable list for potential boyfriends: no tattoos, no heavy partying, no failing grades. Paul fit the mold. Motivated. Attentive. Respectable.

All things Zoey avoided, so she wouldn’t understand. When Paul and East decided to make love, it was with care, planning, scheduling, pro and con charts, and thoughtful reflection. It should have been wonderful. But it turned out to be an odd fumbling in the dark, some misplaced kissing, a moan (from Paul, not East), and it was all over before Paul could finish his copulation prayer.

There was zero chemistry, and it only took seven more times, and a blond, liberal studies major with batting blue eyes before Paul would admit the same. Maybe Zoey was right about the asshat thing.

Good thing you’ve got McHotty CPA on the hook! Who’d of thought a Winters and a Vandermore! 

Crap. She needed to tell her about Ethan. Ethan and I aren’t and will never be a couple. Besides, long distance wouldn’t be fair.

She should warn Zoey about the gossip she might hear, but she couldn’t bring herself to relive the embarrassment. She carefully edited her message and added, no more texting until I can prepay for more data, I don’t have enough money to pay the overage charge.

Ugh, fine, Zoey responded.

Followed by a quick. Oopsy, sorry.

And then:

Oh see, I did it aga—

Shoot, I hit send before I was finished with my message. Okay I’m really going now.

Her phone rang, and she glared at the offending device. She hadn’t recovered from her last customer. What was she thinking? First of all, the phone sex service had specified that she use a landline only, but East found a shop in town that claimed they could port her number through an online service called eDial then direct all her calls coming in through the nine hundred number to her pay-as-you-go phone.

East closed her eyes and thumped her head on Bradford’s mobile home cheap siding, the phone ringing and reminding her of that embarrassing moment earlier today when she ported the phone sex number. The huge oak cross hanging over the counter at the phone shop should have deterred her, or maybe the twelve-foot-long collection of baby Jesus in a mangers along the shelf on the wall. Also she avoided looking to the right where the Virgin Mary, sprawled her arms out, palms up as if to be directing customers to the used cell phone display. Oh and mini bibles. Free mini bibles. Must not forget those. She was so going to Hell and that was her warning.

She had deciphered the scrawled markings for the service tech. Zoey’s friend had slight dysgraphia. She wondered if she should call Zoey’s friend and break the diagnosis to her, perhaps suggest a treatment plan. Occupational therapy would do wonders to correct her penmanship, but it would be rude to overstep and assume, so East kept it to herself. The service tech took her phone into the back room where his Uncle Francis, who was apparently the Jesus fan, could do the actual porting. There may have been prayers and a psalm reading involved. It wouldn’t be enough to save her soul, East thought.

The ringing stopped, and East could finally take a full breath.

A cough from behind startled her. The porch wood groaned as if it disapproved of the extra weight. “Well, howdy! If it isn’t the wicked witch of the East. What blew you under my house?”

East jumped to attention, inwardly cringing at the old nickname. It had been a long time (if ever) since she’d been wicked. Unless she counted her three minute phone sex disaster, which she didn’t.

Tom looked larger, or maybe since the trucking office appeared smaller, Tom staying the same size created an optical illusion. Truly, it was physics at work. Tom patted his sides, that had gotten rounder, along with his head. He had less hair, except on his face where a brown mustache, highlighted in gray that stuck out like handle bars on a mountain bike.

“Mr. Bradford—”

Tom slapped the wall and let out a throaty laugh. “It’s Tom, darlin’. I watched your daddy change your diapers.”

East paused, blinking at the image. “I, uh. . . Tom.”

“Say it with confidence. Jake taught you girls to stand up for what you want.”

The mention of her father sobered her quick. She was nothing like her dad; he didn’t teach her anything resembling confidence—only how miserable having a drunk for a father could be. “I’m hoping to ride along on one of your deliveries, something close to Maine. Even if I can get as far as Boston or New York, I can figure it out from there.”

“Shoot, we don’t have many deliveries going out that far. It’s hard to find drivers for longer hauls.”

“Then hire me, and I’ll take your next delivery to Maine. I’ll do it for half the price.” She checked her watch. The DMV would still be open, and she’d ridden along with her dad on enough truck routes over summers she could hopefully pass the test for a commercial permit.

He narrowed his eyes at East. “You know you can’t ride alone until you’ve had a permit for a while. What do you need to drive long haul for? You’ve got a fancy college degree for child psychology or something.”

“School psychology. And there aren’t any jobs right now in public schools. Budget cuts.” And opening a private practice was too much of an exercise in frustration. Especially with so many private learning centers in northern California, none of which were hiring. Her father’s reputation followed her everywhere in a forty-mile radius, farther in some small towns if it was along a truck route. It effectively kept her from being a serious candidate at the best local schools. Not to mention her own recent humiliation that every superintendent of schools in charge of hiring had witnessed. She hoped that Tom hadn’t heard about that yet.

“Art therapy, right? I suppose art classes are the first to go.”

East clenched her jaw. A no-lip smile involuntarily crept on her face. “I test kids for learning disabilities.”

