The thin black steering wheel groaned under the pressure of my grip as my thoughts turned to an impending college graduation, a lack of plans for the future, and the absence of a career path. You’d think all of that would be settled, but…nope. I was soon to receive a degree for which I had no real-life application from a university for which I felt no real connection. Because going to college was what was expected after high school.
I adjusted my sunglasses in response to the brightening May horizon and chewed my lip as I began obsessing, again, about the twenty-thousand in student debt I’d racked up thanks to the exorbitant and ever-increasing cost of a degree.
Thoughts of joining the real world evaporated.
Time suspended, and the scene before me played out in slow motion. In the span of two heartbeats my world became devoid of sound, of rational thought—there was only reaction as a sharp, jarring impact snapped my head to the side and catapulted the car into oncoming traffic.
My beloved Mustang was not only spinning in a circle, but toppling side over side. As the car thrust down, flipped over, and crashed roughly again onto the pavement I grabbed at handles, braced my legs, and scrabbled for purchase of any solid surface to prevent being tossed around the car like a pinball.
It seemed an eternity before the Mustang bounced a final time and stuttered to a stop. I let out the breath I’d been holding and looked around aimlessly, confused. Air rushed back into my lungs that smelled of burning rubber and the bitter, complex odor of overheated electronics.
Out. I needed to get out of the car. But I wasn’t sitting upright. The left side of my body leaned heavily against the driver’s side door. The only thing visible through the windshield was a bent-up cherry red hood. A shock of pain that weakened my knees shot through my neck as I sought out the skyward-facing passenger door. I ground my teeth, put a hand to my neck, and made an effort not to move so suddenly again.
Unbuckling my seatbelt with one hand, I shimmied around inside the car to kneel upright. The car’s interior was out of proportion and the passenger door had been badly damaged. The door handle above taunted me, guarding the only way out. I pushed the passenger door with all of my strength, but it was so jammed it wouldn’t budge. Short, panicked breaths didn’t provide enough oxygen for my addled brain to function properly, and I kicked and punched at everything in futile effort. I was stuck.
And something was definitely burning.
The car’s interior provided no avenue of escape, hard as I tried. But my search was derailed when the pace of my panicked heart skyrocketed. My chest burned painfully and I rubbed at it to find relief. None came. My heart felt full, hard—like a grossly over-inflated ball . It beat hard--Kathump, Kathump—and flopped over inside my chest as an overwhelming sense of dread nearly drowned me before settling in the pit of my stomach.
Was this a panic attack? Of course it was. They’d been happening more frequently lately.
With a hand to the back of my throbbing neck I searched the disheveled car for something to break a window, but my belongings had been strewn wildly from the roll. I dug around the console and finally found a metal flashlight. Just as I reached back to swing at the window, the passenger door gave a grating creak and opened half way.
A thick mop of black hair came into view as a low, rough voice urged, “Give me your hands. I’ll pull you up.”
Thankful for the help, I did as instructed and was swiftly pulled from the smoking car.
Before I could form a word of thanks, my rescuer threw me over his shoulder and shot across the road. As he ran my head beat against his back, which exacerbated my neck pain, and I closed my eyes in misery.
At first I was too shocked to protest. Everything had happened so fast. Wreck. Roll. Fire. Escape. Manhandled? Besides what I suspected to be whiplash, I wasn’t seriously injured. I took a quick inventory. A little pain, but overall surprisingly intact. Everything seemed to be in working order. So why was I being carried? My feminine sensibilities were offended and I wanted down.
“Hey,” I hollered. “Put me down. I’m okay. I can walk.”
I tried to raise up, but a big hand at the small of my back forced me back down. “Ugh. Stop for a minute and put me down,” I pleaded. “Please.”
Still he ran.
For the first time I made note of who was carrying me, or at least I took stock of the limited view I had. Despite hanging upside down halfway down his body, I was still quite high above the ground. He was tall. And strong. He jogged as if I weighed nothing at all. An off-duty fireman? No. His dark pants looked expensive, as did black dress shoes. My face bounced against a crisp white dress shirt that was still tucked in.
