In every mirror, dust obliterated her past. The radio channel played nonsensical songs from the 60’s in a barely successful mission to lift her spirits. Ahead was nothing but a narrow dirt road lined with mature oak trees and brush. Wildlife hid behind that wall of green, but it was too late in the day for them to be hopping out on the road. The evening sun made eerie shapes in the forested landscape. The clever cost savings idea of sleeping in the car didn’t sound so safe right now.
She was on the washboard ruts before she realized they were there. The rear end of the car danced sideways, bouncing like a horse kicking up its heels. She let up on the accelerator long enough to gain control of the vehicle. Somewhere up ahead was a sharp turn. She applied the brakes and the dust cloud caught up, cloaking the road so thickly that visibility was down to the front of the car. For a moment she felt the dull aching pain of being utterly alone. Solitude had always been her friend. In fact she had avoided - even pushed away those who might want to claim close friendship. Acquaintances were shallow and many, but if a person had one true friend in a lifetime, they were blessed. Connie was a friend like that.
The sharp curve arrived before her memory of it. All her skills were occupied simply keeping all four wheels on the ground. The car weaved in a cloud of dust, throwing gravel at the trees. She gripped the steering wheel as the vehicle plunged down a steep hill. Her heart attempted a painful escape through her throat. At the bottom of the hill a sharp turn waited. Beyond that, less than three feet separated the road from the edge of a cliff. Only low brush could grow in so small a space...no trees to prevent a vehicle from plunging into the forested mountain ranges below and beyond.
A scream caught in her throat as she frantically locked the brakes. The car spun around at the bottom of the hill, spraying gravel in a wild circle. She had a brief impression of a man on a horse, and then they were behind her. She desperately fought the steering wheel for control, but the car weaved all over the road.
The car made one more circle in the road and then lunged at the cliff. Over the dusty hood, the yawning valley beckoned, and then...the sound of metal grinding against rock. The car abruptly halted its progress, slinging Lisa against the steering wheel with bone jarring force. For a few moments the car hung there, the back half solidly on the ground, the front hanging precariously over the cliff. Slowly the car tilted toward the gaping canyon below. Again it stopped.
Paralyzed with fear, Lisa waited, expecting the car to slide over the edge. She closed her eyes and prayed fervently. Only a few minutes ago she had flaunted death. In fact, she had spent the last two weeks wallowing in self-pity. If only she could have one more chance.
Possibly in answer to her prayers, the front of the car climbed into the air. Once again the rear end was on solid ground. She opened her eyes, afraid to move or even take a breath. Her first instinct was to scramble to the back of the car and climb out. But if she moved, the car might start rocking again. Her heart was beating so wildly she was finally forced to gasp for air. The car remained solidly in place.
Nothing could be gained by remaining still. At any time a gust of wind could send the car over the cliff. She had to act now. Carefully she moved her feet into a position with better leverage. Snaking her upper torso over the back of the seat, she began to shift her weight toward the back of the car. She tentatively lifted a foot into the front seat, and knew a moment of panic when her sandal heel caught in the hem of her dress. In spite of the cool day, moisture broke out on her forehead. She carefully worked the sandal loose and slipped into the back seat. There she sat for a few moments, gasping for breath. The muscles in her legs were contracting painfully. She closed her eyes and said another prayer before she clamped a sweaty hand around the cold door handle.
“Hurry up!” A deep masculine voice commanded so gruffly that she jumped.
The man on the horse! She had forgotten about him.
She opened the door and slid her legs out one by one, trying to avoid contact with the car. Once free of the vehicle she took a deep breath and turned to face her rescuer.
The man lifted his hands gently from the trunk and the rear wheels of the car lifted a few inches from the ground. It had high-centered on the gravel ridge left by a road grader. That ridge was the only thing that had kept her from plunging over the edge...that and the man who was now glaring at her.
Dark bushy brows drew together over flashing blue eyes.
“You fool!” He shouted at her. “What were you trying to do, kill yourself? If you weren’t concerned about your own life, you might have thought about your chances of taking someone else with you.”
Realization washed over her in alternating waves of pain and numbness. Hers wasn’t the only life that had nearly been taken today. It was all she could do to remain upright on tingling weak legs. Her mouth went dry and her stomach lurched violently. Cupping a hand to her mouth, she turned away from him. An empty stomach made the experience less embarrassing.