Tom nodded solemnly. “Like Ass Burgers and HDTV.”

Her fingernails dug into her palms. That one little nerve that continued on like a champ? She was about to lose it. “You mean Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. It stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” She managed to recite the correct terms and control her dignity without descending into a lecture about cracking inappropriate jokes about disorders. She also tested for learning disabilities in math, reading, and writing and behavioral and emotional disorders, but she didn’t list these off unwilling to give him more to tease her about.

He squinted, tilting his head as if thinking it over. East concentrated on keeping her temper on simmer, but it worked its way into a full boil. Her face heated, moving from her chest and slowly bubbling to her forehead. None of Jake’s friends understood her motivation in earning a college degree. They razzed her for her good grades, but always with a bite. Comments designed to remind her of her place on the social ladder. Endless teasing about her attempts to mimic the more affluent kids at school. All she wanted was to better herself. She wanted to help children. She wanted to help Zoey. And now that she had trouble keeping work, all of Jake’s old friends could throw it back at her. If he knew about the Vandermoore Incident, he’d know that she learned her lesson. She’d never belong anywhere but at the bottom, begging the people who had been right from the beginning. This was why Bradford had been a last resort. Now she was at Tom’s mercy, waiting for his punch line.

Tom slapped the siding of the building, hooting and wheezing, clutching his chest as if he were keeping his lungs from springing out onto the sidewalk. “Oh, kid. You should see your face. You’ve always been the easiest to rile. Poor Jake had his hands full with you. All right, smarty, I got a run that goes up to Maine.” He unlocked the door and waved her in. “Come in. Come in. It’s black fly season, don’t let ‘em in—and close your mouth before one flies in there, too.”

A burst of moldy, cold air blew the wisps of hair that had escaped from her bun over her eyes. She smoothed them back into place. She no doubt looked like a mis-flipped pancake. If she wanted to keep her last nerve alive she needed to look functional. “I’m just going to use your bathroom first.”

“Make yourself at home. I’m going to call Ron and let him know I got him a team ride. He hates the distance anyway. Having trouble with his kids, so you can coach him or something.” Tom rattled the handle to his office until it jerked open. He kept his eyes trained on the door. “Beings I don’t need two in the truck on the run, I don’t know about the pay.”

Translation: I won’t pay you, since you’re hitching a ride. “That’s fine. I just need to get to Maine in the next ten days. If this route can get me there in time, I’ll consider that payment enough.”

“Okay.” He nodded, one step in the room and then twisted suddenly as if a thought grabbed ahold. “How is Zoey doing? Got a niece or nephew yet?”

“This baby will technically be a second cousin.” Actually, this baby was not going to be related at all, since Zoey was only the surrogate, but Zoey had to keep the contract secret, and begged East not to tell. Being a Winters, everyone assumed a scandal of course. Her tone must have been too bland, because Tom frowned. East quickly corrected, “But she’ll be like a niece. Zoey says the ultrasound shows a girl.”

“I’ll tell Quinn. He asks about her. It was only seven months ago they broke up. He’s got just a few more weeks on his sentence.” Tom emphasized the time line. Yes, East knew. Zoey hadn’t named the father for obvious reasons, but several wanted to be in the running. Each of them surprisingly eager to claim the baby. Zoey had some sort of magic vagina like a venus flytrap for penises. A penis flytrap.

Tom chuckled. “Zoey’s not the brightest, but she’ll make a beautiful baby.”

East jerked as if Tom had slapped her. Not the brightest? Her memory flashed back to Jake waving her away from helping Zoey with her math homework. ‘She’s not as sharp as you, kidlet. Don’t push her so hard that she realizes it.’ But Zoey was clever. Zoey could read people. She had compassion. She understood things when East would read them out loud to her. Zoey was extremely intelligent, but she had a learning disability. Why didn’t anyone else see it?

“Excuse me.”

“Oh, and I hope you’re feeling better. I heard you threw up in that Vandermore kid’s lap the other day.”

Ugh, sadly, that was a better version than the real one so she didn’t correct him. She smiled and nodded and darted to the bathroom, relaxing when she heard the lock click. Across from the toilet a nightstand with chipped white paint, broken drawers, and split joints held a pyramid stack of extra toilet paper. She moved aside a box of nails and set her purse in one of the open broken drawers and placed her backpack on a hook by the shower. Onward to the real project: her hair. She tackled that mess, re-pinning her dark red tresses into a French twist.

She contemplated changing into her yoga pants. She’d look silly in dress pants at the truck stops. Her original plan had been to bring three pants (yoga for sleeping, dress for her interview, and jeans for in-between). She’d designed a wearing and cleaning schedule. If she wore the yoga pants now, she’d have to reassess the schedule, but she couldn’t wear the oil stained slacks anymore either. So much for a professional outfit. She’d need to buy something in Maine. She slid on the yoga pants and threw her polyester prison—er, pants—in the trash.

East lowered the toilet seat, inspected for gross or disgusting smudges, and plopped herself down. She reached over and dug into her purse, grabbing the stopwatch. Five minutes of freak out. Go.

