Lisa showered and crawled into the single bed in the guestroom. The sheets were cold and the unfamiliar surroundings unsettling. She pulled the blanket around her shoulders and curled into a shivering ball, staring through the window into the darkness. Had fate brought her to these people who welcomed her as if she were family? Was loneliness the culprit of her decision to spend the night? Sarah’s gentle voice was so much like the mother she lost. Little Tammy was so shy and inquisitive. Giddon, however, was a study in contradictions. So gruff - and yet those eyes that sparkled with amusement.
She fluffed the pillow and changed position, unable to sleep. It was a lovely setting for a home, secluded in wildly beautiful forested hills. The seclusion she knew well, having been brought up less than five miles from this house. It had taken more than an hour to get to school on the bus, making any after-school activities rare. Not that it mattered. She had always been a recluse at heart, often declining a social outing with her friends so that she could be alone with a book or her writing. It was something her parents never understood . . . which was probably why they moved to Fayetteville. Being close enough so that she could attend college while living at home had been their rationalization, but she suspected they were also trying to stimulate her social life. While she would never have described her parents as over-protective, their devotion to their children was never in doubt. Why hadn’t she realized what wonderful parents she had while they were still alive? Well, actually, she had – but not in the same scope that she did now. The room lit up with a bright flash of lightening, and thunder rattled the windowpane. Rain drops tapped on the window lightly at first, and then drummed on the roof angrily. The windows in the car would be broken, and everything would get soaked. The car was a loss anyway, but her purse and clothes would be ruined. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. The money would dry, and her clothes could be washed. The cheap vinyl cover of the purse would be watertight, protecting her cell phone – if it wasn’t ruined in the crash. The car would be replaced by the insurance that was meant to replace her parents’ car. At this point the loss of her car was more an inconvenience than anything else. Still, it was her first car and one with memories packed into it. As soon as she retrieved her purse and clothes, she could call Connie to come get her. Directing Connie to the house would be difficult, but Lisa could wait at the end of the drive. Maybe Sarah or Giddon would take her to the little country store where the dirt road joined the highway.
Gradually the storm passed and she slept without dreaming. The next morning she woke to the first ray of light through the window. She dressed hurriedly in the clothes Sarah had loaned her and ran fingers through her hair, wishing she had a comb. Finally she achieved some semblance of order and left the room.
Breakfast was on the table when she entered the dining room. Giddon and his daughter were already seated. Sarah entered the room carrying a pan of steaming biscuits. She smiled warmly. “Sit down and have breakfast with us.” Lisa hesitated. She was intruding, but it soon became obvious that Sarah wasn’t going to sit down until everyone else was seated. She slid into the chair across from Tammy, and Sarah sat down at the other end of the table. After a moment of thanks, they all began their meal. For the first time since the accident, Lisa felt hungry. She ate in silence, wondering how she could manage the hike to the car. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as Giddon had indicated. Childhood excursions had taught her that the country was rough, but was she up to ten miles of walking? She had grown soft in five years of city life. Giddon was silent, giving all his attention to his food, but Tammy watched Lisa with interest, twirling her fork in her eggs and squirming in her chair. Lisa winked at her and Tammy ducked her head, smiling shyly. Her mischievous blue eyes sought her father first and then her grandmother to make sure they were not watching before she made a face at Lisa. The movement caught Giddon’s attention and he glanced from Tammy to Lisa with a puzzled expression. His expression became thoughtful as he watched his mother gazing absently out the window. “It’s going to be a beautiful day,” Sarah said as she turned her attention back to her food. “I think I’ll work in the garden for a while, after I get my chores done.” Giddon frowned. “Forget the house. Go enjoy yourself.” Sarah threw him a stern look. “Now son, the house won’t clean itself.” Giddon turned his attention to Lisa. “Are you ready?” He asked gruffly. The hostility in his voice and expression was unnerving. Maybe he regretted extending the offer of help. She started to rise from her chair. “Yes. I . . . If you’ll just point the way, I’ll be glad to go by myself. There is no need to put you out further.” His laugh was short and harsh. “You wouldn’t get two miles into those woods before you were lost.” Sarah waved a hand at Lisa, watching Giddon intently. “Now son, Lisa is in a difficult situation and you’re making her feel like a nuisance.” She