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Joss Garrity was not having a very good day. In fact she’d not been having a very good five years. Dead husband, teenage son who hated her, astronomical student loan debt and almost as astronomical orthodontic bills. Not to mention a sleep deficit she’d never make up even if she slept from now until the end of the decade.
And, this just in, a flat tire. With the stubbornest set of wheel nuts she’d ever had the misfortune to tangle with.
She turned her eyes toward the star-littered sky. “Just once,” she begged, “give me a break.”
She crouched beside the wheel again and fitted the lug wrench to the nut via the weak beam of a flashlight. Putting her full weight behind it she pushed. Hard.
It didn’t move. Not even a fraction.
A well of frustration geysered out of her and she sprung up yelling, “Aaaaaah!” striking the stubborn nut over and over with the wrench.
It didn’t help but it felt damn good. The clanking noise echoed around the surrounding cornfields and she didn’t stop until the sudden slice of oncoming headlights alerted her to an approaching car. Breathing heavily, she threw the wrench on the ground.
Apart from the sound of a decelerating engine, the night had fallen quiet around her as if even the insects had been startled into silence by her outburst. She supposed they didn’t get too many crazy women attacking car tires at almost midnight—or anytime really—in these parts.
The car, some kind of pickup, pulled up behind her. The engine cut out; the lights didn’t. She squinted against their intrusion as the car door opened, then shut. A figure approached, tall and shadowy, his cowboy hat haloed by light.
With a lazy gait. The soft crunch of his boots on the dirt road, unhurried. One shoulder hitched slightly higher than the other. She supposed she should be afraid it was some psycho serial killer haunting the back roads of Texas. The way her luck had been running it’d be par for the course.
But nothing that dramatic ever happened around here. It’d just be one of the locals doing the neighborly thing. Even if most folks in these parts would usually have been bedded down this late on a Wednesday night.
“That’s an interesting technique for changing a tire.”
The voice, as lazy and unhurried as his stride, came out at her from the night a second before the shadows revealed the man in all his glory.
Tall. Rangy. Jeans. Big-ass buckle. Checked flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. She couldn’t see his face—between the brim of his hat and the back lighting it was still firmly in shadow—but she knew he wasn’t a local.
Not with that accent.
It was as lazy and unhurried as the rest of him, his vowels flattened. Joss could detect a slight American twang but he definitely hadn’t been born here.
English. Or New Zealand. Maybe Australian.
He came to a halt, slipping his hands into his back pockets, the stance widening his chest.
“How about you let me do that?”
Joss waited for the little lady but it wasn’t forthcoming. Hallelujah. She’d had enough of men today and right now she didn’t need any he-man bull crap. The fact that she needed him at all totally blew.
“I’m perfectly able to change my own goddamn tire.” She glared in the general direction of his shadowed face.
It wasn’t the first tire she’d changed and she doubted it’d be her last. Not to mention she was a freaking ER doctor. She could drill a burr hole in his head, crack open his chest, stitch him up again and bring him back to life with a spot of CPR all on the side of this road if she had to.
Not that thinking about putting her mouth over his was particularly helpful right now.
“Well okay then.” He lifted a shoulder. “Don’t let me stop you.”
Joss sighed. “I can’t. Not this time.” At five feet four she had to tilt her head to look at him and that pissed her off too. “I can’t get the wheel nuts off. They’re being recalcitrant like all the men hereabouts.”
He laughed. And damn if it wasn’t lazy too. Rich and heavy, oozing over her like warm honey. How could something so laid-back have such a quickening effect on her pulse?
“Lug nuts are dudes?”
“These ones are.”
“I’m guessing belting the shit of them didn’t help.”
“Well that depends on your definition of help. It made me feel a hell of a lot better.”
That laugh again. Sliding slow and easy from his lips. Goose bumps pricked at her arms and her nipples tightened in her bra despite the warmth of the July night. For a crazy moment she imagined him stepping in closer and brushing a soft kiss against the shallow dip at the base of her throat.
Great. Now she was fantasizing—sexually—about a complete stranger who’d stopped to help her with her tire.
Get a grip, Joss.
“I get that.”
Joss had the distinct impression this man got a lot of things. “Why in hell do they screw them on so tight?” she demanded.
She was no weakling. People came to her when they wanted difficult jars opened, for Pete’s sake.
“They use a pneumatic tightener.”
“Because giving people roadside hernias is funny to them?”
The brief flash of white teeth told her she’d amused him. He removed his hands from his pockets. “Would you like me to have a go?”
Joss sighed in defeat. It was that or call the Triple A service and God knew how long it’d take to get someone out here. It’d be after one—if she was lucky—by the time she got home and sleep was a precious enough commodity as it was. At least, with the summer vacation here she didn’t have to worry about the daily tug-of-war involved in getting Damien out of bed.