She would never get out of this town. Karma, the universe, and disasters beyond her control were swirling around her, preventing her, keeping her trapped at the epicenter of her embarrassment. Maybe it was all a sign that Maine was a terrible idea. But how idiotic was that? She didn’t deserve a chance at success? She made a mistake. This was all a hell of her own making. If she had just followed the rules, none of this would have happened. She would have insisted that Ethan introduce her to his parents or at least seen his house before she slept with him. She knew she’d cut corners and skipped a few rules. For what? A lay that scored a six out of ten? She should have listened to her gut.

We all have control over our destiny…except Ron had control of hers. She barely remembered the guy? Oh God, what if he’s a pervert? Or worse, what if he doesn’t wash his hands after going to the bathroom and she spends road time fighting off various diseases and misses the interview because she’s chained to a toilet. Like right now. Nasty. What was she doing in the bathroom?

Four and a half minutes left on the timer. Shoot, she should have set it for longer. She needed more time to freak out.

East left the bathroom and paced in the main office instead—much less chance for contamination. And look, pictures! She scanned the wall for Ron’s photo and found him. He had a build much like Tom’s, his Bradford’s Trucking hat most likely hid some male-pattern baldness. Ron held a little boy across his chest. The boy’s identical hat was skewed to the side; he looked like a fish mid-flop. The boy held a miniature version of the truck they posed in front of. His arms firmly held the boy, but relaxed enough that his love for the child spilled outside of the photograph. Ron had kind eyes. Non-threatening. Perfect travel companion.

Her eyes zoomed straight for the hottie in the photo directly below Ron’s. On a wall filled with expected trucker physiques (shorter, stalky, rounded stomach), this guy was an excellent example of “one of these is not like the others.” One hand pulled on a strap, as if he were in the middle of checking the balance on a load when the photographer surprised him with a snap of the camera. The frown on his face wasn’t quite angry, just caught deep in thought. His other hand was pressed against the flatbed trailer. He turned slightly to the camera, so East could see the defined tone of his chest and abs through the black ribbed cotton tank top. His jeans hugged his hips, and the detail stitching on the pocket made her eye linger on his butt.

Riding with this guy would have been a worst-case scenario. Wicked thoughts muddied her head, made her do stupid things. Paul was only example one. Ethan, an obvious exhibit B. If she couldn’t make it work with the good guys, then the bad ones would be a definite disaster. She always thought the best of people when she was attracted to them, which was why she couldn’t be attracted to obviously counter-culture (the tattoos peeking from under his tank top), unstable (his photo said he’d worked for Bradford’s for two months, so he must have trouble finding employment), and emotional (maybe now that she did look harder, he could be frowning).

The front door banged against the wall with a crack, and the hunk from the picture entered as if she’d summoned him.

“God damn it,” he muttered and bent down to inspect the damage.

He eased from his crouched position with the metal doorstopper in hand, stomping to the closet down the hall. The clink of tools being riffled through echoed into the kitchen. East ducked behind the counter. Wait, why was she hiding? She sprung up and eyed the door. Yes, why hide when you can run—which is exactly what she did. She got as far as the front step before the terror of hearing her phone ring inside hit her like being thrown into a bucket of ice.

“Damn, damn, damn.” She smacked her hand on the doorframe with each curse. See? This guy was already a bad influence. She’d resorted to the same cursing out her anger, instead of deep breathing and using cognitive behavioral techniques to calm her surviving nerve.

She darted into the house and in a moment of panic scanned the living room, couch, tables, counter. Her stuff, where did she put it?

“Can I help you with something?” A voice came from below. The hottie who’d posed for his employee photo better than Mr. October on a fireman’s calendar, bowed at the doorway. The Hunk for Red October.

East whirled around getting a second shock like a defibrillator to the heart when she came face-to-face with the real live guy. How did he get back to the door so fast? The timer screeched, reminding of what a nerd she was. “You scared me.” Her voice emitted an embarrassing squeak.

“Sorry,” he said in a very un-sorry tone. He turned to the project behind the door and cursed, the screwdriver banging the wall a few times before he got it right. Weird. Did he have a towel wrapped around his hand?

But East forgave his indiscretions immediately, because, hello, the guy was built. The camera might add ten pounds, but in his case it didn’t do his deltoids justice. Muscles bulged under his white shirt, which he obviously had painted on this morning. His hat bumped against the wall and fell, revealing a short cut of light-brown hair. When he turned to retrieve his hat, she got a much better glimpse of his hazel eyes, more blue than green.

He kept a serious look on his face and just stared at East. Disturbing. Intense. Wild. Hot. She sucked in a breath.

“I’m East. You work here.” The mental degradation had begun. She had been reduced to simple sentences. She glanced at the wall to the name under his picture. “Ansel is it?”

“Yeah.” He steadied himself on the door. “You baking cookies or something?”

“What?”

