Ann McHaven slumped against the torn seat of the truck. The jagged vinyl she’d earlier avoided leaning against, now jabbed her back. She despised being stuck in the middle of the dirt road, though the comparison to her life was almost laughable. Her eyes darted in both directions, not a car in sight. No need to coax the truck to the side. The road looked abandoned.
She forced the heavy door to open against the cool March wind and stepped down. Hiking boots cushioned her feet from the course gravel. Her worried gaze took in the remote environment as she twirled a strand of hair.
Cattle grazed scattered about in dry fields, content to munch away on large bales of hay. Along the fence line bordering the road, trees boasted tiny buds perched on the ends of their branches. Each promised a change to the bleak winter landscape.
Ann released a sigh and turned back to the truck.
A forward thrust of the bench-seat revealed a jack. Dirt coated it in a gritty layer along with the unwelcome smell of grease. Yuck. She picked up a red, shop towel to protect her hands. Though, it’s better than the smell of alcohol and sweat. She fought against the memory and knelt down on her hands and knees to slide the jack underneath the truck, grimacing as rocks dug into her delicate skin.
It’s a good thing Uncle Frank taught me how to use this thing, ‘cause I’d turn gray waiting for a rescue all the way out here. Like a child recovering a toy from underneath a couch, she lowered her shoulders to the ground to peer under the truck.
“Okay, Ann, don’t put it under the sway bar, just a solid part of the frame,” she mumbled. Her neck tingled as her nerves grew more agitated. Being helpless and apart from any family to depend on wasn’t something she wanted to repeat.
Mental images pushed past her feeble attempt to block them.
Positioned at the end of the hall, her room had been her safe-haven. Since she was the hired nanny no one ever entered, until that night. Why? She had never led him on. Or had she? Guilt churned her stomach. Her throat clogged with emotion. Had she been guilty, or was she simply reacting from the gossip they’d spread? Her employers’ art of twisting the truth was astounding. Doubt now clouded her self-assurance.
She needed someone to talk to. Who could she tell, who would understand that after two months she still couldn’t move on?
Ann refocused on the job at hand. “God, please help me find the right spot, and please keep me safe…” She blew a stray hair out of her eyes. “Oh, who cares?”
Heaven sounded better all the time.
While Ann looked over her options, the stir of gravel interrupted her thoughts. A voice laced with a condescending tone followed.
“It seems to me with darkness closing in, any female in her right mind would ask for safety. Especially with the type of wild critters we have.” The man’s deep voice held the same Midwestern accent as her uncle’s. “But I guess our minds don’t think much alike.”
Ann raised her head and thumped it on the truck. Pain shot through her skull. Arrggg. She rubbed the forming knot and resisted the urge to look behind her. Don’t expose any sign of fear. Experience taught her weirdo’s loved defenseless women.
She continued with the jack as though unperturbed. “I guess you proved your last statement right, because it would seem to me that any kind of gentleman, would want to help out a lady in distress. Or, do they not have those here in the Ozarks?”
A half laugh escaped the man’s throat. Ann noticed the sound came from an unusual height and turned her head.
Curiosity had always been her weakness.
Hooves? Her eyes followed up the horse’s legs to its rider. Broad shoulders and a slightly barreled chest evoked authority, while his powerful limbs appeared to possess the muscular strength of someone accustomed to hard labor. His entire essence demanded respect. As he shifted in the saddle, he blocked the glare of the setting sun.
Dark brows were knitted in a serious fashion over twinkling blue eyes, and a straight nose led to hardened lips. Ann was certain he was trying to resist the urge to laugh at her. Again.
She must have stared too long, because her knight on pale steed broke the silence.
“What business do you have out here anyway?”
His words came across arrogant. Added to his condescending humor, Ann found him unlikable.
Don’t do anything to lead him on.
As she stood, dirt fell from her clothes like rain. She dusted off her faded jeans and flannel shirt careful not to inhale the chalky air. With her chin lifted, she flipped her low ponytail over one shoulder. To add to her appearance of confidence, she stood with her feet apart and her arms crossed in front. “I have just as much right to this road as any other. And as for my business, that’s exactly what it is. Mine.” With a roll of his shoulder and a slight sigh, the man shook his head and dismounted.
The muscles in her lower back tensed. Unconscious of her actions, she inched against the truck.
The stranger dropped the leather reins, and with two strides came within a foot of Ann. He smelled like a mixture of pine and hay… and horse. His gaze dropped to her lips. Her whole body stiffened. She fought the urge to squirm and tunneled her nervous energy into words.
“Are you going to change my tire for me or just tell me how to do it?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Maybe I had something different in mind.”
Though her skin hadn’t prickled with alarm, she wasn’t about to leave things to chance. She raised the handle of the jack. “I don’t respond well to threats, Mister.”