glanced at Lisa “You sit down and finish your meal. There’s no need to hurry.” Lisa stood and picked up her plate. “I’m stuffed. It was all delicious, and I appreciate all you’ve done for me. As soon as I finish the dishes . . .” “No, you go ahead,” Sarah interrupted with another wave of the hand. “I’ll take care of this.” Giddon stood, cramming his hands into the pockets of his jeans as he frowned down at Lisa. “I said I’d take you and I’m a man of my word.” His gaze shifted to his mother and his expression softened. “I don’t mean to make her feel unwelcome, but it was her own carelessness that got her into this situation.” He was right, of course, but his harsh words were like salt on a raw wound. He had volunteered his help, and now he was going make his offer good . . . whether he wanted to or not. Need he make it so obvious? Sarah came out of her chair with a frown. She opened her mouth to speak, but Giddon’s gruff “Let’s go” cut off any argument. It didn’t matter. The last thing Lisa wanted to do was create tension to go along with the disruption she had already made in their family routine. A four wheel ATV was parked next to the porch and Giddon stepped over it, seating himself as he turned the key. At her surprised expression, he quirked a brow. “You ever ride one of these?” She shook her head, eyeing the vehicle apprehensively. “I’ve heard they’re dangerous.” His mouth twisted into what might have passed for a smile. “I’ve heard that about cars, too,” he answered sarcastically. Lisa blushed. “I suppose it depends on the driver.” He indicated the space behind him with a wave of a hand. “Climb on. This will take us most of the way. We’ll have to walk the rest.” She hesitated. “What about your horse?” His voice had an annoyed edge. “He’s a big horse, but I couldn’t make him carry the two of us in that terrain.” He patted the ATV as if it were alive. “This is more dependable.” With an effort, she managed to straddle the vehicle behind him. She was barely seated before he lurched the vehicle forward, nearly dumping her off the back. “You’ll have to hold on to me,” he spoke gruffly over a shoulder. She stared at his broad back, testing a hand full of his Jacket gingerly. He grabbed her hands and forced them around his waist. “I said hold on to me. I won’t bite.” She gripped him around the waist, wishing she could crush the breath from him. It was a wicked though. He was helping, even if he did so grudgingly. Still, his attitude was nothing shy of annoying. They left the main road on a narrow trail consisting of two ruts. Apparently this was a favorite haunt for Giddon . . . and how many others? Again she had allowed herself to be put in a precarious situation. What did she know about this man . . . other than the fact that he had a volatile temperament? Was it honor that forced him to put aside this time and effort to her gain, or was it something else? Instinct deemed it honor, but was that only wishful thinking? Were victims ever suspicious of their attackers beforehand? He was a big man, in good condition. He could easily overpower her in a struggle or outlast her in a chase. So why hadn’t she thought of that before they left the comparative safety of his house? They were traveling deeper into the wilderness with every minute, and yet she clung to him as if he were a security blanket. Not that she would be any safer letting go. The ATV climbed over large rocks, threatening to unseat them both at any moment. And yet, its little engine hummed along with a surprising lack of noise. Even the birds could be heard over the sound of the engine.
Giddon swung his arm out and pointed to a patch of flowers. Such an unlikely spot for a home site, and yet, the remains of a chimney gave indisputable proof that one had existed at some point. The trail couldn’t have been a road . . . more likely a wash. So who had lived here, and when?
Giddon exclaimed sharply and clawed a spider web from his face. Lisa giggled and he glanced over his shoulder at her. Far from the grouchy expression he had put on at the beginning of the ride, now his eyes flashed with humor, and his lips were twisted in a friendly smile. “I’ve been thinking about rigging up something on the front to catch the webs.”
A little further ahead, they glimpsed a white flash of tail as a deer bounded crossed the trail no more than fifty feet ahead of them. By the time they reached the spot, the deer had vanished in the trees, though.
Giddon paused at a mud hole and pointed at a track. “Bear.”
It wasn’t the first time she had seen a bear track, but it was the first time she had seen one that fresh. As a girl, she had wandered the woods with friends. It was always exciting in an alarming way. But then so was the scream of a mountain lion, and she had never seen one of those, either. Like an Avon notice on a doorknob, the tracks in the mud were proof of an unobserved visit. It was a sobering reminder that a bear had been on this spot – possibly only minutes earlier. She scooted closer to him, frightened and yet intrigued.
After what seemed like hours of traveling down trails that were little more than rockslides, Giddon stopped the ATV and shut off the engine.
“End of the trail. We’ll have to walk from here.” At her anxious look, he smiled. “It isn’t far.”