He narrowed his eyes, studying her head to foot. She froze under his analysis. He reached forward, hesitant. Her heart sputtered, her tongue seemed too thick to form a decent reply. A tug at her waistband, the elastic of her yoga pants snapped. This was it. Even her pants were falling for the guy, until she saw her timer swinging from his fingertips. He clicked it off and handed it back to her. Their fingers brushed. An electrical buzz caused some fritz in her system. If her insides weren’t still fuzzy from the touch, she’d thought she imagined it. He rubbed his chest, looking away and back again, leaving her to believe he’d felt it too.

“Hey look I don’t mean to be rude, but what are you doing here?”

Not: ‘Hey, look I really want to take you to a five star dinner and maybe after we can have passionate sex on this counter.’ East drew back, flattening her shirt against her waist, in an awkward two-step dance that appeared more like a stumble. Maybe she was wrong about the moment they’d shared. This was the Ethan thing all over again.

“Tom and I are, uh…” She fumbled for the correct identification of what exactly Tom Bradford was to her.

Not ‘friend of my dad’s’ because that felt too immature. And ‘friend of the family’ sounded too hoity toity.

“He’s a friend.” She lowered her voice at the end, because it was a stretch of the truth and she hated lying.

“Oh.” Ansel nodded, a knowing grin twitched on his lips. “I see.”

Why was he looking at her like he was imagining her in bed with… “Oh no, no, no. You don’t see. We are not a couple.”

“So, it’s just an arrangement.”

“No. No arrangement. No arranging going on.” She picked through her vocabulary for an appropriate phrase, latching onto the first thing in her memory banks. “He watched while I got my diapers changed.”

Ansel’s grin faded suddenly, replaced with a look of horror.

“I mean—” Shoot, she’d just have to go with empty small talk definitions of what Tom was. “He’s a friend of the family. I’m doing a job for him, a job here at the Trucking office, nothing personal, no personal jobs or favors.” She couldn’t have mucked this up worse if she were standing in a pile of muck, while muck rained around her.

“Great. He needs a secretary.”

“I’m not—” She began, but she shut her mouth before she did any more damage.

He threw the screwdriver on the counter. “I gotta go to the bathroom.”

He fumbled with the door before switching to his other hand. She noticed his right hand was bandaged from the tips of his fingers to mid forearm. That was one heck of an injury.

Then her phone started to ring again in the bathroom. She shot to the door. Her body hit against the wood with the force of her momentum, slamming it shut.

He scowled at her. “What’s your problem, Lady?”

“I’m so sorry. I was trying to help.” She twisted the handle.

He batted her hand away. “I’ve got it.”

“My phone. My purse is ringing in there.”

“I really have to go. I drank like a half-gallon of milk about ten minutes ago.” He started for the bathroom.

“I’ll be two seconds. I should really answer this.”

He blocked her entry into the doorway. “What did you say you’re doing around here again?”

East shoved at his chest, but it was like shoving a snowplow. He didn’t budge, only smiled at her weak effort.

“Call them back later.” He stepped forward, East took a step back, and he opened the door. The phone stopped ringing, taking away her excuse. “I don’t need an audience. I’ll be right out.” He shut the door.

“Fine. Hurry.” She glared at the door as if he could see her.

“Okay, hold on, it’ll be a minute, so don’t wig out.” He called through the door.

“Of all the jerkish—” She smacked the door, and he volleyed with a low rumbling laugh.

East bounced from foot-to-foot praying he would finish already. Grabbing the phone would have only taken a second. Now she’d missed two calls and even though she hated the phone sex job, she did like the text she’d gotten ten minutes later telling her how much money she’d made. And if Tom wasn’t going to pay her then she’d need the cash. Ansel must have a bladder the size of a pea to be that desperate.

She heard a quiet: “Oh Hell” come from the bathroom.

She snickered. “Smaller than you remember, big boy?” she muttered under her breath. Then she hoped he didn’t hear her, because that was really petty of her.

He abruptly opened the door. “My zipper’s stuck.” He darkened a few shades redder.

She peered into the bathroom to see her purse where he’d held it captive.

“With my hand all jacked up…” He cursed and thrust his bandaged hand in the air. “I have to ask you a favor.” He forced each word out like he really didn’t want to say it.

East glanced to the zipper in question “Oh, Hell no! I barely know you!”

“What? No.” He flashed her a what-do-you-take-me-for look. “Go get someone. Who’s here?”

East peeked down the hall to Tom’s office door, but really, who wanted their boss to unzip their pants? Wasn’t that grounds for sexual harassment? Which brought the real issue to fruition: East wanted to touch Mr. October. The power of her desire created a great chasm and her body split into two equal, but opposite parts. The embodiment of all that was reasonable and sensible countered against something uninhibited and feral. The good girl, ruled her for far too long. Her barbaric side screamed, begged to be let out. It reminded her of a hairy, toothy animal—Be the trouble you’ve always been accused of being. Then swoop out of town, no one the wiser.

Very bad idea, her more sensible self said, but it was much quieter, like a mousy whisper in comparison.

East put on her best neutral face. “I’ll do it.”

His eyes dilated, she would have missed it if she weren’t staring right into them. His eyes were a deep teal, the left eye was half brown. She leaned in closer to get a better look.

He shook his head almost like he was going to refuse her offer, but surprised her and said, “This is an emergency or I wouldn’t ask.”