He dropped his sarcasm and softened his voice. “I was referring to giving you a ride home.” His eyes still revealed humor, but at least he controlled his smirk.
The handle dropped to her side, while Ann studied him. “I don’t accept rides from strangers.”
With a single hand, he reached over her shoulder and grabbed the spare. He sat it down and examined it with a scowl. “This won’t get you any further than that one. It’s nearly flat and past dry-rotted.”
Like I wouldn’t have noticed that. Besides, how does he think he’ll get me home? On a horse? She fought to silence her uncommon, smart-aleck attitude.
“Well if you’re not going to change it, please step aside, because I am. I don’t have far to go, and I’m sure it’ll do.” She reached to roll the tire from his hands.
The man brushed her hands away. “Humph. You are a stubborn one, aren’t you?”
A jolt surged through her. Before she could give it consideration he spoke again. “How ‘bout I change it, then this stranger, who prefers to be known as Jacob, will plan on picking you up in an hour? I’m sure by then you’ll be tired of walkin’.” He didn’t wait for a response and proceeded to change her tire.
“Life’s insulted me enough. I don’t need you adding to it.” Ann’s throat tightened. Her attention dropped to the road as she scuffed the gravel with the toe of her shoe. Life sure turned out different than she dreamed it would. If it weren’t for her drunken employer, she’d still have a job. And if it weren’t for his actions, she wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable around men.
Though, despite her misunderstanding of his offer, this stranger didn’t alarm her. The familiar feeling of fear had yet to course its way up her spine.
While her bewildering rescuer worked in silence, Ann took a closer look. No wedding band on his left hand. Why had she even thought to look there? It’s not as if she liked being near him, let alone entertained the thought of something more. He was too confident and cocky, which made her defensive.
Probably a reflex, she reasoned, given her recent encounters with married men. Maybe a worthy distraction was what she needed in life. But her distraction would have to be the opposite of—what did he say his name was—Jacob?
Her eyes trailed back. His boots were of worn leather, the heels needed replaced and his jeans were of no significant brand. A far cry from the men she used to be around.
His lined, denim shirt’s top two buttons were undone, revealing a chest full of hair. Not your smooth-skinned poster boy, but definitely real male. She smiled as her gaze drew up to his thick wavy crown of hair. Before she allowed herself to imagine what it would feel like between her fingers, she adjusted her attention to the setting sun.
Jacob tightened the last lug nut and glanced up. He rose to his feet and seemed like a beacon of strength to her small frame. His voice broke the stillness of the cool evening. “What’s your name?” He brushed his hands against his thighs.
His very muscular thighs.
“Ann.” The answer slipped from her mouth before she could stop it. She bit the inside of her lip out of pure frustration. His movements distracted her. Why couldn’t he stand still?
“Well, Ann, do you have any idea what the road is like up ahead?”
Pretty, peaceful, with an even exchange of field and forest? Of course, she didn’t know what it was like. She’d never driven on this country road before. But to allow him that knowledge would give away her vulnerability. That would be the last thing she did.
Ann tightened her jaw and said nothing.
He sighed, seeming exasperated. “It meets a wide stream. Once you cross it, you can only go so far on the gravel, before it meets back up with water. Only this time, you don’t cross the creek. The road turns into the creek. And if you’re not experienced with this truck’s four-wheel drive, you’ll never make it through.”
She remained silent.
Jacob’s eyes squinted at her. “Do you understand? You’ll have to maneuver through the creek bed for a while before the road becomes a road again.”
“I know what I’m doing.” Liar. A little voice inside niggled at her conscience.
Jacob shook his head. “Hopefully that tire will get you back before the sun goes down.” He reached out and flipped the end of her collar. “’Cause I imagine that thin flannel’s not going to keep you warm if you have to walk.”
Ann’s chin dropped as she glanced at her shirt, but quickly lifted again. How dare he touch my shirt? She squared her shoulders and let her mulish attitude take full control. “Thanks. I have no doubt I’ll make it.”
Jacob shook his head. Had she convinced him? Probably not. It was a valiant effort of pride, the result of a hard head.
He effortlessly tossed the ruined tire into the back of the truck, then remounted and gave a slight nod. With a click of his tongue, horse and rider trotted into the field behind her.
As he disappeared over the hill, Ann tried to brush off the wave of disappointment his absence brought. I don’t need him. The wind whipped around her worn flannel sending a chill down her back. She climbed inside the truck and cranked the engine over. Shadows of low lying branches hovered over the road as the first signs of darkness crept in.
What was I thinking? I can’t even turn this truck around on this narrow road and I’m headed in the wrong direction. And what wild critters was he talking about?
Her chest tightened around her lungs.
I should’ve asked for help.