It wasn’t the distance that alarmed her. It was the fact that she had no idea where they were. He could have led her deep into the woods with intent to harm. She glanced around for some kind of weapon as they walked, and soon came up with a walking stick. He looked it over and commented on the sturdy quality and length. It occurred to her that he knew her intended use for it. His expression was nothing if not amiable, yet there was a twinkle in his eyes that belied the surface calm. It was as if he was mocking her. Maybe he thought the stick would be useless. Maybe it would, but it was something.
The country was wild and beautiful. Monstrous gray rocks jutted up from the earth and found themselves entwined with honeysuckle and briar vines. The steep slopes gave way to ravines where water had carried away the soil, leaving wide trails of flat stones. “There’s enough rock here to build a housing development,” she commented as they worked their way across a jumble of flat red rocks. He nodded. “Yes, but this is park land. You’re not allowed to take as much as a plant from it.” “It must be nice having your land so close to the park.” He grunted. “I planned it that way. The park borders my land on three sides.” “You must like seclusion.” She was walking behind him, trying unsuccessfully to keep up with his long strides. He didn’t respond, and she thought it best to direct her energy to walking rather than talking. When they stopped beside a wide shallow creek, he crouched with his back to her. “Hop on my back and I’ll take you across.” She regarded his broad back skeptically, instantly reminded of her father. “I can walk,” she said tersely. He threw her a sharp look over his shoulder. “Not in my Mother’s boots.” There was no arguing that point. She stared at the stick. It could be a way to get her to put it down. On the other hand, if he wanted to harm her, he might snatch the stick from her and use it as a weapon against her. She dropped the stick and touched his shoulders. His big hands came up, grasping her wrists and pulling her forward until her armpits rested on his shoulders. When he rose, her feet dangled high off the ground. It crossed her mind that he might trip on the mossy rocks, but he crossed the creek with sure steps. By the time he set her down safe and dry on the other side, her hands were going numb and her shoulders were aching. She rubbed her wrists, not fully appreciating his effort. Chancing a glance at his face, she found him watching her in a strange way. She shrugged. “Thank you?” His smile was dry, but his eyes twinkled with mirth. “You’re welcome . . . I think.” It took them another thirty minutes or so to find the burned out shell of the car. Lisa stared in mute horror. The windows were all broken and the front end was smashed back to the windshield.
Giddon whistled. “Geez. Looks like it’s been hit by a locomotive.”
Lisa jerked her head around and glared at him, but his attention was fully absorbed by the destruction. His assessment tore through her mind, digging up memories and laying them bare on the surface. The train whistle blasting repeatedly; Nick with his face to the window, calling for her. The agonizing memories ruptured to the surface at last, forcing a long overdue reaction. The grief was so strong that it became a nauseating pain. Clutching her stomach, she sank to her knees. Deep uncontrollable sobs squeezed the breath from her lungs. She rocked back and fourth, tears coursing down her cheeks unchecked. “No-o-o . . .” she moaned with her first breath.
A strong hand gripped her shoulder. “Lisa? It’s just a car. What’s important is that you’re alive. Your parents will realize that.”
The stored tears continued to flow and the sobs wracked her body, robbing it of the ability to speak – barely allowing a breath to be drawn.
“Lisa, stop it.” His voice sounded alarmed. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”
She gasped for breath and managed to get two words between sobs. “Go away.”
He walked away, leaving her to cry privately. How long she sat there and cried, she couldn’t say, but gradually the sobs subsided. She stood and wiped her face with her shirt sleeves, still hiccoughing. Finally even those subsided, leaving her feeling weak and drained. Even so, it was as if a something had been lifted from her chest, allowing the flow of oxygen and blood to a starving brain. Everything seemed clearer, as though she had come out of a fog.
Giddon returned, his expression guarded. “Here. I think this is yours.” He shoved a shiny read object at her.
“My purse!” Opening it, she removed a tissue and wiped the tears from her face. Blowing her nose, she finally responded. “Thanks.” It wasn’t enough, but it was all she felt capable of at the moment. Finally she looked up at his face.
He met her gaze soberly, probably seeking the cause of her distress. She must look a sight with red swollen eyes. Taking a deep ragged breath, she turned away from the car.
“I guess there’s nothing we can do here.”
“You can call your parents from the house,” he said. “It isn’t as bad as it seems.”
She started walking without responding. Maybe it was best he didn’t know about the cell phone yet. Maybe it wouldn’t work. The battery might be dead or the fall might have broken it.
He grabbed her arm, pulling her in another direction. “This way,” he said, and then took off with long strides.