He looked even more desperate than before. She was totally taking advantage. What was that feeling? Oh, yes, a dark disturbing power raging through her. Maybe this was an awful idea. Maybe she’d set the fire that she couldn’t unset. Maybe she’d marked her path to the Winters’ dark side. This is how addiction starts, and she did have an errant addictive gene running in her chromosomes.

East looked again at her purse and bag by the shower. Grab it and run.

Ansel blocked her, “Oh, no you don’t.” He paused, lowering his head and peeking at her from under his lashes. “A trade?” he offered with a bit of doubt.

More power rushed into her. Something else rushed in too, a feeling: pity. The guy was in an awful situation, and she was the only, well, only reasonable option, to his problem. She sighed and threw her shoulders back.

She knew she had the upper hand. As quickly as she could, she reached over and gave his zipper a yank. It didn’t budge. He wasn’t kidding. The sucker was stuck.

She tried to make it as non-sexual as possible, but it was impossible when she had to spend a few moments in that general area coaxing his zipper to cooperate. She leaned in closer to his crotch to inspect the problem. He looked like he was imagining baseball games and his mom, but it clearly wasn’t working. The area she was working on got a little tighter than when she started.

If she’d been truly a Wicked Winter she’d have given him a wink and a cute flirty line, but now she had proof she was born without the Winters’ flirting gene. Instead of a flirty line, her cheeks heated. This had been a terrible idea. She jerked at the zipper. The force of her tugs went from quick save to mildly sexual to extremely embarrassing. Ansel bit his lower lip, staring at a spot just behind her on the wall. Finally, with one last pull the zipper came free. He blew out a thick breath toward the ceiling. His skin glowed from sweat around his temples.

“Get your stuff,” he said, his voice so rough it sounded more like a bark, his tone laced with something dark.

East gathered her things. He was mad? Would he have rather peed in his pants? She grabbed her things, searching in the moment for all the things she’d done wrong, eventually declaring counseling 101—the guy reacted to embarrassment with anger.

“I won’t be around here,” she jumped to explain, her voice softer than she’d intended. “I’m leaving for a long haul and if all goes well, I’ll be living across country. Your secret is safe with me. And—” she hugged her backpack, “—wear sweat pants.” She gestured toward his zipper. “For next time.”

Wear sweat pants? Yes, great advice. She lunged for freedom.

His arm shot out, blocking the door. “Look, I’m sorry. About the—” He cleared his throat, East imagined him apologizing for the very large misunderstanding.

She heated all over—her cheeks, neck, chest, fingers, and toes—like someone popped her in the oven and set her on broil. “No really, don’t even worry.”

“I don’t want you to think that I’m attracted or—” His face twisted into that lets-be-friends expression men get right before they announce, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ with practiced patience.

Wait. Did she really want to hear about how he didn’t see her as an option? Was that a pity boner? Her record for being completely un-dateable was astounding. Now it seemed men didn’t even want to have imagined stranger sex in trucking office bathrooms—poor little geeky, pragmatic East. She’d become un-sexable.

She pushed on his arm. “Okay, I’ve had enough, let me out of here.”

He dropped his arm easily, but stared at her, a blank look on his face. She maneuvered around him, their chests rubbing. A zing of heat shot through East that knocked her off balance. Weak-in the knees didn’t describe what was happening to her. She teetered. Her body instinctively swayed toward his. Her arms braced on the solid wall of his pecs. He placed a gentle hand—his good one—on her hip. He didn’t look so lets-be-friends now, those soft features had roughened around the edges. She swore. Staring deep into his eyes she could see herself naked, as if his multi-colored gaze were a window into her future. Each millisecond clicked in her mind, as if a tiny warning until her brain kicked on, like a stalled lawnmower motor.

She reared back, her butt knocking against the sink. His arm wrapped around, tugging her forward connecting their hips. He was still hard.

The whole interchange had been a lesson in every action had an equal and opposite reaction, including her head whipping up to meet his gaze. Those rough sexed up features, were even sharper, almost downright angry. Had she totally misread him? His carefully chosen words said, “never in a million years,” but his body said, “right now against this very door.” She inched from his embrace. Teetering away from the sink and avoiding wrenching toward him in a flurry of need. With distance came clarity, the hormone fog clearing as her brain shed some light on the situation. Men got hard when they had to pee badly, right? Isn’t that what morning wood was about?

He propped himself on the doorframe, his face unreadable. He had it’s-not-you-it’s-me’ed her just moments ago. She swallowed, words getting caught in her throat.

He had no problem because his mouth opened, his features smoothed out again. It was like a repeat of before, as if the whole exchange were imagined. “Look—”

“You have to pee. I’m leaving.” Leaving the building, leaving town, leaving the state. Plus she’d never involve herself with a guy who reeked of one-night-stand. It broke all three rules.

Unsafe situation? Check.

Potential heartbreak? Check.

Compromise her morals? Check.

Plus it broke a dozen sub paragraphs as well. She’d done enough rule breaking today and look where that got her—time to flag down the wagon and hitch a ride back on.