Jacob stayed out of sight long enough to determine her direction. Deep ditches lined the single-lane road. If she made an effort to turn around, he would still be close enough to give her a ride when she got stuck. He listened to the 350 engine cough as she drove further away before he nudged his gelding forward. Another pasture still needed hay for the cattle, and his children and dad would expect him home for dinner. Then he’d return and offer the obstinate woman the ride she stubbornly refused.
‘Cause, she’ll never make it across the creek.
He returned his gelding to the barn in exchange for the tractor. The side panel of the out-dated machine creaked as he opened it. A short hid itself somewhere in the wires of the starter. He wiggled them before turning the key.
The starter dragged indicating a low battery.
“I don’t have time for this.” He grabbed a can of starter fluid and sprayed the carburetor. Success. The engine turned over.
Jacob used the forks on the front to lift a large round bale of hay and drove to the north field. He deposited what he hoped would be the last bale needed for the season. If the predicted rains held their promise, he’d have more time to focus on other areas of the farm he’d neglected, such as the tractor that often didn’t start. However, he’d lost two calves this spring already. The needed tractor parts depended on the sale of the calves. If he lost anymore, the parts would have to wait. Again.
Jacob climbed down from the old International and walked toward the edge of the field where buzzards took an interest. The evening sun had yet to fully set and call them to their nests. Ugly, black birds opened their wings and hissed violently at his intrusion. When he continued in their direction, they flew to a nearby tree, unwilling to stray far from their treasured find.
Jacob stood over the carcass in disgust. The stench of its spoiled remains burned his nostrils. With the toe of his boot, he lifted the ear tag. The number confirmed what he expected. The calf had been missing for nearly a week, which explained the amount of decay.
But what got a hold of you, buddy?
The scavengers had erased all traces of the predator.
Jacob shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and trudged past the dead calf. Life continued to complicate itself, which left him strained in every direction. Where lines of laughter used to grace his eyes, now shadows of fatigue and doubt left their mark.
He shivered against the cold March wind and the thoughts that beckoned from the past. Today felt so similar to the one that constantly weighed on his mind. He wished for a change.
Thankful for the small distraction, the field gave way to the river’s edge. The ever-changing waterways had stolen the glory of the Old Mill River. Reduced to a creek, it fought to make itself useful. The clear water trickled over smooth stones bringing a welcoming sense of peace.
He reached down to pick up a stone, but his attention halted at the sand by his feet. Jacob knelt and steadied himself with his hand. As he studied the imprinted clue, his stomach knotted with dread. Little satisfaction could be gained when it meant more trouble for livestock. He stood and raked his hard-worked hands through his hair.
The large four-toed track lacked claw marks.
Jacob stepped through the backdoor unnoticed and sat on the nearby bench to slip off his boots. He watched his family and enjoyed the unguarded moment. The house hummed with the children’s energy as they went about their chores. Ethan, being older, hovered over his sister.
“No, Sis. The napkins go under the forks, not on top,” he grinned. Emily scrunched up her nose, before she changed all the place settings.
“I think I heard your dad come in.” Their grandpa smiled over at Jacob as though he’d kept the secret long enough.
Jacob stood at the sound of his daughter’s running feet and braced himself as Emily launched into his arms. He swung her small form above his head until she squealed with laughter then planted her back on the floor. Her long, tangled strawberry-blond hair bounced as she skipped around him.
Ethan walked over, imitating his father’s posture. “The sow had her litter today, Dad. I counted seven of them.”
“Did she have any trouble?”
He straightened his back a little more. “Nope, but I stuck around just in case.”
Jacob’s chest swelled with pride. His son exhibited a great maturity for eight-years-old. In the presence of his children, all stress from the farm would momentarily fade into the background.
“Daddy,” Emily interrupted his thoughts, “can I hand-feed the runt?” Her light blue eyes sparkled with anticipation.
“You did that last time. It’s your brother’s turn now.” He playfully tapped the end of her nose.
“Oh, pooh!” Emily pouted and stomped her foot.
Jacob smiled at her childish antics then turned to her brother. “And, Son, thanks for checking on the sow.” He squeezed his shoulder as they started for the kitchen.
The kids seated themselves beside their grandpa, Luke, while Jacob washed at the kitchen sink. He appreciated the warm water as it relaxed his tired hands.
“Did you see any sign of what’s gettin’ the calves?” Luke shook his finger at Emily who tried to sneak a bite of her roll.
Jacob sighed. The stress hadn’t gone far. It now knotted in his shoulders. “I think my first guess was right, Dad. That conservation agent can mock me all he wants, but I found the tracks to prove it today. We have a beef-fed cougar out there.”