She tried to keep up with him, but her legs ached from the unfamiliar exercise. Must he travel so fast? Not that she had any right to complain. He didn’t have to bring her here at all. In fact, he was under no obligation to help her get back, either. She hurried after him, glancing nervously at the jumble of rocks and trees. Where were they, anyway? By now she was so turned around that she couldn’t have found her way to the ATV, much less the road.
Exhaustion left her feeling cold and weak, which was probably why her foot slipped on the edge of a rock. Her ankle twisted painfully, forcing a quick cry of pain from her lips. She paused for no more than a few moments, but apparently Giddon hadn’t heard. His broad shoulders swayed with the swing of his stride. She limped after him, muttering under her breath. “Don’t let me slow you down. I’ll get home somehow.”
They finally reached the creek, where Giddon stopped long enough to scoop her into his arms. For a moment he looked down at her, his expression somber. It felt good to be off her feet, even if only momentarily and in such a manner. She encircled his neck with one arm, noting that his breathing didn’t seem at all labored as he carried her across the creek.
On the other side of the creek he set her down. Again he gazed down at her.
“Feeling a little better?”
She nodded. Better would be a long time coming, but she felt more in control of her emotions.
“Good.” He pulled her into a gentle comforting hug.
She leaned against his chest for a moment, comforted by his sympathetic embrace. His hands gently pulled her head back and before she comprehended his intent, he kissed her lips. For a moment his warm lips felt reassuring, and then reality broke the spell. She turned her face away, twisting free of his arms. The jerk! How could he take advantage of her that way? She slapped his face.
His mouth twisted into a sardonic smile. “That would have been more convincing if you hadn’t been so willing at first.” Her face burned. “Of all the . . .” She lifted her hand to slap him again. He grabbed her wrist, his eyes flashing fire. “I’ll make you a deal,” he spoke evenly, “you don’t hit me and I won’t hit you.” She jerked her wrist from his hand and turned away, thankful at least for the warning. Still, what could he expect? He was no gentleman, and she’d best keep that in mind. He stepped around her and remained silent all the way to the ATV. His brisk walk was stiff. Maybe he was angry. It didn’t matter.
She mounted the ATV behind him and hesitated before putting her arms around his waist. Maybe he wouldn’t bite, but he’d certainly take advantage of her. In the end, there was no choice. He started the engine and she clamped her arms around him, clinging to him as he spun the tires in a spray of pebbles and rocks. At one point he splashed through a mud puddle, throwing mud and water all over her.
By the time they reached the house, she was shivering and stiff. She stumbled as she dismounted from the ATV and Giddon reached out to help her. She knocked his hand away and headed for the house in a stiff jointed hobble.
Giddon reached the door before she did and opened it for her, his smile wry.
“You’ve got a lot of spunk, you know that?”
The look she gave him revealed nothing but exasperation. She spoke through chattering teeth. “It’s nice to know you’re not angry with me,” she said dryly. He frowned and touched his cheek. “I guess I had it coming.” He hesitated, studying her face with a puzzled expression. “You seemed to be enjoying it when I carried you across the creek. And when I . . . hugged you . . .you didn’t seem to mind at first.” Warmth returned to her cheeks. What would give him the idea that she enjoyed having him carry her across the creek? And what about the hug? Had it been genuine, or simply a way to get her close enough to kiss? There was no point in arguing the issue. She had her purse, and it wasn’t as though he had done any physical harm. She crossed her arms and gave him a level look. “I was cold. You were warm.” An unidentifiable expression lurked in his dark features as he nodded. His gaze dropped to her muddy clothes. “We’d better go in the back way or Mom will have my hide.” She hesitated, wanting to find a way home, but not wanting to ask any more favors of him. Connie and Howard would be at work right now and wouldn’t be home until 5:00 pm. They couldn’t arrive until after 6:00 at the earliest. By that time the Giddon family would have felt the need to feed her two more times. There was another way, but after what had happened today, she was reluctant to bring it up. Swallowing her pride, she faced the issue head on.
“I hate to ask you for another favor, but I wonder if I could pay you to drive me home.”
“All the way to Fayetteville?” Fair enough. His day had already been disrupted enough. She had nearly run him down, slapped his face and taken him away from his work in less than twenty-four hours. By now he had to be desperate to get rid of her. It was an unreasonable request, and yet his response angered her.
“Forget it,” she said. “Maybe I can contact a friend.”