Except why was she even worried? He didn’t look like a willing participant either. Stupid, silly East, men built like him don’t go for girls like her. She backed out of the room—two large steps—and smacked against the hallway wall. Usually it took a few dates for men to reject her. This was going to really screw with her average. Maybe she could throw out the data as an outlier.

“But wait—” he said.

“Just go pee.” She pointed to his bandaged hand. “Unless you need me to hold your dick for you, too?”

His head shot back as if the words had been an unexpected punch.

East twisted around wondering who’d said that, until she realized it had come from her. And relived the horror of how she’d allowed that part of herself to emerge. The darkness started as a burn, deep in her gut and morphed, growing legs. The Winters’ gene for snappy remarks? She did, in fact, have it. Somehow until now it had lain dormant. It had waited for the worst possible moment to crawl from an awful place and pounce. Like that time she admitted loving reality television to her reading group and they shook their heads in shame. But seriously, Billionaire Hillbilly Housewives was the best thing on cable.

“I’m—” sorry, she tried to choke out, but instead she reached for the handle and slammed the door shut.

Clutching her purse and swinging her backpack on, she sprinted out to the lot of trucks, simultaneously holding and gasping for breath. She choked back a nervous laugh. Why did she always laugh at inappropriate times?

Tom waved her over to a dark brown rig. The trailer was open in the back, revealing a load of boxes. Two men were situating the load and marking the cargo. Maybe she could have Tom tell Ansel she had Tourette’s or bad manners or the simple inability to shut the hell up.

Tom must have sensed she was not in the mood for more teasing and just opened the cab door. She scurried on in, buckled, and squeezed her bags to her chest. Tom murmured something about going over a few things with the driver. East nodded frantically, thankful for the moment of quiet—until she started reliving every ridiculous moment of the last week. She was glad to be leaving this town for good, where all her embarrassing moments from childhood to now would disappear. No more townsfolk recalling memories of her alcoholic father, no more Ethan and open relationships mishaps, no more men with stuck zippers. She’d be brand new.

 

Chapter Three

Ansel zipped up his jeans with less fanfare than when he had them unzipped. Damn, now he was hard again. It took some deep meditation into fantasy football to establish himself in any condition to take a wiz. And of all the times to finally be in the mood in the last year, it had to be at the most inappropriate time, with the most inappropriate woman.

Where was his hard on when Kayla showed up at his house with nothing but a naughty nurse uniform after he’d gotten out of the hospital? Apparently it had been hibernating until this woman yanked at his zipper in the perfect handy motion. Not that he didn’t love staring at her deep brown-red hair tied up on her head like a bow he had to tug loose. Or her soulful grey eyes that gave away her every thought. Or how her mouth ticked up in a pensive suggestion. Her mouth. Don’t think about her mouth, Andersson. Don’t. Think.

Too late.

He thumped against the door again. Maybe he should just jerk-off and be done with it. Except, he was in the work bathroom. If he could just get turned on at home, or any time he’d had an opportunity, he wouldn’t be so desperate now.

“Andersson!” Tom called from outside. “You in there?”

“I’ll be right out.”

“You taking Ron’s haul? I don’t like last minute switches in my schedule—” Tom sighed, Ansel could hear the forced breath of frustration through the bathroom door, “but since we’re short right now. . .”

“Don’t you need more long haul drivers? I’m willing.”

“I need more trained drivers, too, and you’re not there yet. I’d rather have seen you do more runs. It takes a lot of mental endurance to be alone that long. Truck driving is not teaching—it’s got its own set of complications.”

None of which involved getting shot at, having your school and community be the center of a gun/mental health debate, and children who depended on you to protect them. That made it a heck of a lot less complicated.

“Anyway,” Tom said. “I’ve got a fix. Meet me out by the truck.”

He looked down at the tent in his jeans. Seriously, of all the times to have a return of normal functions, and he was in no position to enjoy it.

The poor woman had to have been scared he was going to maul her the way he grabbed her when she fell. He’d just started to tell her he was not going to attack her or act on his obviously inconvenient attraction. Thankfully, she was gone—off to move across country—which was for the best. He had too many issues to work through: PTSD, night sweats, panic attacks. He was a carnival ride of mental health.

And with that cold shower of reality, he found himself in an acceptable state to leave the bathroom. He peeked out the door, eyeing the main room for a talkative dark brown-redhead who had the power to wake boners from the land of impotence.

He had plans to use this time alone to explore historical sites along the road, use the quiet to settle some thoughts—figure a plan to end the panic attacks. Should he pop some anti-anxiety meds? Carry on, and let time return him to his well-adjusted self? Get counseling and discover a deep seeded issue with his parents? Research alternative programs and get in touch with the universe? Then, maybe after he finished this haul he would search out a willing participant and truly appreciate the second coming.

The paperwork hung from the hallway outside of Tom’s office. He flipped through the three stops he’d have to make. One drop-off in west Texas and a pick up on the east side of the state. Up to South Carolina for half the drop off, and the rest of the shipment to Maine. He had a note from Tom that more jobs might be set up for his drive back. Which meant he’d most likely be out on the road for three weeks. Excellent.