Jacob slipped the draped towel off the stove handle and dried his hands. The evening sky had already darkened and a low roll of thunder promised to wet his fields. Unfortunately, it would also wash away the track.
His only proof.
Luke shifted in his chair. “Let’s not waste any time. We need to hunt it down before it kills any more livestock. What’s the number at now, three that we’ve lost?”
“Four.” Jacob stared out the kitchen window into the dark and contemplated the hunt. His children only had one parent to depend on and an aged grandfather. For their sakes, he couldn’t afford unnecessary risks. “From what I’ve read, those cats are tricky. We should probably consider calling in some help.”
He turned and faced his family. The children stared at him with huge, round eyes mixed with fear and excitement. He had to keep them safe. If something happened to them...Jacob settled in a seat beside Emily. “Kids,” he made eye contact with both of them, “this means no more wandering around without Pa or me with you.”
“Moses would keep me safe, Dad. When I go exploring, he never leaves my side.” Ethan referred to his mutt who stood outside. His tail could be heard as it thumped the back door.
“That may be, but until I snag that cat, you’re to do as I say. No need in taking any extra risk.” Jacob paused and rubbed his chin. “Which makes me a bit worrisome for that lady I helped today.”
Luke’s brows rose. “What particular lady would that be?”
“The one with a flat tire and a high spirit.” Though he spoke the words with affection, his forehead furled with concern. “And if my guess is right, she’s wandering this way in the dark.”
Outside, the sky rumbled to a steady rhythm. The thunder grew closer. With a cougar on the loose and a storm about to hit, that lonely road was no place for a woman. Before anyone could question him further, Jacob grabbed a dinner roll from the table, scooted back his chair and headed to the back door. He clenched the roll between his teeth as he slipped on his boots.
“You all go ahead without me. I’ll be back in a bit with some company.” He grabbed his coat and bolted out the door.
Unease built in the pit of Ann’s stomach the further away she drove. She glanced at the dash-board clock. Wobbly hands swayed back and forth across the six, keeping time with the trucks movements. Would she ever get back to her uncle’s? As doubts tempted her to give up, she caught sight of an overgrown trail. She exhaled in relief and let her stomach muscles relax. “Thanks God. I was beginning to wonder if You’d forgotten I was out here.”
Easing her foot off the gas pedal, she brought the truck to a slow stop past the trail. This time, she remembered to engage the clutch. She peered at the road ahead and noted the gravel disappeared into a wide creek. Her voice rose with each outspoken thought. “First I crossed a one-lane wooden bridge and now there’s not even a bridge. Signs of civilization just keep diminishing.”
The stubborn stick shift refused to slide into reverse. “Oh, no you don’t. I didn’t come this far to give up now.”
Ann returned the stick to neutral, lifted her foot from the clutch and shoved it down again. A trick she’d seen her uncle do. She pulled back toward reverse. After a few grinds from the transmission, it shifted into place. “Ha, I did it! Uncle Frank’s farm, here I come.”
She strained to see the road through the back window. Here we go. Peering over her shoulder, she turned the wheel to the left and pressed the gas to turn onto the path.
The tires dropped into a deep ditch, followed by the sound of the bumper as it dragged the gravel. Next, the increasingly familiar sound of a flattening tire hissed. Ann dropped her head forward onto the steering wheel. A rush of air left her lungs. Why couldn’t this be a dream? “Uhhgg. I guess I should’ve finished that prayer about safety.”
She swung open the door of the truck as a cool breeze swept in, tainted with the smell of rain. The fragrance would’ve been relaxing given different circumstances. Instead, goose bumps prickled across her skin. Ann shivered and reached behind the seat for the green army coat she saw earlier. It lacked a hood and boasted a broken zipper, but it would help.
She slipped it on. “Oh goodie, you and the jack must be roomies. You guys smell just alike.” Sarcasm did little to improve her situation.
She stretched toward the glove box. “Please open.” The rusted latch refused to budge. Banging on it didn’t help either. At least, a partial moon imparted some light.
Sorry about the truck, Uncle Frank, but you left me a lemon.
Ann started back on the gravel road. How many miles was it to the cabin she’d passed? It didn’t matter. Her only option was to walk. She pulled the coat tighter around her body, and tried to ward off nightmarish thoughts of what lurked about in the dark.
The largest animal she had to be concerned about was a coyote, and if she remembered correctly, they were mainly scavengers. She could throw her arms up in the air and make a lot of noise; that would probably scare them off. Or climb a tree. Maybe even sleep in one. Of course, the last time she climbed a tree she’d been fourteen. That was a far cry from twenty-seven. Could she even pull herself up in one now?
From the age of eight, she’d climbed every tree imaginable, often just to spy on her brother and his friends, wondering what could be so special she couldn’t go along, too. It always gave her mother fits, afraid her only daughter would break her neck. But her aunt and uncle never minded.
