Authors: Rosalind James
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Suspense
OTHER BOOKS BY ROSALIND JAMES
Prequel: Just for You
Book 1: Just This Once
Book 2: Just Good Friends
Book 3: Just for Now
Book 4: Just for Fun
Book 5: Just My Luck
Book 6: Just Not Mine
Book 7: Just Once More
Book 8: Just in Time
Book 1: Welcome to Paradise
Book 2: Nothing Personal
Book 3: Asking for Trouble
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Rosalind James
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Eileen Carey
This one’s for my dad, the best teacher I ever knew. I miss you.
Amy Corrigan’s body was screaming.
The tension gripped her forearms even as her hands clenched the steering wheel, and she was driving anything but smoothly. Not that she’d have minded being pulled over. She was praying to be pulled over. The muscles of her thighs were so tight that she could barely move her foot on the accelerator, and the car lurched forward as she jerked her head to the side to check the rearview mirror again.
He was still there. Hanging back. But still there.
She didn’t know why she was so sure it was a man. It could have been Bill’s old girlfriend Stacy following her, trying to scare her off. Not like Stacy would get Bill back that way—Bill had been clear enough about that. That hadn’t stopped her from trying, though.
But somehow, Amy knew it wasn’t Stacy. Stacy didn’t have a car, and this wasn’t the first time Amy had noticed lights behind her, or felt that prickling at the back of her skull. But the prickling had never been as bad as this, because the feeling had started long before she’d gotten into her car.
She’d felt the hair rising on her neck and arms as she’d dug into the bulgur wheat bin in the bulk-food aisle of the Co-op, filled her plastic bag, and twisted the tie around its neck. There she’d been, surrounded by people, lights shining overhead, still smiling from the teeny bit of harmless flirtation she’d engaged in with the cute guy in the produce aisle. Just living her everyday life in one moment, and the next as frozen as a doe grazing in a meadow, raising her head with the sudden certainty that the hunter was there, that he had her in his sights.
She’d finished her shopping, telling herself she was being imaginative, that she was nervous and jumpy. Premenstrual, maybe, or worried about the test tomorrow, because Dr. Santangelo had warned the class that she was a tough grader.
Geology had sounded easy. That was why she had signed up for it. It was just rocks, right? Who’d known there would be so much memorizing? She wished she had a great big rock in the car with her right now, though, one big enough to be a weapon. But she didn’t have a rock, so she was going to have to think of something else.
She turned onto Pine, and the headlights followed, and the tingling at the back of her neck was so strong that she would have raised her hand to rub at the skin there if both hands hadn’t been hanging on to the wheel so tightly.
Onto Adams, and the lights made the turn behind her. She wasn’t going home, because she wasn’t stupid. She was driving at random, and he was following, and she was more than scared, because this wasn’t the first time, and Paradise was a very small place with very little traffic. She could tell it was a pickup back there, but that was all she could tell, and that ruled out just about nobody in North Idaho.
She couldn’t call Bill, because he’d gone to his parents’ place in Coeur d’Alene for the weekend, and that would be no help at all. He’d invited her to go with him, but midterms started tomorrow. Her dad had told her in no uncertain terms, when the grades had come out at the end of her freshman year, that if she wanted her parents to keep paying the bills, playtime was over. So she’d stayed on campus to study. Right now, that was feeling like the worst decision she’d made in her admittedly checkered college career.
She might not be a model student, but, she reminded herself fiercely, she was a smart girl—no, a smart
. Too smart to ignore a sixth sense that was doing everything but screaming and clanging alarm bells in her ear. She swung onto Spruce again, then back into the Co-op parking lot, grabbed her purse from the seat beside her, leaped from the car, and ran for the door, not stopping for her coat despite the bite in the late-October air.
Snow by morning
, her farmer’s-daughter brain told her irrelevantly.
Once she was inside the store again, she peered out into the street, but the lights, whomever they belonged to, were gone.
Or else the person—
—had driven into the parking lot himself, or stopped on the street, even, while she’d been running for the door. She couldn’t tell. She didn’t know. She couldn’t remember whether she’d heard a car stopping or not, and she nearly wailed with fear and frustration. Why hadn’t she listened for it? But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. For all she knew, he was in his truck now, somewhere in the dark, across the street, maybe, waiting for her to leave so he could follow her home, where there were no lights and no crowds, where it was dark and she would be alone.
Or waiting for his opportunity to ram her, her overactive imagination suggested. To pin her in her much smaller car, pull her out and into his truck. There were a hundred ways this evening could end up, and most of them were bad.
She pulled out her phone and dialed Monica, her best friend. She couldn’t stay in the Co-op all night. It was closing in half an hour, and then she was going to have to walk out those doors again. Into the dark, where he would be waiting. She couldn’t call the cops, not for a pair of headlights and a bad feeling in her stomach. But she wasn’t leaving here alone.