“A boyfriend? Why don’t you call your parents?” “I said forget it.” They were removing their boots in the mud room when Sarah joined them. After a startled look at Lisa, she turned on Giddon, a frown wrinkling her forehead. “Yancey! For goodness sakes! Look what you’ve done to the poor girl. Why, she’s shivering.” Giddon looked chagrined. “I guess I got in a hurry.” Sarah snorted. “I guess.” When her gaze returned to Lisa, her features softened into a warm smile. ““I washed your clothes. They’re lying on your bed. Why don’t you go take a warm shower and I’ll have a hot meal ready by the time you’re done.” Lisa blushed. “You’re so nice, but I hate to impose. I’ll be glad to pay you for all you’ve done.” She lifted her purse, forcing a smile. “My car was burned out, but Mr. Giddon found my purse.” Sarah gave Giddon a stern look and then returned her attention to Lisa. “I’m sorry about your car and the rest of your things, but please don’t mention money. As I said, I enjoy having a female around. Now, go take your shower before you catch your death of cold. Your lips are turning blue!” Lisa brushed past Giddon without looking at him. As if she hadn’t been a burden in enough ways, now she had Mrs. Giddon upset with him. He could hardly be blamed if he chose to make her walk home. In the shower, she lifted her face to the warm water. Her numb body was beginning to tingle and her strength was returning. The braids had to be untangled in order to shampoo the mud from her hair. In retrospect, Giddon’s intent may have been to console her. His kiss was no more out of line than her response. Hard as it was to admit, the embrace and the kiss had been comforting. Whatever the reason, the kiss had awakened her as effectively as the prince did sleeping beauty. It was a strange feeling to realize she had been in a cocoon for weeks. Nothing existed around her during that time but numbness. That numbness was gone and the pain was now a conscious throb. Turning her face to the shower, she cried again. Not the long deep sobs of earlier, but a cleansing cry. Somehow it actually felt good. Refreshed from the inside out, she dressed and combed her hair with her fingers. It looked like sheep wool, but it would have to do. Opening her purse, she found the cell phone and pulled it out. To her relief, the face was lit up and there was still one bar. Feeling guilty, she used the card Len had given her and dialed his number. The phone rang several times and then dropped the call. She tried again with the same results. Was it the location or the fact that it needed charged? The auto charger was in the car, but she had a plug-in type at home. Not that it would do her any good. Did Giddon have a cell phone? Probably not or he would have used it. Strange, all this luxury and no cell phone. It only strengthened the idea that he was the caretaker, not the owner.
Grabbing her clothes and the towel, she took them to the laundry room. She should wash them, but there wasn’t time. She came into the kitchen with her purse on one arm and joined the others. Giddon eyed her long hair thoughtfully, but said nothing.
After they finished eating, Giddon rose from his chair. “Are you ready to go?” She studied him suspiciously. “Go where?” He rolled his eyes. “You asked me to drive you home, don’t you remember?” His voice had that crisp edge to it again.
What was he angry about this time? She met his cool gaze. “I remember you didn’t answer,” she said dryly.
Sarah silently watched her son with what appeared to be amused interest. Was she actually enjoying the exchange? Giddon shrugged, that intense topaz gaze shifting to his feet. “I didn’t know you expected a gold-engraved invitation.” He was such a jerk. She eyed him with open disdain. “A simple yes or no would have sufficed. I wouldn’t want to put you to any more trouble.” He glanced up sharply, his brows furrowed. Obviously he was annoyed by her caustic tone. “It’s no trouble.” The last word ended on the upturn, as if it were a question, not a statement. “I could call a taxi,” she said.
He snorted. “It would cost you a fortune. Anyway, my driving isn’t that bad.”
No, not his driving, but his mood was. It was almost as if he was determined to take her home. Was he that anxious to get her out of his hair? She shrugged. “Fine, let’s get this over with.”
He turned to his mother. “While I’m out, do you need anything?” He paused and frowned at her. “What are you laughing about?” “Nothing,” she said with a smile and then hugged Lisa. “I wish you could stay. I haven’t been so entertained in years.” She stepped back. “You take care of yourself and come visit us sometime.” “I will,” Lisa responded with surprise. Poor Sarah. She needed to get out more if she found their disgruntled exchange entertaining. “Promise?” Sarah urged. Lisa hugged her with genuine feeling. “I promise to drop in and see you the very next time I’m up this way.” Sarah studied her with wise eyes. “Make sure that is sometime in the near future.” Lisa glanced up to find Giddon watching them thoughtfully. He was probably already dreading the idea of seeing her again. He had no reason to worry. The chances were slim that she would ever come back. Much as she liked Sarah, the idea of Giddon’s displeasure would prohibit any such intent.