That’s why the acceptance of their invitation came so easily. While they vacationed, their farm became her personal retreat. If any place could distract her from the recent events in her life and help her relax, it would be here. The place that held her most treasured childhood memories.
Unfortunately, the drastic change had yet to prove enough. The all-too-real nightmares still haunted her sleep. She shivered and pulled the coat closer.
Ann paused and looked up at the starless sky. “I’ve waited for months to know what I’m supposed to do with my life, where I’m supposed to be.” She inhaled a deep breath to ward off the urge to cry.
“What a sense of humor You must have, when You know that patience is anything but my strong suit.” She often talked out-loud to God. “Life would be so much simpler if it came with a manual.” The Bible came to mind. “I mean a personal one.”
A sudden stillness settled around her. Weren’t there some frogs or night birds making noise a minute ago?
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. The leaves rustled off to her side. Ann jumped. “Ahh!”
The darkened form of a mouse scurried across the road and into the field.
Before she could laugh at her silly behavior a creature with a five-foot wingspan swooped overhead. Ann opened her mouth to scream, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper.
She froze in fear. Her breaths came in short gasps. As lightheadedness overwhelmed her, the terrible winged beast released its demonic laughter… in hoots.
“Hoot, hoot. Hoot, hoooooo.”
Ann shook her head and nervously laughed at her own foolishness. Her chest heaved a huge sigh as she tried to slow the beating of her heart. She picked up her pace and continued down the road.
Though thankful she hadn’t been in danger, she still couldn’t shake the eerie feeling of being followed.
A shadow emerged in the field and mimicked her pace. Ann paused. Her breath froze on her lips. The shadow paused. Could this be what Jacob referred to, one of their wild critters? Tears of fear formed at the corner of her eyes. She stepped forward and quickened her stride. The shadow did the same.
Was it time to climb? Ann scanned the selection lining the road. Ahead, three yards, stood a large tree with low branches. Her decision made, she took one last look toward the shadow…it turned into the field and disappeared in the night.
Thank you, God. Ann struggled to control the trembling in her legs. She had to keep walking. Besides, perhaps it was her imagination. It hadn’t lessened with age, which made being a nanny so fitting. She allowed thoughts she’d tried to bury surface, anything to ward off her fears.
Her heart ached for the little girl and baby brother she’d no longer hold in her arms. She’d accepted them as she would’ve her own children. Although other nannies had warned her to protect her heart, stay at a distance, Ann couldn’t. She’d always been an all or nothing kind of girl.
A few yards further, her foot slipped on loose gravel. She lurched forward and braced her fall with her hands, but not before her knee took the blunt of the impact.
“Oh, no,” Ann moaned and turned over to see the damage. “Great, this jacket won’t zip, and now I’ve torn my jeans and everything is throbbing.” Her exaggerated moan preceded a loud crash of thunder.
Jacob pulled his pickup out of the lean-to as it began to rain. That lady’s mood is going to be even prettier. After a quick decision, he turned down the way he’d last seen her. He figured her spare wouldn’t have held out long enough to get past his place.
His dad would have his hands full with the children. They rarely received visitors and their excitement was clearly evident in their bright eyes.
A pang of guilt settled in his chest. He sighed and peered through the window, forcing himself to see more than his past. Since their mother left, he’d allowed himself to grow cynical and cold toward the idea of ever pursuing another relationship. He still didn’t know where he went wrong by his ex-wife but sure didn’t want to fail again. Although that decision suited him fine, his children were the ones who suffered. Their grandmother had passed away a year before, which left them lacking a female’s touch. Luke did his best to fill in, but a man could only provide so much.
The odds didn’t look good for Emily. As if her hair wasn’t already an indication.
Why, he didn’t know, but Ann’s face came to mind. Though her safety still posed a concern, he gave in to the tiny smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth. She sure looked nice in those snug jeans.
What would it be like to have a wife with that kind of spunk? Fun and challenging. The kind of challenge a man looks forward to.
He considered his past marriage. Something could be said for marrying someone for comfort. It might sound okay, but it’s never enough. Maybe if they had waited to have children, lived a little, fought a little, played a lot… But why think about a past he couldn’t change?
About a mile and a half down the road he spotted her. She made a pitiful sight with her damp hair, a noticeable limp, and what… did she just hunker down in the ditch? He arched a brow. Was she hiding?
Jacob slowed his truck to a stop in the middle of the road, leaving the windshield wipers thumping in a steady rhythm. He stepped out and advanced toward Ann through the pouring rain. He saw her open her mouth and swung her up in his arms. “Save it, I’m not getting soaked to the bone just to hear you yammer.”