“If you could just loosen the nuts, I can handle the rest.”
Without another word he stepped around her, crouching beside the wheel as she had done, picking up the wrench. His headlights beamed across the tips of his dusty cowboy boots, along the lean length of his thigh and illuminated his face.
Joss sucked in a breath. Sweet baby cheeses. He was a baby. Younger than she’d thought. Way younger than that very adult laugh had suggested.
His jaw was strong and cleanly shaven. Ridiculously long eyelashes cast shadows over well-defined cheekbones. His mouth, despite being fixed in a line of concentration, hinted at fullness and experience. A tiny white scar bisected his left eyebrow, giving him a rather rakish appearance, and a crooked nose dirtied up the symmetry of his face.
He was maybe…mid twenties.
And she’d… Her cheeks warmed at her earlier thoughts and the persistent tautness of her nipples.
It took less than thirty seconds and a few X-rated grunts from him to loosen the nuts. Of course.
“Thank you,” Joss said, taking a step toward him. “I can take it from here.” She just wanted him gone now. Before her nipples embarrassed her any further. She felt inadequate enough lately without adding dirty old woman to her list of faults.
He slid the jack beneath the frame. “I’m down here now,” he dismissed, as he cranked the handle and the car started to rise off the ground. “Might as well go all the way.”
Joss shut her eyes as his words conjured other things he could do while he was down there. Oh God. She was going to hell. “It’s fine, really,” she insisted.
But he ignored her as he set about fixing the flat. A tanned forearm caught the light, contracting under the weight of the tire, and she stared at its perfection. Not big, gym-junkie meaty, just nicely delineated, finely honed.
God…why had men with nice arms always been her weakness? Why couldn’t she be an abs or ass woman?
“So what are you doing out here?” she asked, as he grabbed the spare she’d already dragged out of the trunk.
She had to say something to keep a whole lot of unwanted thoughts at bay and he clearly wasn’t from around here. This was no highway. It was a tiny back road usually only traversed by locals who knew where they were going.
Maybe he was lost?
“What am I doing out here?”
His thorough gaze trekked from her shoes all the way up to meet her eyes. Joss’s breath practically stopped in her chest at the full impact of his illuminated face.
“What the hell is a lone woman doing out here at midnight?”
“I’m a doctor. I was…seeing a patient.”
Joss sighed. “It’s a long story.”
Involving another stubborn man. One of Gus’s friends whose wife had rung at ten begging Joss to come out and stitch up her husband who’d cut his hand and was refusing to go to hospital.
If it had been up to her she’d have let the old coot alone but his wife’s distress over imminent exsanguination had played on Joss’s conscience. Andy, her dead husband, had laughingly called it her doctor bone.
She’d always been crap at ignoring it.
“And you?” she pressed.
He returned his attention to the wheel. “I’m just—” He grunted slightly as he lifted the new tire onto the rim, the tip of his tongue poking out as he threaded it through the nuts. “Passing through.”
Passing through where? Back-road USA? Was he a tourist? “You’re not from around here, are you?”
He gave a half laugh. “No, ma’am.”
Even the way he’d ma’am’ed her sounded foreign on his tongue. “You’re English.”
“No bloody way.” He gave a derisive snort as he loosely screwed the wheel nuts in place.
“Kiwi.” Another snort. “Closer. Better.”
Joss smiled. “Australian.”
“Born and bred.”
Australia. She’d always wanted to visit Australia. “You’re a long way from home.”
He shrugged. “Home’s wherever I lay my hat.”
So he was a wanderer. A rolling stone…
He made quick work of lowering the car to the ground before reaching for the lug wrench again and tightening the nuts properly. He grunted with the exertion, which did bad, bad things to her overactive imagination.
And even worse things to her overheated body.
“Don’t do them too tight or I’ll have the same problem next time.”
He laughed again, low and lazy, and it brushed up her body. “While I’m flattered you think I have the strength of a pneumatic power tool, I don’t. And the last thing you need is to have your wheel fall off while you’re driving along.” He patted the tire. “There. Good as new.”
Before she could thank him, he’d risen from the ground in one languid movement with her flat, the jack and the lug wrench and was heading toward the trunk. She followed him although she had no idea why.
His headlights flooded him from behind, once again throwing his face into shadow but she could easily see the white slash of his eyebrow scar. For a moment she wondered how he got it. For an even crazier moment she wanted to reach out and smooth it with her finger.
Thankfully he was oblivious to her insane impulses, as he slotted the wheel into the spare tire compartment and stowed the jack and the lug wrench. “Make sure you get this fixed first thing.”