The man watched the girl—Amy, he told himself, rolling the syllables on his tongue like wine—running into the store like the hounds of hell were on her heels.
Which they were. He’d relished the sight of Amy darting those quick glances into her rearview mirror, taking the turns without signaling, like that would have mattered to him, like he couldn’t follow one scared girl through the nearly deserted streets of downtown Paradise at nine o’clock on a cold Sunday night. She hadn’t had a hope of outrunning him, not a chance of escaping, not if he’d really wanted to catch her, and the knowledge was sweet.
She’d pulled into the parking lot again, but that just made the game more fun. What kind of challenge was there in shooting a deer from the cab of your truck? None at all. No bone-deep satisfaction in that, not the kind you felt when you’d hidden, when you’d waited and watched, when you finally saw that doe thinking she was safe, and when you knew she wasn’t, because you were there, and you were stronger. Because you were the predator, and she was the prey.
Just like Amy was his prey now. She’d been jumpy before, and after tonight, she’d be terrified. But not as terrified as she’d be when he caught her.
What was it they said? Getting there was half the fun? Yeah. But being there, doing it . . . that was the other half.
IN THE DITCH
The meeting had been on Zoe Santangelo’s schedule. The ice wasn’t.
When she hit it, she didn’t even realize what it was. One moment she was approaching the turn, admiring the black-and-white beauty of the snow-covered curves and hollows around her and wondering if she had time to get a coffee before her two o’clock Geology 101 class, because sitting in front of the room monitoring that midterm was going to get boring. The next instant, she was turning the wheel to sweep around the bend in the road, and . . . not sweeping.
She was still trying to turn the wheel, but the car wasn’t responding. Not at all. Instead, the whole thing was going sideways, her back end swinging wide to the right. She saw the semi heading toward her through the light mist of blowing snow, and her mouth opened wide in a soundless scream as she tried frantically to turn the wheel the other way, away from the eighteen enormous wheels, the heavy, crushing load that loomed over her like an ocean liner.
The driver’s horn blasted through the frigid air, through the fragile layer of glass that was all that separated her from the tonnage bearing down on her. She’d have prayed, but she didn’t have time to pray. She just slid.
A fraction of a second later, the semi was blowing past, the sound of the horn trailing behind it, and the back end of the car was hitting the frozen ditch at the side of the road, tipping remorselessly over the bank despite the foot she’d jammed onto the brake, and all the momentum her Elantra hatchback possessed stopped in a single heartbeat.
Her rear bumper landed against the far bank with a dull crunch, and her back slammed into the seat with the impact, the shoulder belt tightening, grabbing her even as her head bounced a little off the hard fabric headrest.
And then it all ended and everything was still, only the heater’s fan breaking the silence.
She stayed there, dazed, for a moment, heart thudding, body starting to shake with freshly released adrenaline.
“All right,” she said aloud, and heard the tremble in her voice. “All right. All right.”
There. That sounded better. All right, she was in the ditch. She’d slid on ice she hadn’t seen and, stupidly, hadn’t anticipated.
“Watch for black ice,”
somebody had said as she’d left her very first meeting as a groundwater consultant, but she’d barely registered it, because she’d been thinking about the check. The nice, big, fat check that would help so much, and everything it represented as the next step on her career path. And now she was in the ditch.
Call Triple A.
She had AAA, because when you moved to a new job in a new city—well, a new town—three very large Western states away from home, in your twelve-year-old car with more miles on it than God, you had AAA. Thank goodness.
Her fingers were still shaking, but she got her shoulder belt unfastened; reached uncomfortably uphill and scrabbled around to find her purse, which had slid under the passenger seat; found her phone; and got the number dialed.
Just call. Call, wait for the tow truck, cross your fingers you haven’t done damage, and hope it doesn’t take too long.
Damage. She couldn’t afford damage, not until she had that check. And she couldn’t afford to be late to class on the day she gave her first exam, to make that kind of impression. But both things were looking like real possibilities.
She was on hold. Of course she was on hold.
She was concentrating so hard, trying so fiercely to hold herself together, that she jumped a full two inches when a face appeared at the window next to her.
A face. A man. She was alone on a lonely highway, in the snow, incapacitated in the ditch, and there was a man at her car, trying to get in. She could feel him jiggling the handle, and he was talking to her.
“Are you all right?” He said it loud, so she could hear him even through her closed window.
She nodded, trying to look as in-charge as a short woman in a red hatchback upended in a frozen Idaho ditch could look. She held up the phone and shouted, “Triple A. I’m good.”
He looked a little amused, a little exasperated. “Roll down your window,” he shouted, and made rolling-down motions with his hand.
He was probably just trying to help. She realized that her car was still running, pushed the switch to lower the window a cautious two inches, and focused on him, since the phone was still playing elevator music.
