Authors: Jayne Rylon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
For Amanda Hicks in appreciation of her competitive spirit. For the record, I did kick your ass in the inflatable obstacle course, but I applaud your effort and respect the scar you bear as proof of how insanely tough that wobbly wall climb really was. Plus, you definitely won when it came to style points since—unlike me—you finished still wearing your pants when you came down the final giant slide. Rematch, anytime!
Kaelyn DuChamp kicked the flat tire of her Maserati then hopped around, cursing her likely broken toe. The heel of her stiletto stuck in the mushy ground. A half-dozen windmills of her arms couldn’t stop her from face-planting. On the bright side, the field her car had careened to a stop in
lush. Spitting blades of grass from between her teeth, she attempted to dust off the skirt of her Chanel suit. No use.
When she spotted long, streaked stains on the periwinkle silk, she surrendered to the will of the universe. She flopped onto her back in the wildflower-dotted meadow, trying to appreciate the late-summer blooms and the cotton-candy clouds overhead. An insect of some sort skittered across her thigh. Without looking, she pretended it was a ladybug, since with her luck it probably was a tarantula. Or a millipede. Definitely something poisonous.
Forget communing with nature. She should have stayed in the sweltering car. After two hours baking while staring at her dead phone, she’d thought maybe she should try to expand her horizons. Nope. Never mind.
Good thing there was no one within a five-mile radius of her crash site, on the fringe of a podunk town. Her awkward slapping and lurching would have convinced a passerby she was having a seizure.
Somehow, Kaelyn ended up on her knees. Butt on her heels—one shoed, one not—she searched frantically for bugs or snakes or Bigfoot or whatever the heck else might be lurking in the vegetation surrounding her. The bucolic landscape now felt ominous instead of serene, as it had appeared while she coasted past, singing along to the radio in a failed attempt at levity. Her heart pounded as she considered crawling onto the backseat of her busted ride and taking a nap instead of exploring to alleviate her boredom. At least sleep might take her mind off the thirst that had turned her mouth into a fair imitation of the Sahara desert in the couple hours since her tire had detonated.
Why hadn’t she packed a bottle of water?
This is what happened when you tried to fly free.
Who was she kidding? A caged bird like her would never cut it in the wild.
Kaelyn took a deep breath. Then another. Life beyond the invisible crystal bars on her not-so-perfect mansion windows might not be as carefree and exhilarating as she’d imagined while trapped inside, strangled by miles of bureaucracy and endless decorum. Both of which had been unpleasant inheritances bestowed on her as the daughter of an aristocratic politician.
At least the creepy guy who’d tried to lure her into his pickup a while ago had left with a promise to dispatch a tow truck. Though disgustingly dirty, his ride hadn’t seemed nearly as soiled as his oily leers when he’d invited her to tag along rather than wait for roadside assistance.
She figured the chances of him pocketing the last of her cash without a glance in his rearview mirror had to be at least fifty-fifty.
Proud of her vanishing naiveté, Kaelyn still regretted her recently tarnished outlook on the universe. She sighed. The deep inhale that followed sucked pollen into the far reaches of her lungs. A sneeze ripped through her. It loosened more hair from her usual chignon, flinging platinum tendrils into her face.
She might have addressed the mess if the rumble of an engine hadn’t caught her attention. Hobbling on mismatched legs—one now five inches shorter than the other—toward the road, she waved her arms and bounced like an insane castaway who’d been stranded on a deserted island for a decade.
Her effort wasn’t necessary. Flashing amber lights crested the hill, followed by a monstrous tow truck decked out in chrome and metallic onyx paint. Enormous fireball graphics exploded over the hood, as if the vehicle plowed through an inferno. Its driver seemed proportionally huge behind the wheel. Either that or the company had a grizzly bear for a mascot and allowed the thing to respond to emergencies.
Darn. Please don’t let this guy be sketchy too
, she prayed.
A lifetime of etiquette instruction took control and Kaelyn attempted to groom her disheveled hair, fix her suit, haul her shoe from the muck and school her face into a calm mask of indifference all at once. Illusions were the only source of power she had left.
Instead she only managed to turn in circles, put some color in her cheeks and propel her heart rate from elevated to a ridiculous, extra-nervous thumping that pulsed in her fingertips while she began to perspire.
Kaelyn deflated, admitting to herself that her great escape had more in common with a fledgling tumbling out of a nest than a majestic eagle learning to spread its wings and soar. She stared at the long, broad shadow her unlikely savior cast as he rounded the hood of his behemoth machine.
Please, let him be decent.
Did such people exist? She wouldn’t bet on it anymore.
The clomp of his boots on the tar and gravel of the road was sure and steady as he ate up the distance between them with the immense length of his strides. Laying her shaky, sweaty palms against her thighs, she forced herself to lift her chin.
Kaelyn prepared to do something she rarely did. Okay,
had done before.
Ask for help.
Beg for charity from a stranger no less. Humbling.
Usually she was the one organizing benefits for those less fortunate.
Except, when she scanned from his leather boots to his ripped jeans, which hugged his tree-trunk thighs, to a grease-stained T-shirt that showcased his impressive chest and broad shoulders, everything she’d rehearsed—about how she’d work off her debt, or leave an IOU behind—stuck in her throat.
Or maybe that lump was her heart.
Heaven knew that worthless thing had stopped cold.
Because her savior seemed awfully familiar. He was what her best friend might have looked like if she’d seen the kid grow into an unapologetically sexy man. Instead, his rebellious teenaged urges had led him to a life roaming Europe as some reclusive rich playboy, who’d forgotten about the girl next door by the time his father’s private jet touched down across the pond. She glanced at her inherited Maserati and swallowed around the pain that still lanced her when she indulged in memories of Bryce Ellington IV.