When the spasms passed, she turned to the man she had nearly killed...the man who had helped give her that second chance.
“I’m so sorry,” she managed in a trembling voice, “I didn’t think there was anyone on the road. I remembered how isolated these roads were, but I forgot how dangerous they were.”
His eyes clouded with belated concern and his voice lost its edge.
“Are you all right? I didn’t mean to yell at you, but you nearly scared me to death.”
“I’m sorry. I think I scared about ten years off my life too.”
A faint smile twisted his dark features and one brow arched quizzically. “That must make you about fifteen years old.”
She smiled weakly at his deliberate misinterpretation of the cliche. “I was talking about the other end of my life. Anyway, I only act fifteen, I’m really 19. She made a face. “Old enough to know better.”
He surveyed her slender figure with obvious appreciation. Only blindness could have prevented her from knowing that she was unusually attractive. Long ago she had learned to ignore the second glances, open stares, and sometimes even suggestive leers of men. Yet this young man’s frank appraisal was none of those. It merely confirmed that she had left childhood behind...quite gracefully.
A gust of wind whipped at her full skirt and tossed her long blond curls into the air. She collected a handful of the crisp material in modest protest and impatiently brushed a wisp of soft hair from her eyes.
When he continued to assess her, she boldly returned his appraisal. Beginning at his dusty oxfords and indigo blue jeans, her scrutiny continued up to a neatly tucked in worn white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up to mid arm. His face was clean shaven, but his dark curly hair was thick and unruly. In all, he was a paradox of fashion. At 5’ 8”, she was tall, but still had to lift her chin to see his face. Their eyes met for a moment...piercing blue eyes meeting startled green eyes in a battle of nerve. He won.
Feeling the warmth of color invading her cheeks, she looked away. Never in her life had she done anything so brazen. Focusing her attention on the car, she was acutely aware of the fact that he was still watching her.
“I wonder how I can get my car back on the road,” she mused, and felt relieved when his attention returned to the car.
After studying the car thoughtfully for a few minutes, he confidently assumed authority.
“Go up the hill and watch for cars so you can warn anyone before they get to the curve. I’ll ride back to the house and get my car and a chain.”
He turned to his horse and mounted in one smooth movement. Without another word, he turned the horse and kicked it into a trot in the opposite direction.
She climbed the hill with dragging steps. What a fool she had been to come here. It was nearly dark and she was a good fifty miles from home.
Five years hadn’t changed the wild hills of Madison County, but she had forgotten how truly remote the area was. It would be dark by the time they got the car off the edge of the cliff. If it would still start, she’d head straight back home and forget this futile mission.
By the time she reached the top of the hill, the muscles in her legs were aching. A large rock beside the road provided a place to rest while she listened for vehicles. Her car was in full view. The sight made her stomach roll again. Had her family known the same terror in their last moments of life? The car rocked slightly with a gust of wind. Her stomach rolled and she looked away. She rubbed her legs and stared up at the sky. It was getting late and the air was taking on a chill.
A grinding noise jerked her attention back to the car. The front end was slowly sinking down as the ground gave way. She jumped up and gasped in horror as it slid forward. It poised for a moment and then took a dive off the cliff. Its course down the cliff was marked by the cracking of limbs. Seconds later it crashed into the trees below. She counted the seconds in tense silence, waiting for the sound of an explosion, but the only sound was a car approaching from below.
She darted down the hill, reaching the bottom as a perfectly restored blue ‘72 Monte Carlo came to a halt. The man stepped out and piercing blue eyes questioned her silently from under furrowed bows.
Her knees were trembling as if they were going to give way at any moment, and her face felt devoid of blood.
“It just started rocking and then went over the edge. I think a gust of wind got it started and then the edge of the cliff gave way.”
His nod was noncommittal as he examined the place where the car had gone over. Completing his appraisal, he gave her a hard look.
“Close,” he said in a curt tone.
She peered cautiously over the edge, but couldn’t see the car. Feeling dizzy, she stepped back and turned to the man hesitantly. He had done enough for her, especially considering the fact that her carelessness had put him in mortal danger. Yet her need to reach the car was vital. He would probably know the fastest way. Lifting her gaze to meet his intent regard, she implored him.
“Is there any way down? I need to get my purse and clothes out of the car.”