He hoisted himself into the trailer and double-checked the load. Ron had picked up the shipment from a local artist studio, hand blown glass bowls, mosaic tile lamps, and sculptures. They had a contract with the studio to deliver the items to a Texas warehouse. Easy. He had nineteen hours of driving, he could get to LA late tonight, wake up early and take a detour from Phoenix to see the Pueblo Grande or Kinishba ruins. He could probably fit in a few other historical sites along the route before he was scheduled for the next delivery. He’d have to work it out with Tom if he went off the agreed mileage—but as long as he got his shipments to their destinations in time, he was good to go.

He rolled the trailer closed, everything in order. A representative from the glass studio put a metal lock on the trailer, clamping it with a plastic numbered clasp. When they reached the destination the receiving warehouse would check the number, verify it had not been tampered with and clip the lock. Normally he’d be available when they packed the load to be sure no mistakes were recorded, and he was signing off to be liable for a load that wasn’t correct, but he trusted Tom would make sure the company wouldn’t be liable for any mis-recorded product. At least he didn’t have to drive a load on the flatbed trailer and mess with the tarps and straps for the whole trip. Setting the route into the GPS map on his phone, he made his way to the cab. He’d be driving Ron’s usual rig since it was the only one with a sleeper in the cab. He opened the driver’s side door, stepped up onto the seat, and stopped, still as a deer caught in the focus of a scope.

Her. The dick whisperer—and wouldn’t the moment be complete when, yep, his body reacted positively to the news. Shit.

She didn’t seem too excited either, as she plastered herself against the passenger side of the cab.

He opened his mouth to ask her what the hell was going on, but his boss’s voice interrupted. “Ah, so you’ve met.”

“No,” Ansel said.

“Yes,” she answered at the same time.

Tom raised one bushy eyebrow.

“Briefly,” Ansel corrected. Why lie now. He turned to the woman. “Give me a minute with my boss.”

She nodded, her hands over her mouth as if she were forcing it to stay shut. Ansel closed the cab door and jumped down to Tom.

“No.”

Tom waved his hand, as if he were erasing Ansel’s request. “I’ll give you five extra cents a mile. She’s an old friend’s kid, her dad even worked here for a time. She needs a ride to Maine.”

“Trainer’s wages are ten cents extra a mile, and I’m not experienced enough to take on a student.”

“She’s not a student. Think of her as cargo.”

Which meant she probably didn’t even have her CDL. Great, he would be saddled with a team driver that didn’t even have a commercial drivers license.

“This is a really bad idea.” Ansel pointed his finger to make the first point, but nothing came to mind. His dick was already blocking him, making an offensive play in the debate.

“It’s your first cross-country haul, most of the time I’d wait a little longer before letting a driver take on a job of this size. Long distance trucking is a lifestyle, a lot of people do it in teams.”

“You just said she’s not a driver. So it’d be a team where I do all the work.”

“Well. . .” He scratched the back of his neck, his lips pursed together in thought. “She’s been on deliveries before. You get the help without the hassle of training. She won’t be a bother.” Tom looked at Ansel then glanced away too quickly, leaving his last statement less convincing.

“I want eight cents extra.”

“You take Ron’s load, you take his responsibilities.”

“He didn’t mention this. I would have reconsidered.” Or at least not asked his future team driver to unzip his pants. He’d rather cut his pants from his body with a butter knife in the kitchen to avoid that earlier interlude if he’d known.

Tom frowned. “Six cents.”

“No deal.”

“I’ll call Ron. He won’t like it, but I’ll put the schedule back the way it was, none of your switching.”

Which meant he would be stuck with short drives up and down I-5. Jason would convince him to try more pop psychology. No thank you. “Fine.”

He could practically hear his dick cheering.

“Good boy.” Tom punched his fist into Ansel’s shoulder, no doubt mentally applauding his managing skills. “Also your friend, the gay one, dropped these off for you.” Tom gestured to two black duffle bags by the tires. Ansel had been so focused he didn’t notice them before. He bent and unzipped one. Jason had filled it with clothes. The second had an extra pillow, his sketchbook, and some electronics.

“Bless him,” Ansel said more to himself than to Ron.

“I’m not usually into that sort of thing, but now I think it is a blessing. At least I won’t have to worry about putting East in an awkward situation, if you know what I mean.”

So her name was East, but then the second half of Ron’s statement had him furrowing his brows. “No, I don’t think I know what you mean.”

“Well, you know, you won’t be tempted—” Tom’s chin jerked to the duffle bags, “because your interests lie elsewhere.”

Okay, Ansel was getting the awkward message. Tom was roundabout asking Ansel if he was gay.

Ansel slowly zipped the duffels closed. He wasn’t even going to respond, he didn’t need to defend his straightness to his boss. Or correct Tom for his poor word choice like ‘the gay one’ as if that were Jason’s defining characteristic. “Is this it? I should get on the road.”

Not waiting for his boss’s response, he opened the cab, scooped up his bags in his one good hand, and shoved them behind the seat. East owl-eyed him from her corner where she was balling up into herself. Shit, he’d freaked her out.