I growled in frustration as I kicked my legs and slapped at his sides. “Put. Me. Down.”
My auburn hair flew wildly back over my head when he stopped without a word and set me down against a tree. I let out a grunt of irritation before glancing at his retreating form and taking took a good look at my surroundings. He’d deposited me in a mulched flowerbed fifty yards from my car. I turned too sharply toward it and groaned when another shot of pain speared through my neck.
Intent on getting back to the scene of the accident I stood and dusted the seat of my jeans and noticed my shoulder was stiff, too.
But pain would have to wait. My car was the primary concern, and I held my breath as I searched for it. The Earth itself froze on its axis when I spotted it smashed against a light pole at the four-way intersection. My beloved car lay beaten, battered, and unrecognizable. It would never be the same.
Just as I got my dobber in the dirt…whoof, the back underside of the Mustang burst into flames. I choked and coughed on a breath sucked in too fast as flames engulfed the entire car.
“Oh, god, no.” I stumbled back, my hands flying to my head in despair. This reaction hurt both my neck and my shoulder and I groaned pitifully.
My instinct was to run to the car—to save it. I started for it but the Good Samaritan grabbed me just above the elbow and held me there, looking on, until I realized the stupidity of that course of action.
The day old lady Benson sold The Beast to me was one of my luckiest. It sat in a hay barn for years after Mr. Benson died. When I was sixteen, after years of saving baby- and dog-sitting funds, I found the nerve to ask if she would sell it. She’d already told everyone in the county no. I don’t know what got into her that day, but she looked me over with a cloudy eye and croaked “All right. I'll take twenty-five hundred and not a penny less.” It was a steal, and left me plenty to get it up and running.
Most of the girls at school had cute little sedans or the occasional SUV, but I loved my Mustang. I would normally have bought something that got great gas mileage, saver of the planet that I was, but I was doing my part by re-using the old Mustang, right?
The loss of my car and the shock of the accident were too much. My lip quivered uncontrollably before grief swallowed me whole. Big, hot tears streamed down my cheeks. I wiped my splotched face on my sleeve and thought, Oh, you really are a loser now, Stonewall. No job, no car, and no prospects for either. This I found wildly hilarious and laughed as hard as I’d cried. A new kind of tears formed and fell.
“Sit back down; you’re in shock,” ordered that same deep voice.
His words sunk in and I thought he must be right. Laughing hysterically was not an appropriate response to a near-death car wreck and ensuing pyrotechnic display.
“Your forehead’s bleeding,” he said. “And you’re going to have quite a bump. Maybe a concussion and whiplash, too. Sit back down. Let me see if you’re injured anywhere else.”
I sunk to the hard ground in a daze. As he busied himself examining me I sat cross-legged and watched in horror as my beloved car suffered a slow, smoldering death.
A huge black Range Rover sat nearby, its front end smashed. That’s the bastard that hit me, I thought. Where’s the driver? There were too many people wandering around to determine the owner. I glanced around wildly, but closed my eyes on a shaky exhale when pain shot through my neck and back.
When the spasms died down I opened my eyes to find Super Helpful Samaritan sitting on his heels looking at me. Hard. His attention demanded reciprocation, and when I finally saw him I lost my breath in a rush. I’d never seen a man like him in my life. He was older than I’d ever go for, but holy bejesus he was spectacular.
The mess of black hair I first caught a glimpse of in my car was longer on top than the closer-cropped sides and fell recklessly around his head. Amber-colored eyes bored into mine. His eyes were absolutely breathtaking; the color of aged whiskey and framed by dense black eyelashes. They were searching for something—probing—and seeing too much. I wanted a jacket, some way to cover up and hide. I forced myself to look away.
After a moment of feigning interest in a speck on my jeans, I peeked back to see he’d moved on, too. He squeezed and bent various joints—I assumed to ensure nothing was broken. Big thumbs rolled along my neck and into my hairline, applying slight pressure. Everywhere he touched felt warm, overcharged, tingly. Having a stranger’s hands probe me in such an intimate way should have horrified or repulsed me, but repulsion was the last thing I felt.