“Of course,” she said as he shut the trunk, irritated by his need to state the obvious and the crazy urge to touch him pulsing through her hands.
“Are you from round here?” He rested his hip against the trunk as he wiped his hands on the ass of his jeans. He didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry to leave and suddenly, despite the hour, Joss wasn’t either.
“Plainview. About fifty miles away.”
He nodded. “That’s where I’m heading.”
So he wasn’t just passing through. “Staying for a while?”
“Five nights. I’m riding bulls at the rodeo on the weekend.”
The rodeo was this weekend? Damn it, she’d forgotten. Awesome. Joss guessed patching up a parade of cowboys was in her future.
“That’s kinda dangerous.”
He laughed as if being trampled to death or sustaining a serious injury via a one-ton bull was of no particular consequence. “That’s not the standard female reaction.”
She blinked at his teasing tone and she wondered if this guy ever took anything seriously. “Oh? You were after breathless admiration?”
His teeth flashed again. “Something like that.”
“Yeah, I’m not really good at breathless admiration.”
“No shit.” His laugh hooted out into the night, echoing around the fields.
“I’m guessing that’s how you got this, right?”
Ignoring the obvious deviation of what once must have been a very nice nose, Joss finally gave in to the impulse to touch his eyebrow. The pad of her finger tingled as it brushed against bristly hair and smooth scar tissue.
She’d done it without thinking about the appropriateness of it but…she was a doctor. It was just a…doctor thing.
Doctors touched, prodded, examined.
But he wasn’t a patient and it didn’t feel very medical. It felt very, very sexual. The dark of the night, the hush of the fields loaned an intimacy to the situation that was as tangible as it was surprising.
“Maybe.” His gaze was hooded but fixed on hers, his voice gravelly.
Joss drew in a shaky breath and dropped her hand. How had they come to be standing so close? She took a step back.
“Well…anyway…thank you for stopping to help but I really should be going now.”
He didn’t move or protest, just watched her, his gaze riveting. She couldn’t really see his eyes but she could feel them on her.
“You should come and watch me.”
She frowned. “Watch you?”
A small smiled nudged his lips. She didn’t need to be a mind reader to know where his mind had just gone. “Ride bulls. On the weekend.”
There were probably about a hundred things she’d put her hand up to watch this guy do, a lot of them just as dirty as the things he’d been thinking. Watching him get tossed around for entertainment on the back of a large angry animal wasn’t one of them. “I can’t. I’m working from two to eleven.”
“That’s a shame. Maybe we could…” He hit her with a slow, lazy smile. “Catch up for a drink after you finish work.”
It might have been a long time since Joss had dated but a guy asking you out for a late-night drink wasn’t usually interested in catching up. In fact if that wasn’t code for booty call she didn’t know what was.
She had no doubt there’d be a hundred girls his age who’d meet him any damn time he wanted but she was a single mother of a teenage son and she was juggling too many balls.
She didn’t have time for booty calls.
“A drink?” She hoped he could read the sardonic intent of her cocked eyebrow in the dark.
His grin told her he did. “Sure. Or—” He shrugged. “Whatever.”
Joss didn’t think whatever meant going to see a movie. She supposed she should be insulted to be propositioned at the side of the road by someone she barely knew. Or at least a little apprehensive about her vulnerability out here alone. But she was neither. If anything it was doing her downtrodden ego the world of good.
But…she was a practical woman.
She folded her arms. “Are you flirting with me?”
“That depends.” He pushed the brim of his hat back a little with his index finger. “Is it working?”
Joss laughed. Actually laughed. Was it working? Hell to the yeah. Nevertheless, the fact that this boy-man found her attractive was ludicrous. She was already failing at adulting without adding whatever into her to-do list.
“How old are you?”
Twenty-seven. Older than she’d thought. But still… “I’m thirty-four.”
He lifted a shoulder. “So?”
So? Joss sighed. “That’s seven years older than you.”
He grinned. “Seven years more experienced.”
Joss suppressed the urge to laugh hysterically. If he thought he’d be getting some kind of well-honed tantric experience from her, he’d be sorely let down. She was too damn tired to be some kind of Mrs. Robinson.
Like he even needed one.
“Look, you’re very sweet—”
His dramatic wince interrupted her. “Is there where you pat me on the head and tell me to run along now?”
It was Joss’s turn to laugh. “Something like that.”
“Are you sure I can’t interest you?” He set his broad grin to stun. “I’m really very good with my hands.”
Joss didn’t doubt it. “To which my flat tire can attest. But trust me, there are plenty of pretty girls your age in town who would happily volunteer for a demonstration.”
And Joss was blindingly envious of every one of them.
He slid his hands into his back pockets and set his jaw. “What if I don’t want a girl? What if I want a woman?”
End of Excerpt