If he hadn’t abandoned her, maybe everything could have been different.
Wishful thinking, she knew from endless experience, didn’t change what had happened. But it could ease the pain for a moment. She thought of him—drawing on the strength he’d embodied before he’d gone completely selfish—to get her through this, like other rough times.
It must be a sign that this man was Bryce’s spitting image. Part of her relaxed.
Unfortunately, she must have whispered his name.
And that’s when the world went insane.
“Yeah, Kae. It’s me.” The grim set of his mouth didn’t make him seem happy to see her. “I thought maybe you wouldn’t recognize me. It’s been so long. And I’m…a hell of a lot different. But, I’m not going to lie. Part of me is glad you haven’t forgotten.”
It was the twinkle in his steely eyes that proved the impossible things spilling from this not-stranger’s wicked mouth. Surely, his rough and rugged exterior had nothing in common with the groomed adolescent she’d known. Still, something unmistakable reached out and grabbed her.
?” she croaked again. Louder this time. It felt rusty rolling off her tongue. Confusion had her lids fluttering as she struggled to believe what she saw. Completely overwhelmed, she blinked up at him. Squinted. Scrubbed her eyes.
The vision remained.
This was no rich, idle son. No, he was a blue-collar sex god right here in the US of freaking A. Forget another continent, she’d found him less than two states away. What happened to the stories his father had told her of Bryce’s escapades with an endless stream of gorgeous foreign women, with whom she could never compare?
Was nothing she believed the truth?
“Hi.” He reached toward her when the periphery of the world turned black, though he paused as if to admire her, unaware of the way things melted into a Dali-scape in her vision. “Damn. You grew up fine, didn’t you?”
She might have offered some witty remark if her entire mouth hadn’t gone numb along with the rest of her body. It wasn’t every day she saw the ghost of BFFs past.
“Shit!” He jogged, closing the gap between them with a couple giant strides, his arms outstretched to brace her.
Kaelyn retreated, afraid to let him touch her. This couldn’t be happening.
“But you’re gone!” she shrieked as she stumbled backward.
“I’m not. I never really left the country.” He winced as she wondered if he could be some kind of imposter. “Who else would know about the times we snuck over to your tree house and camped out, spending the summer nights looking at the stars and telling each other about our dreams? Or the stray cat we made our pet out there? Remember the time you snuck Mr. Whiskers that fancy salmon from your dad’s Christmas party?”
“Bryce? Is this some sick trick my father is playing?” Anything made more sense than what this impersonator spouted.
“No, Kae.” He swallowed hard. “It’s really me.”
“I see.” She’d never punched a person in her life. Yet her fingers bunched before she could stop them. Next thing she knew, she had risen onto her tiptoes and decked him in his handsome, though no longer clean-shaven, jaw. The bristle of his whiskers chafed her skin as his face and her fist collided.
“Christ!” He clutched the spot her hand had bounced off of, injuring her knuckles in the process. “What was that for?”
“If you’re here, you’re a big fat liar.” Steam had built within her in a flash. Now vented, she sagged under the relieved pressure. “I don’t understand. Why? I cried buckets when your dad told me you’d gone to enjoy your freedom. That you’d left without bothering to say goodbye. That you didn’t plan to come home because there was nothing important for you there. That you were enjoying the high life, the parties, the
. And here you are, six hours from Windsor…driving a
? This is crazy. The whole world is flipping nuts.”
Whether it was because of dehydration, the shock or the devastation at discovering her supposed best friend’s ultimate betrayal—or maybe all of those factors together—Kaelyn felt as though she were watching herself from a distance.
“Hey. I’m actually a mechanic. The truck is…” Bryce trailed off, probably spotting her glazed eyes. He lunged for her again, attempting to steady her as she listed to the left. “Are you okay? You look like you’re going to pass—”
His concern became garbled as her eyelids grew heavy. Her knees buckled. At least the grass would make a soft landing pad,
, she thought.
Yet when she blinked against the bright sun swimming above, it didn’t seem like much time had passed and she definitely wasn’t sprawled on the ground. No, those were muscled arms cradling her against a very hard chest. One that had nothing in common with gentlemen she’d held at an appropriate distance while waltzing during her father’s social functions. Or even the handful she’d invited to share her bed.
She attempted to protest, to keep herself separate from the guy she would have wanted—far too much—to come to her rescue if given a single wish. Though she’d figured it impossible. Maybe she’d hit her head when her tire had blown. Maybe this was some sick trick of her mind, recalling the one person who’d always had her back when she needed him most. Except transformed into the kind of man who wouldn’t place leisurely pursuits above hard work, dedication and loyalty.
That had to be it. He was a figment of her imagination.
Kaelyn reached way up and pinched his thick neck. Hard.
“Ouch! What the hell?” He glared at her.
A combination whimper and chuckle left her parched throat. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Both seemed imminent. The chaos in her mind had her yearning to black out again. So she surrendered. Kaelyn allowed herself to be weak and lean on Bryce as she’d longed to do so many times in his decade-long absence. “Making sure you’re real.”
. Let me hoist your chariot onto the flatbed and we’ll get the hell out of here. I’m taking you home.”
“No! You can’t make me go back.” Despite the futility, she attempted to thrash and squirm from his unrelenting grip. “Please.”
“Hush. Jesus! What has you so scared, Kae? I don’t mean your father’s house. I’m taking you to
place. Where you’ll be safe. I swear. We can work out the rest later.” Bryce didn’t really give her a choice in the matter. He made it easy to surrender, though she hated letting him take care of her. Right when she’d vowed to gain control of her life, her choices, her future. “Whatever has you freaked out, I’ll take care of it. I promise I’ll fix it. I’ll—”