Still intent on his work, he crooked a finger under my chin and lifted my face. He pushed a mess of my hair back from my forehead as he dabbed at the side of my face with...
“What is that?”
“Part of my shirt,” he said. “Hold still.”
“So bossy,” I grumbled. I waited, if a little impatiently, until he finished.
“Well, you’ve mostly stopped bleeding and that’s good.” He pulled the scrap of shirt away from my head and I saw that it was caked in blood. “You’ll be sore for a few days from the impact. No signs of concussion, and the neck pain should be fading.” His gaze shot down to my chest and I swear I caught the faintest hint of a grin before he resumed his clinical assessment. “You’ll have a nasty seatbelt burn, but that’ll heal in time, too.”
I looked down and noticed, for the first time, that my shirt was badly askew and I had a raw red mark from the top of my left breast across my shoulder. Lovely. I rearranged my shirt and pretended to have some semblance of dignity left.
He cleared his throat to hide another grin, but he wasn’t fooling anyone—especially me—though I chose to ignore him.
I rolled my shoulders and stretched my neck from side to side. Oddly, I already felt better. Not so much pain as before.
“Thanks for getting me out of the car,” I said. “And thanks for the medical attention. I’m Stella Stonewall.”
His wide mouth opened and closed two or three times before he finally permitted it to form a genuine smile. His eyes gleamed with pleasure and he shook his head, his eyebrows stretching toward his hairline in disbelief. Then he laughed. Full-on, mouth-open, head-thrown-back laughed.
He. Was. Beautiful.
“What’s so damned funny?” He was a hottie and all, but a righteous headache had me feeling prickly. My favorite thing in the whole world had just blown up as I watched. Definitely not my favorite day.
He quirked a brow at my biting tone, then shook his head good-naturedly again.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m just not having a great day, ok? I loved that car. I’m gonna kill the sonofabitch who hit me. And yes, I tend to curse. A lot, when I’m pissed. Excuse the hell outta me.”
I smirked, but immediately felt childish for the unnecessary explicatives.
“What’s so funny,” he said, ignoring my outburst, “is that my day has taken a serendipitous turn for the better. I came to this town in search of a girl, and she ran right into me. Literally. I’ve been looking for you, Stella Stonewall.” It was his turn to smirk.
My stomach churned with confusion and unease. Why was this guy looking for me? Although he was…beyond handsome, my whole body felt like a tuning fork. My scalp prickled and my internal weirdar blinked Warning. Warning. Danger. Danger.
I squinted because the more I looked—really looked—at him, the more I saw there was something not quite normal about him. He seemed…I don’t know…different. I took in his size and the fact that he had effectively carried me out of anyone’s earshot and eyesight, and that panicky feeling came back.
I shot to my feet and inched toward the accident—and the crowd. “I’d better go talk to the guy that hit me. The cops’ll be here soon and I’ll need to give a statement.”
He held me by the arm, a vice on my bicep.
“You ran that red light,” he said and shook my arm just hard enough to scare me. “You didn’t even slow down. You hit me. Hard.”
“It was you?” I gasped in outrage. My spine infused with indignation, and I jerked my arm from his grasp. “The hell I ran a red light! I was just driving, minding my own business, when someone crashed into the side of me.” Right? I was absorbed in my own thoughts as I drove and…I wasn’t so sure anymore. Did I hit him?
“The reason I hit you,” he said, “is because my light was green. You came speeding through the intersection in that steel contraption you were driving; you never even slowed. Actually, that car is probably the only reason you’re still alive. They just don’t make them like they used to.” He sighed and shook his head wistfully.
“My beautiful Beast,” I whispered, tears threatening to spill over as I was once again overwhelmed with emotion. “You saved my life, girl. Traded mine for your own.”