He came off gruff, but had no appreciation for ice cold rain down his back. Besides that, he found it easier to aggravate this spunky lady than face the growing awareness she caused. She smelled like sweet honeysuckle that grew along the roadside in the spring.
His favorite scent.
And with each forward stride, her head fell against his chest while her hands tightened around his shoulders. He warmed to the feel of her in his arms. And when she shivered, he did exactly what he’d wanted to, he drew her closer.
What’s happening to me?
This vulnerable woman was breaching the very barriers he’d so carefully erected.
The rain increased and the sky thundered in rhythm as Jacob reached the truck. He threw open the door and thrust Ann over to the middle of the seat as he quickly followed. She tried to scoot to the other door but couldn’t. Farm supplies occupied the seat. After he flipped the heater fan to max, he threw his arm across the back of the seat. “We’ll have to drive in reverse. Your truck is blocking the only turn around.”
Jacob marveled at the way she held her composure. He suspected he unnerved her and fully expected a mouthful once they were inside the truck, but to his amazement, this whirlwind of a woman sat silent. “Are you frozen?”
Ann shot him a quick glance. “A little cold… and a little tired of walking.”
Not one to say, I told you so, he didn’t respond to her admission. “Hold your hands to the vent. You need the heat more than me.”
Jacob dared to look in her direction and noted she even appeared humble. With her torn jeans and soggy clothes and hair, she looked bedraggled and lost. He mentally fought off the growing urge to stop the truck and hold her. With one more stolen glance, this time at her dewy lips, he mentally confessed he’d never be able to stop with an embrace.
Where are these thoughts coming from?
He forced his attention back to the road and tried to further dampen his desires with the acknowledgment she’d never let him touch her. As she warmed, her defiant streak took control again as though convincing her she no longer needed his help. She now leaned forward, probably in an effort to keep their bodies from touching.
Well if that’s the case, he’d have to improvise.
Jacob gave in to his mischievous thought and let the truck lurch, which threw Ann against the back of the seat. He smiled out of the side of his mouth. “Now that’s the way you’re supposed to sit.”
Since he still drove in reverse, Jacob eased passed his driveway and slowed to a stop then shifted forward and turned toward his cabin. Ann jerked her head toward him, anxiety lacing every word. “I thought you were taking me home?”
“Not in this weather, I—”
“I can’t stay here,” she interrupted. “I need to get back to my uncle’s house. I assumed you would realize that.”
Jacob’s gaze fell to where her hand rested on his forearm, sending sparks clear to his heart. She quickly withdrew her hand and stared at the floor of the cab
“Look Lady, if we can even make it across the wooden bridge I’d be surprised, but just supposing we could, I’d never get back over it before the flood waters. So the way I see it, I have two options. I can either be stuck at your place, excuse me, your uncle’s place, or you can be stuck at mine. And, I believe my kids would like me home.”
Ann slowly brought her head up and narrowed a gaze at Jacob. “You, have children?”
Ann’s curiosity grew as they approached the back of the cabin. Jacob pulled to a stop but kept the truck running. The rain pounded around them and made it hard to hear his voice. “Go on in, I’ll be right there.”
He helped her out then returned to the cab. She stepped around the truck before he drove away to park and nearly fell again as her right foot sank into a deep hole, filling her boot with water.
“Ahh…that’s freezing!” She hurried toward the house, thankful she didn’t have far to walk.
Ann hovered beneath the small shelter overhanging the door. As a stranger, did she go in and perhaps frighten the children, or disobey the “ego” man’s instructions and get soaked? Puffs of air could be seen in front of her from the warmth of her breath meeting the cold air. Her foot grew numb. Perhaps she should take the risk.
Someone made the decision for her as the door swung open and an aged hand pulled her through by the arm. An older version of Jacob stood in the threshold and stepped back to allow her room to enter.
“My, don’t you look like a wet puppy dog.” The man smiled. A young boy of about eight and a little girl of four or five stood on either side with wide smiles.
“Hi, I…” Ann’s explanation stalled on her tongue at the sight of the little girl. Her resemblance to the one she had to leave clenched her heart. She’d still be her nanny if the girl’s dad hadn’t… No, I’m not going there.
“You’re pretty even if you’re a wet dog,” giggled the girl. Jacob interrupted her laughter as he threw open the door and collided with Ann.
“Whoa, are you all right?” Jacob caught Ann around the middle and twirled her around to face him.
Anger welled up inside her at the sight of his crooked smile. Would this man ever get tired of making her uncomfortable? As she drew her eyes up to meet his, she mellowed.
There, if only for a moment, she caught him unguarded. His eyes had taken on a softness that had earlier been absent. Perhaps there was more to this man than he let on. The feel of his protective hands supporting her waist added to the depth in his eyes, softened her heart. Also, the burning feeling returned in her stomach. Her brain told her to flee, but her flesh rejoiced.