His smile was sardonic, yet his eyes held a glint of humor. “Do you want me to assist you over the edge?”
“That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” she answered in a dry tone. No doubt he was ready to do exactly that by now.
Sobering, he folded his arms across his chest and rubbed his jaw.
“Yeah, you could get to it, but it would take a while, and you’d be subjecting yourself to thorns, ticks, snakes and about ten miles of the roughest country you can imagine.” His lips twisted into a sardonic smile. “But after what you’ve been through, I guess it would seem like a picnic.”
Glancing down at her sandaled feet, it occurred to her that she was hardly dressed for a walk in the woods. In her urgency, she had climbed out without her purse, so she had no money or telephone, and her cell phone was in her purse.
He stuck out a big hand. “My name is Yancey Giddon.” He lifted a brow inquisitively.
“Lisa Anderson.” His big hand engulfed hers gently, yet his grip was strong. His skin was warm to the touch.
Abruptly, he dropped her hand and turned away, marching off to his car. “Come to the house with me. You couldn’t get to the car before dark anyway,”
It took a moment to comprehend his words, although the fact that he was walking away registered instantly. Her spirits did a roller coaster as she desperately watched his retreating back, and then comprehended his words. He wasn’t abandoning her; he was offering help. Still, years of warnings about getting into cars with strangers compelled her to hesitate.
He reached the passenger side of the car and held the door open for her. His gaze bored into hers, immediately identifying the source of her apprehension.
“Don’t worry. I live with my mother and daughter.” His mouth twisted in that sardonic smile again. “You’ll be safe from me there.”
Desperate as she was, she still hesitated. Maybe the mother and daughter didn’t exist. Maybe...but something about him rang true – mostly the part that he had saved her life.
He gave her an exasperated look. “What’s the matter, are you expecting a better offer?”
Her cheeks warmed with more than embarrassment. “No, I...it’s just that I’ve imposed on you so much already.”
“Then don’t waste any more of my time.”
His voice was gruff, and his brows were drawn together in a frown...and yet the blue eyes twinkled with humor.
If he had intended her harm, fate had already provided him with ample opportunity. She shrugged and accepted his invitation with some reservation. As he had pointed out, it wasn’t as if she had much of a choice. She climbed into the leather seat and he shut the door after her. He walked around to the driver’s side, ducking his head as he folded his long frame into the car. Maneuvering the car around skillfully, he started back up the road.
“Have you got folks around here?”
“Not any more.” She kept her eyes on the road, but she could see the outline of his somber face from the corner of her eye.
“Visiting family?” He persisted.
“No, just visiting.”
He frowned. “Where did you plan to sleep tonight?”
She nibbled on her lower lip. There was no point in telling him she had intended to sleep in the car.
“At a hotel in Huntsville, but I haven’t rented a room yet,” she blurted out, and then caught her breath. Now he would know that no one was expecting her. Her fingers found the door handle - just in case.
“You’re in a fix.” His tone was flat and uninterested.
He swung the car off the road and under an arch that read “Ambrosia Acres.” Not even a path had existed here when she lived in the area five years ago. The grass had been mown short for about five feet on either side of the narrow drive, and a tangle of underbrush and trees lay beyond...freedom, or a barrier? She gripped the handle tighter. It had been foolish to climb into the car with him. And yet, if she had refused, would she have been any better off hiking down the road? He could have forced her into the car...could have dragged her into the woods. The chances were slim that anyone would have come along the road to help her. She felt dizzy from breathing off the top of her lungs.
The long drive detoured around several large oak trees before it ended in a circle. A gray brick house dominated the landscape, its ranch style sprawling in a U shape with a garage on one end. In the middle of the circle was a large teardrop-shaped flower garden. An immaculate lawn stopped abruptly at the circle. A patch of blue cement suggested a swimming pool might also inhabit the estate.
Lisa snapped her sagging jaw shut. Never would she have guessed such a lavish home existed in these rustic mountains. At least he hadn’t lied about the house...if it was actually his, and if the mother and daughter existed. He didn’t look like a rich man, but then, what did a rich man look like? Maybe he only maintained the house for someone else.
He strode around to her side of the car and opened the door for her.
“Mom is fixing supper and I’m sure she has something you can wear in the morning.”