He looked from the smoking mass to me and back again. He closed his eyes and let out a tired breath that clearly communicated ‘Oh great. She’s a psycho,’ but changed the subject. “Don’t worry about the authorities,” he said. “I’ll take care of that. But you’re right. We’ll need to go and sort this out. We can take care of our other business after that.”
I didn’t care to question him further about this ‘other business.’ Considering the scary vibes I was picking up, my goal was to get to the scene of the accident, find a phone, and have someone pick me up. ASAP.
The police had arrived and were questioning witnesses. Miraculously, no one seemed to have seen anything.
I tried to give my statement to an officer, but Señor Samaritan approached like he was the mayor. He loomed over me with a possessive bearing. He was too close, too much.
“Excuse me,” I sidestepped him and shook my head in a “back-the-eff-off” gesture. “I’m trying to talk to Officer…” I checked the gold badge at the officer’s chest, “Officer Polk.”
“The officer has all he needs,” my rescuer said. “There’ll be no need for a report. We can leave as we like.”
He said this as if it was the most sensible thing in the world. And he was so confident that I almost believed it myself. I would have, too, if not for those same bells going off in my head. Lucky I had such keen senses. My mother always chalked them up to a woman’s intuition, but mine were overdeveloped. I knew a weirdo when I saw one.
“…no need for a report. You two are free to go,” Officer Polk concluded. I squinted suspiciously at Hot Creepy Rescuer Guy and the officer walked away without another word leaving me alone, again, with…
“What’s your name, anyway? My name seems to be of interest to you; I’d like to know yours.” Damn, I forgot to use the officer’s phone.
“Gresham. Rowan Gresham. I’m so glad to finally find you, Stella.”
“What? Why?” I sputtered and took a step backward.
“We’ll clear up everything in time. Shall we go? My Rover’s still operational.”
I shook my head determinedly. “No. That’s okay. I’ll call a friend.”
I took a step toward the throng of people, but he went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “I’ll call a tow to deal with your car. I’m afraid both it and anything you had in it are gone. I’m sorry.”
I hadn’t yet thought of that. My laptop, my handbag, everything in my backpack was burned to a crisp. What a freakin’ day. “Listen, mister,” I said. “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t know you and, frankly, you’re creeping me out. There’s no way I’m getting in a car with you. I’ll go over to that coffee shop and borrow the phone.”
“Get in the car, Stella,” he grated. “We have a lot to discuss. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m only here to talk to you.” He must have been losing his patience because I could see the muscles in his jaw contract as he gritted his teeth. My ears rang and I had the strangest sense he was trying to coerce me into the car.
“Huh-uh,” I shook my head again. “Nope. What, you have some ice cream in there? Candy? Maybe some puppies you want to show me?”
That was it. I was determined not to waste any more time with him. The muscles in my legs jumped and tensed, anticipating my next move. With what I thought was lightening speed I lifted a leg to run for the coffee shop. But before my foot had even touched the ground, he’d thrown me back over his shoulder and headed for the Range Rover.
The force of it knocked the breath from my lungs and my eyes shot wildly around the landscape as I gasped for air. I could see everything in that moment. Traffic was backed up due to our accident. Several people milled around my car, pointing at the charred mass. Others went on about their day as if nothing had happened. I could see everything; why could no one see me?
I kicked and hit and screamed at my captor, my body rigid with fear the second time he manhandled me. This wasn’t a rescue, but a kidnapping. He ignored my efforts, which did nothing to slow his clipped pace. Time wasn’t on my side. I stilled for a moment and his grip loosened almost imperceptibly. Gathering both my physical and mental strength, I twisted my body to throw myself from his shoulder. It worked. I fell right into his arms. He looked down at me irritably as thick muscles jerked me into his chest.
Despite my frantic bucking and attempts to bite everything in close range, he managed to buckle me into the back seat of his Range Rover and slammed the door.
It wasn’t my day for success with door handles. For all my efforts tugging and manipulating, the door was locked and there was no manual way to undo it. The pounding of my fists on the window competed with my ragged screams for help, but it was useless. No one heard me.
My circumstances had degraded fast, and the situation was serious— life-and-death serious. I needed a plan.