The older man stepped around them to shut the door. “I’ll get some towels, ‘cause you two’s gonna need ’em.”
Ann moved away from Jacob’s hold, though her side still burned from his touch and acknowledged the children. They smiled eagerly.
The boy extended his hand. “Hi. I’m Ethan, and that was Pa, and this is—”
Before he could introduce the girl, the storm reminded them of its presence. The rain poured down in sheets. A bright bolt of lightning lit up the sky and the small girl jumped into Jacob’s arms. He laughed and tried to pull her arms loose from around his neck.
“Honey, you’re going to be soaked.”
“I don’t care, Daddy, I’m not gonna let that storm get me…I mean you.”
Ann blinked against the stinging of tears. The family made a beautiful scene, something she’d always wanted but accepted she’d never have.
Jacob smiled and gently sat her down. “Now we both need to get some dry clothes.
He looked over at Ann, but she read his initial intentions. Then a softened curiosity colored his gaze. Had he noticed her emotional slip?
Ann dropped her chin and shifted her weight from her cut knee. “I’m fine. My coat took the worst of it.”
He glanced past her coat. “I’d have to argue that. It looks to me like your hands and knee took the worst.”
She had to acknowledge Jacob was right. Her hands were a mess, and bits of gravel embedded her knee.
Jacob shifted to the bench. “Let’s leave our shoes here, and then we’ll get you cleaned up.”
“Oh, I can manage on my own if you’ll just show me a sink.” In an attempt to keep her courage, Ann avoided Jacob’s eyes.
He didn’t answer, and Ann knew she was on losing ground. If she wanted an opinion at all around this man, she would have to fight for it.
Ann sat beside Jacob and struggled to untie the soaked laces of her hiking boots. Not only were her fingers numb, but her abrasions burned with each movement. Jacob reached over and deftly finished the job then gave her a polite nod of his head. For the first time, true gratitude sprang up inside her for his help. As she removed her boots and socks, the children giggled.
“Looks like you could ring a river out of that.” The grandpa teased as he pointed to the cause of the children’s laughter, her dripping sock.
“I think I stepped in a hole out there.” Ann smiled back at the amused faces and pointed toward the door.
Jacob reached over and took the wet socks from her hand. He stood and tossed them by the wood stove. “They’ll be dry soon enough. Emily, you get some dry clothes on. Ann, you can follow me.”
Ann raised her brows and wrinkled her forehead as she looked toward the older man, but he only smiled.
Jacob crowded the sink in the tight-quartered bathroom. She had only been a few steps behind but he already had the water running and disinfectant at hand. After he washed up, he turned to her. “Let’s see the damage.”
Ann stood as far back as she could, which wasn’t much, given the lack of space. She held out her hands and tried to keep as much distance from the bewildering stranger as possible. Jacob reached for her wrists and pulled her to him, which caused her body to lightly bump against his.
“I can see better under the light.” His deep voice had a way of rumbling that seemed to ricochet off her heart. She resented the reaction.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Ann clenched her teeth behind tight lips and tried to fight the tide of emotions that rocked against her core.
He kept his attention on her hands. “If you mean having to go out after a cantankerous and stubborn lady in the middle of a thunderstorm and getting myself soaked, then I’d have to disagree.”
Silence fell between them. His hand rubbed across her palm, his soft touch sent a pleasing sensation through Ann. Did he feel it too?
She studied his profile as he continued to brush the dirt from her hand. When he lifted his gaze to hers, she couldn’t turn away, but felt the heat of a blush creeping up her neck. His assured smile caused her to divert her eyes to the sink. She’d been caught. But what did that matter? It didn’t mean anything. Did it?
His calloused hands finished cleaning her abrasions with a ginger touch. He took his time as though he didn’t want to cause her any extra pain. She wished the medicine was as thoughtful.
“Ouch, that stings!”
“Alcohol does that.” He blew over her hands. “So toughen up, because from the look of blood on your jeans, your knee’s going to be a lot worse.”
Ann glanced down and grimaced. Jacob was right, yet again. This is getting tiresome. As soon as she let the thought loose, guilt riddled her conscience. Jacob had changed her tire, came back for her in a storm, and now helped to clean and bandage her cuts. True, he was arrogant and at times condescending, but who was she to complain? If only she could hold on to that grateful attitude throughout the evening, she might be able to put up with him.
“Now trade me spots, and you can sit while I take a look at your knee.”
Ann knew any amount of rebuttal would be met head on, so she complied and proceeded to move around Jacob’s bulk. The small size of the bathroom caused their bodies to graze against each other as they switched places.