She stared up at him in amazement as she absorbed his offhanded invitation. “I...I couldn’t stay here,” she stuttered.
His tone was uninterested. “Then come in and use the phone if you want.” His mouth slid into an ironic smile that never reached his eyes. “I’ll warn you, though. Mom will insist that you stay.”
Why would his mother insist that she stay? She swung her legs around and firmly planted her feet on the ground before accepting the hand he offered. The movement brought a painful awareness of how stiff her muscles were becoming. She winced as she stood, and glanced up into blue eyes that gave every indication he could read her mind.
His steady gaze warmed. “It gets lonely out here for a woman with no companion but a three-year-old girl.” He released her hand, but his eyes still held hers in a hypnotic trance that made her think of Dracula. “Anyway,” he added, “We have a guest room.”
Avoiding his eyes as she walked past him, she tried not to limp. All the same, he gently took her elbow and led her to the house. At the door, he opened it and stepped back, motioning for her to enter first. She stepped into the room, her face flushing at the knowledge that she had become an unnecessary burden.
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate your help and I will be glad to pay for your generosity....” The words of formality trailed off as she stared at the room.
A huge marble fireplace dominated the large family room, its image reflected on the shiny expanse of hardwood floor. The furnishings were of a dark wood, possibly cherry, with hand carved designs. The cushions on the couch and chairs were thick and inviting. Large paintings hung on every wall and expensive looking pottery lamps with hand painted shades gave the room a warm glow.
“It’s so beautiful,” she gasped.
A sweet voice called from another room. “Did you get her car off the cliff, dear?”
Giddon lifted a brow at Lisa. “It was already off the cliff when I got there,” he called.
A middle-aged woman entered the room, her hands full of hamburger meat as she formed a patty. “What?” Her large brown eyes took in Lisa with surprise and she threw her son a questioning look.
“Mom, this is Lisa Anderson,” he said, and then shrugged. “The car slid off the cliff before I got back. She’ll have to stay here tonight. I’ll take her over in the morning to get her stuff out of the car.”
Warm brown eyes turned on Lisa again with concern. “Oh my, you’re fortunate the car didn’t go over the edge with you in it!”
“I know,” Lisa said, “But I don’t want to put you out. If I could use your phone, Mrs. Giddon, I’ll see if I can find someone to come get me.”
The woman smiled. “Nonsense, you’re not putting us out, but you’re more than welcome to use the phone...and please call me Sarah.”
Lisa hesitated. “Fayetteville is long distance, but I’ll be glad to pay you for the call as soon as I get my things.”
Giddon was watching her intently – his eyes boring into her soul, searching for heaven only knew what.
“It’s a long way to drive from Fayetteville, and then they’d have to bring you back in the morning.”
And her house keys were in the car. Lisa stared at the phone, her hand on the receiver. It was best to stay where she was, but she needed to let someone know she was here. She lifted the receiver and dialed Connie’s number. The phone rang ten times before Lisa gave up. Her hand hung over the phone a minute as she fought with the urge to call Howard. It would only cause him more trouble, both with the trip and wagging tongues. Maybe she should call the police. She needed to report the accident. Immediately Len came to mind. The last thing she wanted to do right now was involve the police in her life. No, it could wait.
Sarah smiled sympathetically. “No one home?”
Lisa felt an immediate bond with the slender mother of her rescuer. “It looks like I’ll have to accept your invitation to spend the night, but I’ll pay you as soon as I get my things.”
Sarah frowned. “Not hardly. This isn’t a hotel. I haven’t had any female company in months. Now you just sit down and relax while I finish supper. You must be starving.”
Giddon chuckled. “I can vouch for the fact that her stomach is empty.”
Lisa ignored his crude implication and kept her attention on his mother. “I’d be glad to help you with supper. I...”
“No, you sit down and relax. You’ve been through enough today.”
A curly blond head peeked around the corner and large blue eyes studied the stranger cautiously. Lisa smiled and glanced up at Giddon. “This must be your daughter.”
Giddon held his hands out and the toddler hurled herself into his arms. Using her momentum, he swung her over his head. She giggled wildly and he lowered her to his chest, hugged her close.
“This is my daughter, Tammy. She’s three.”
The little girl was adorable in a Shirley Temple kind of way.
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Tammy,” Lisa said. “Are you in preschool yet?”