“This doesn’t have to be awkward.” Except it already was, considering he needed to adjust himself.

She nodded emphatically. Two fingers pressed on her lips, as if they were the gates to her vocal cords. He didn’t want to think about what would unlock that fortress.

“I’m guessing you were expecting Ron?”

“Yes.” Her voice was barely a whisper.

“The schedule got switched. Ron has a birthday party with his kid.” And Ansel didn’t have anybody.

She cleared her throat. “That’s really kind of you.”

“Just doing my job.” He tore his gaze from hers and started the engine. Maybe this could work.

He inched the truck out of the lot when he got a text. He set his foot on the break, checking the text.

Jason: I dropped off your shit. Btw, I’m taking care of mine. Your turn.

Ansel: I’ll deal with it when I get back. This trip was all about exploring his options. He eased the truck forward. Another text chirped.

Jason: Bullshit. You’ve been putting it off for a year. I won’t cover for you with your family or Kayla anymore. No more lying, saying that you’re fine. I’m calling them in.

Ansel stared at the screen, breaking. Last thing he needed was an intervention from his parents and brothers. He’d deal with this problem on his own timeline, not Jason’s. He set out to type that very message, composing, deleting, getting the wording just right—like a poetic fuck you.

“Are you texting and driving?” East had peeled herself from the corner of the cab, her eyes narrowed on his phone, then snapping to him.

“No. I’ve got my foot on the break.”

“You’re creeping out. You’re not paying attention.”

“I’m completely stopped. I’m not even out of the lot yet.”

“No, no way. You were moving when you looked at your phone.”

“But I was stopping.” Ansel swept his arms, gesturing to the windshield. “Nothing is in front of me.”

“It’s a bad habit.” East said the words as if that were the end of the argument, but then she wiggled and twisted back to facing him. “Do you check your phone at stoplights, too? One day a child is going to sprint out in front of you, and do you think a police officer is going to care that you were about to stop?”

“Unless the child runs right into my stopped car.”

“Except you have a truck. You have limited visibility already.”

Crap, she was right, technically he should never pick up his phone while the motor was running and his foot on the break, but did she have to be so insistent about it? “Are you driving the truck?”

“I—”

“Do you have a CDL? Do you plan on driving?”

“No, but I’m not being paid to—”

“If you’re not a driver, you’re a piece of cargo. Cargo doesn’t speak. Cargo doesn’t back seat drive. Cargo doesn’t get to lecture.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but shut it just as quickly. Her face morphed into a scowl.

Ansel plugged his phone into the charger and the speaker system, choosing a random playlist. East shoved her backpack against the door, plumping it forcefully several times and using it as a pillow. Her gaze directed out the side window, watching rows of rice fields as they sped by. A phone rang in her bag, she didn’t move to pick it up.

“That’s not my phone,” Ansel said. “You gonna pick that up?”

She squirmed in her seat. “No.”

The ringing stopped. Ansel fought to keep his eyes on the road, but curiosity won and he sneaked a glance her way. She had brought one leg up, curled her arm around it. Her body curved in all the right places. A hint of cleavage peeked from the scoop neck of her silk tank. She absently split and braided her hair. It hung loose from her braid in sexy wisps, framing her oval face and pixie nose.

He’d had a record hard-on, thirty minutes. He attempted to adjust himself by scooting his hips in his seat. The painful throb in his groin competed with the dull throb of his hand. His pain meds were wearing off.

She let out a sigh, sinking in her seat, her lids lowering. He noticed she held tension in her shoulders, which meant she was still awake. Ansel glanced at her every few seconds, maybe he could risk a quick reach down and adjust. His throb escalated into an ache he hadn’t felt in a very long time. He really needed to take care of his return of the hard-on or he’d be miserable for the next few weeks trapped in the cab with her. Or maybe exposure to the trigger would diminish her power over time.

She snuggled closer to her bag, her torso lax. In a few minutes, she practically melted into the seat. Thank God. She was asleep. Ansel propped the wheel with his bandaged hand, grimacing at the pain that lanced up his arm and slid his hand in his pants to rearrange a few things. The glide of his fingers, sent a thrill through his body. Not willing to give his sex drive any more ideas, he shot his hand back to the wheel. The wheel jerked slightly. The truck swerved to the right, but he compensated before he skidded off the road.

East woke with a jump, bracing herself on the front dash, a tight squeak from her throat. Ansel forced his eyes straight ahead, but he could still see her bracing herself from the corner of his vision, he might have seen a glimpse of her stomach when her shirt rode up. He could see her calculating the offending event that woke her. She glared at his phone, an I-told-you-so smirk on her lips that was more sexy than scolding.

There was no way he’d correct her. She could go right on thinking he was an irresponsible driver rather than a pervert. Forty-five minutes down, eighteen more hours to drive—and that was just to reach the first stop. For the first time since he was a teenager, he wondered if he would suffer any long-term effects from excessive boners without constant relief. This wasn’t the kind of soul searching he had in mind for this job.