Fireworks danced inside like the fourth of July. She peered up at Jacob. The contact wasn’t lost on him, either. His eyes darkened and grew more intense. Desire beckoned her to give in to his stare. Ann could feel her body will itself toward him. It didn’t make any sense. What was wrong with her flesh, and why didn’t she fight against it?
Her knee made contact with the cabinet of the basin and pain flared at the site of her cut. She gasped and blinked away any tears. Jacob guided her by the arms and helped her sit, then turned his attention to her knee. He placed his fingers on either side of the rip of her jeans.
Did he intend to tear them further? She grasped his hands to stop him. “Don’t. This is all I have with me.” Just as quickly, she pulled them back, startled by the powerful electricity that sizzled between them. “I can pull them over my knee.”
His steady gaze bore through her. There was no denying the fact, he felt it too. “I’m not so sure, but sit back and I’ll give it a try.”
Jacob balanced on the balls of his feet and placed his hand under her calf muscle. He raised her leg so her foot sat in his lap. Cautious, he pulled up the hem of her jeans to examine the cut. Ann‘s bare foot left her leg more exposed. As if to add to her vulnerability, she noticed Jacob observe the shape of her leg then trail his eyes down the short length of her foot.
I’m glad I painted my toe nails. She inwardly cringed. No, I mean I shouldn’t have. I don’t want him attracted to me. Right?
He’d replaced his hand beneath her leg and allowed it to follow his gaze.
Ann searched her heart for signs of alarm but couldn’t find any past the feel of excitement as it coursed through her veins. Still, for the sake of control, she pursed her lips to scold him, but when he looked up her mouth went dry. Jacob’s eyes grew determined as his hand continued back up her leg. He leaned forward just as Emily’s voice broke the spell.
“Is she hurt very badly, Daddy?”
He kept his gaze on Ann and replied without turning around. “She’ll be fine, Hon’. We’ll be out in a minute.” Satisfied, Emily skipped toward the kitchen to wait with Ethan and Grandpa.
Jacob cleared his throat and shifted his focus back to Ann’s knee. He released a low whistle. “You did a number on this one. Looks like you caught a sharp piece of shale.” Giving his tongue a click he added, “Hold your breath, ‘cause you’ve got some gravel in it, too.”
Ann usually prided herself on her level of pain tolerance, but with the uncertainty of her future looming over her, coupled with the disastrous events of the day, exhaustion claimed her convincing front. As Jacob dabbed at her knee with the wet cloth, she flinched with each movement.
He looked up in time to see a tear escape her lower lashes. Quickly, so as to beat him to it, Ann swiped it away with the back of her hand. Her flesh had already proven unreliable and if she had to stay here for the night, she’d have to limit as much physical contact as possible from this intriguing man.
Jacob stood and reached toward the medicine cabinet. “Your cut could use some stitches,” Ann’s quick intake of air caused him to pause. “But since we’re in the predicament we’re in, we’ll just use some tape. It’s what we do in place of stitches out here, and it always works fine.”
Ann nodded. She could only hope he would forget about the alcohol. As he knelt back on the floor, Jacob again propped her foot against his thigh. He appeared reluctant at first, but soon resumed his task and administered the disinfectant.
Her knee felt like it doubled in size as the burning sensation ignited every nerve. Ann clasped Jacob’s broad shoulder. “Blow, blow, blow!”
Jacob blew on her cut in between his erupting smiles then finished with the tape and gauze. He gently pulled the leg of her jeans back down and reached over with his right hand to take hers from his shoulder. He stood, pulled Ann to her feet, and with a husky voice asked, “All better?”
Frustrated at the ease in which he made her speechless, she commanded her voice to respond, though barely audible. “Yes, thank you.”
As if casting a spell, he stared at her. She grew uncomfortable and tried to pull her hand from his warm grasp.
Jacob held on to hers. “We’ll keep a check on it, and I’ll replace the gauze in the morning.”
Was he trying to make a point she was staying with him tonight? He released her hand and turned down the hall to change into dry clothes.
Stunned, Ann stood alone for a moment before moving. What was she supposed to interpret from all of this? Jacob’s advances, if they were indeed that, were unlike any she had ever experienced. As a waitress, and unfortunately, also as a nanny, she learned how to read men’s intentions fairly well, or so she thought. She tried to shake off her bewilderment and focus on the grandfather. His presence would keep a balance to all of this.
So what did you think? I'll give you a hint to the next chapter...grandpa isn't staying! If you want to read more, you can find this at www.amazon.com/B004Z2KGEY, www.smashwords.com, http://www.createspace.com/36343, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/abandoned-hearts-regina-tittel/1103713588 . It's priced for only $.99 on your kindle, which incidentally, you can easily download to your pc. (Sorry, previous to writing I spent some time in sales.) It's also available on Pubit and Smashwords, and by the end of July, will be offered in a print version!