He wasn’t all that comforting a sight. In his thirties, probably. Scruffy, dressed in a blue sweatshirt printed with “Paradise Pumas” that had seen better days, and a black baseball cap with “CAT” in big white letters. Not the animal, the equipment company—she knew that much. The square jaw, the bright-blue eyes that matched the sweatshirt, and the shoulders that blocked the whole driver’s-side window were all fairly overwhelming. On the other hand, he wasn’t exactly trying to ingratiate himself, which a predator would surely do. Instead, he had a frown on his face.
“Turn the car off,” he told her.
She blinked at him.
“Dangerous,” he said. “Your tailpipe’s blocked. Turn the car off.”
“Oh.” She switched the phone to her left hand, because she was still on hold, and turned the key. “Thanks.”
“Need some help?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” she said, trying to sound brisk. “I’m on the phone with Triple A. I’m okay.”
“Uh-huh.” He scratched his cheek with the knuckles of one big hand. “They tell you how long it was going to be?”
“Uh—no. Still on hold.”
“Triple A dispatches out of Union City. Day like today, it’s going to take an hour or two to get around to you. You won’t be the only one going into the ditch in the first snow of the season.” He glanced toward the front of her car. “There’ll be a few more Californians out there, betcha anything.”
He’d seen her license plate, she realized, and she wanted to tell him that she wasn’t from California. That is, she was, but she lived in Idaho now. But it didn’t matter, and she’d had it drilled into her head that if you had car trouble, you locked your doors and waited for the police, or for the tow. You didn’t trust random men who approached incapacitated women on lonely highways.
The phone came to life in her hand. She grasped it more tightly in gratitude and gave her information to the voice at the other end. “How long will it be?” she asked hopefully.
“At least an hour,” the voice said.
“What? I can’t wait an hour. I have a class.”
“Sorry,” she heard. “I’m getting an hour.”
The man hadn’t gone anywhere. He was still looking in at her—crouched down on the bank to do it, she realized, with her car at its awkward angle—amusement lurking in his blue eyes, and a telltale quirk at one corner of his mouth.
“All right,” she said reluctantly into the phone. “Could you ask them to hurry?” She hung up and looked at the man. “Okay,” she sighed. “You were right.”
He scratched his cheek again. “So what do you think? Still want to be all proper and Californian and wait for your tow? Hope you’ve got a coat.”
He cast a sweeping glance at her suit, and she realized that her black skirt had hiked up well above her knees. She thought about tugging it down, forced her hands to stay right where they were, and stared back into those devilish eyes instead, offering him her own best above-it-all expression.
“Or, if you like,” he said, “seeing as we’re in Idaho and all, I could just tow you out right now.”
Don’t get out of the car
, she reminded herself.
You don’t know this guy.
“Uh . . .” she began, then heard, to her relief, the blip of a siren, saw the reassuringly official SUV with “Sheriff” emblazoned on the side pulling to a stop on the shoulder, behind what she belatedly realized was the guy’s black pickup truck. Of course he had a black pickup truck, just like every bad guy in every action movie she’d ever seen. With a big, ugly brown dog in it, looking just like every bad guy’s dog.
The guy outside her window looked around, straightened, and turned to give her a view of the back of a pair of tan canvas work pants with “Carhartt” stamped onto a leather badge on the back pocket. The very nicely shaped back pocket, because that was some rear view. Well, she could hardly miss it, not right outside her window.
She buzzed her window down the rest of the way, the cold instantly rushing into the car, and watched the—officer?—walking up in his reassuring dark-gray Smokey Bear hat and uniform. Thank goodness, help at last. Help she could trust for sure, because his big, broad frame inspired nothing but relief.
Wait for the police.
And here they were.
“Hey, Cal,” she heard him say as he approached. “What’s going on?”
“Happened to be passing by, saw this lady hit that ice and slide right into the ditch,” the guy—Cal—answered.
“Ma’am?” The officer bent to look into the car, and she saw his “Deputy Sheriff” badge. “You all right?”
“I’m fine,” Zoe said, still upended in her little car and trying not to shiver in the frigid air, wishing she’d thought to tug her skirt down while Cal’s back had been turned. “I’m just waiting for Triple A.”
“What, Cal didn’t offer to give you a tow? Losing your touch, man,” Smokey said over his shoulder to Cal.
“I offered,” Cal said in what Zoe was beginning to recognize as his amused drawl. He crouched down again beside the other man, and Zoe fought back a sudden, horrifying urge to giggle at the ridiculous picture they all made.
“The lady’s from California,” Cal went on. “She thinks I’ve got designs on her virtue. Wants to wait for her tow.”
The deputy laughed. “Take an hour, maybe more,” he told Zoe. “I’d take Cal, if I were you.” He winked at her, to Zoe’s outrage. “Gotta go. Bound to be more than one unprepared Californian spinning out today, weather like this. See you, Cal.”
And he left her, just like that.