Tammy regarded her suspiciously, ducking her head shyly. “I be in fust gwade tomowow.”
Giddon chuckled. “She starts preschool this fall. Everything is either yesterday, today or tomorrow.” He put the girl down and swatted her backside playfully. “Now go wash up for supper.”
Tammy half skipped and hopped down the hall, throwing a shy smile over her shoulder at Lisa before disappearing into a doorway.
Giddon indicated the couch. “Have a seat.” He said, and dropped into a recliner. He picked up a newspaper and snapped it open, his attention instantly captured by something he found in its crinkled pages.
Lisa gingerly settled her body on the couch. She ached in places there couldn’t be muscles. Strange, but she didn’t remember doing anything in the accident that required enough exertion to strain muscles. Her stomach lurched again as she thought about the way the car had stopped. Again she had avoided death. Only luck had kept her from joining her family today. Luck, or fate? “Maybe I was supposed to be with them,” she thought, not realizing she spoke aloud.
Giddon glanced at her over the top of the paper. “With who?”
She hesitated. It was no secret. It had been in all the local papers, but she wasn’t sure she could talk about it without getting emotional.
“You said maybe you were supposed to be with them,” he reminded her.
“My family,” she managed in a terse response.
“Probably,” he mused, his attention returning to the newspaper. “Then you wouldn’t have run off that cliff.”
When she didn’t respond, he peered over the paper again. “Why weren’t you with them?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
He lifted his brows. “A fight, huh? So you threw your clothes in a suitcase and ran away.”
She met his stern gaze. “I didn’t run away.”
He shrugged. “Why don’t you try calling your family again?”
“I was calling my friend.”
He frowned. “Would this friend be a boy?” He paused, obviously struck by another thought. “Was it your parents’ car?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s mine. I really don’t want to talk about it.”
It was his turn to shrug. “Suit yourself, but I hope you’re not using your absence as a ploy to make your parents worry.”
“They won’t be worried,’ she snapped. His moods flipped back and forth so fast it was hard to know how he would respond to anything. Not that it mattered. None of it was any of his business, and coming to her rescue didn’t make it so - grateful as she was.
“Hmmm.” He shook the newspaper and said nothing more until Sarah announced that supper was ready.
Sarah was an excellent cook. It was hard to believe a simple hamburger could taste that good. Maybe it was hunger or the pleasant company. Throughout the meal, Giddon was amiable, keeping his questions and comments to benign things like the weather and geography. Both he and his mother seemed well informed and intelligent. Since neither looked old enough to retire, one of them must drive a long way to work.
After supper Lisa helped put away the leftovers and wash dishes. Giddon put his daughter to bed and then left the house.
Sarah talked endlessly about her flower garden, the weather and anything else that came to her mind. Lisa had no trouble believing she seldom had company. For the most part, though, her conversation was interesting and helped keep Lisa’s mind off her own problems.
Sarah abruptly stopped talking and gave Lisa a meek smile. “I’ve been going on and on. I must be boring you to death.”
“Oh, no. You’re a very interesting person.”
“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself,” Sarah asked with what seemed to be genuine interest. “You said you lived in Fayetteville...” Her expression became thoughtful. “Lisa Anderson,” she mused. “Are you related to the family that ...” She hesitated, her expression pensive. You must be the daughter who...”
“Stayed at home instead of joining her family for a birthday dinner.” Her voice was unsteady.
Sarah eyed her with sympathy. “I’m sure you feel guilty, but it’s fortunate that you weren’t with them.”
“Fortunate? I wonder. Maybe if I’d been with them...”
“If you had been with them you couldn’t have done anything to prevent the accident. I read about it. The storm was so bad and there was no warning light.”
Lisa frowned. “Yes, there is a light on North Street.”
Sarah looked uncomfortable. “But I’m sure they were on another street. I can’t remember the name of it, but I think I would have remembered North Street. That’s the one the old hospital is on, isn’t it?”
Lisa stared at her. Dad had taken a short cut then. No wonder he didn’t see the light. “I didn’t read the paper. I just thought...” Again she saw Nick’s face in the car window. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
Sarah nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. Of course - it’s too soon.”
She put a gentle hand on Lisa’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go take a nice warm shower? I’ll lend you one of my night gowns and find some clothes for you to wear in the morning. I’ll show you where you can sleep.”