From an interior chapter….
The only good thing about the drive to Pine River was Luke’s vintage 1975 Ford Bronco, a fully restored Jeep with leather seats and a Hemi engine Luke had rebuilt by hand. It was a sweet ride, and until only recently, it had sat unused, untouched, in the Kendrick family garage. Luke had bought it four years ago on a whim during one of the many times he’d had to uproot his life and come home to fix things. Only that time, he couldn’t fix things. That time, his mother had called to tell him she’d been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. She said she’d never noticed the lump until about three months prior, and then, she was so busy, she couldn’t get around to seeing a doctor about it.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Luke had helplessly demanded.
“I didn’t want to bother you,” Mom had said. “You’re right in the middle of classes.”
Mom had done the best she could for as long as she could, but Dad and Leo were hopeless, and she’d finally been forced to call Luke home. “I’m so sorry, honey,” she’d said, wearing the scarf around her head to hide what the chemo had done to her. She’d been sorry that she was dying and interfering with his school.
Of course Luke had come home. He’d come home to pay the bills and to cook for Dad and Leo and to make sure everything was running on the ranch when his mother couldn’t do it any more. He’d come home to keep track of her meds and help her in and out of bed and drive her to her oncology appointments in Durango.
The Bronco purchase had happened during one of those trips to Durango. The doctors had wanted new tests, and they’d kept his mother longer than either of them had anticipated. The waiting was the worst part about his mother’s illness, all that time spent standing around, feeling helpless. So Luke had left the hospital and had ended up buying the Bronco on a whim.
With Dad’s help, he’d managed to get it home. The truck had given him something to do, something to take his mind off the fact that his mother was dying and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He’d spent long evenings working under a single bulb in the garage, restoring the hell out of the Bronco. He’d even hand polished the lug nuts.
Two years ago, Luke had finished restoring the truck. Three weeks later, Cathy Kendrick finally gave into the pain and the loss of dignity cancer had inflicted upon her. It seemed almost as if she were waiting for him to finish the Bronco, to come to terms with the fact that he couldn’t fix everything. She’d died, leaving a husband of thirty-two years, two sons, four dogs, and a void in the lives of those who knew her.
For two years, Luke thought of that void every time he saw the Bronco in the garage.
After a time, when he was sure Dad and Leo could make it on their own, Luke had left the Bronco and his family behind and had returned to Denver for a third time. He’d finished school, earned his architecture degree, started his own fledgling business. He’d quickly realized that he needed to know how to run a business, and had enrolled in graduate school to earn an MBA. He was in his second semester.
A few months ago, on a cloudless, blue-sky afternoon, he’d come home to see his dad and Leo, and he’d looked at the Bronco in the garage and thought, okay, it’s time. The pain of his mother’s death had receded into a shallow, slow-running stream. He didn’t think of the void now, he thought of her laugh and her smile, of the way she tucked her hair behind her ears.
The Bronco purred along today, a testament to Luke’s great skills as a mechanic and Leo’s greater skills at coming up with ideas of how to repair the old engine.
It was a beautiful day, the sort of crisp, clear mountain-air day, with a deep blue sky and a breeze so slight that it scarcely moved a leaf on the cottonwoods. Luke took a short cut over an old mining road called Sometimes Pass. In the winter, the state put big metal gates across it, as there was no money to keep the road cleared. That meant in the winter, if you were driving from Denver to Pine River, you had to swing down to Colorado Springs and over, adding a good two hours to the trip.
The road wound its way up past hiking trails and forest service roads. As he came around one turn, he noticed a small car parked on one of the many shoulder pull-offs. A woman was standing beside it. He squinted; it looked as if she had taken the spare tire and tire kit out of the trunk. She was leaning up against the bumper reading a book that looked like a manual. And holding a highlighter.
Luke slowed down as he passed. She was dressed in a dark suit and her hair was held up by one of those hair claws that looked like the hand of Grok. But what really caught his attention was that highlighter. It seemed like an odd thing on the side of a mountain road.
At the next point in the shoulder where he could pull off, Luke turned around and drove back to where she was.
The woman quickly straightened up as pulled up in front of her little car. She eyed him warily under dark bangs as he got out of his truck, shifting backward, to the railing, presumably to get a better look at him.
“Don’t jump,” Luke advised.
Eyes the color of a Caribbean sea beneath dark bangs rounded with horror. “No!”
“I’m kidding. Looks like you’re having some car trouble.”
She folded her arms across her slender middle and glanced irritably at the car. “Flat tire. This car is a cheap tin can.”
Luke looked at the car. “I wouldn’t give it that much credit.”
The woman smiled. She was pretty when she smiled. Her eyes seemed to glitter. Very pretty.
“Want me to change it for you?”
“I…do you mind?” she asked. “I have Triple A, and I called to make sure that my cell had coverage here, but it’s not working.” She held it up to him as if to prove it. She definitely didn’t look like the sort of person one usually saw on these roads. Typically the women tromping around here wore hiking boots, backpacks, and bandanas tied around their necks. She wore a thin gold chain around a slender neck.
“You’re just below the tree line here,” he said. “You have to be in Pine River, or a little higher in elevation to get a signal. I’d be happy to help.”
“I can pay you,” she suggested.
“Not necessary. I’m happy to do it.” It wasn’t often that he got to help good-looking women. This one was very appealing to the guy in him. Maybe she looked a little too much like a headmistress in that dark suit and primly buttoned shirt, but he could see that she had some shapely legs and some very nice curves.
“Thank you.” She sounded relieved. “That’s really nice of you. I thought I was going to have to walk!” She laughed.
He glanced at her shoes. “I don’t know—it’s a long way to town in heels.”
“Oh, I wear them all the time. I have Dr. Scholl inserts.”
Was she kidding? Walking up these hills was a little different than walking down sidewalks.
Luke stepped past her in the narrow space between the car and railing. He noticed the gold chain was holding a little letter M in the hollow of her throat. He opened the driver door and reached in to pop the trunk, and saw the map spread out on the passenger seat and couldn’t help noticing the yellow highlighted roads from Denver, or that two of the highlighted roads had been exed through with pen. “Where are you headed?” he asked as he shut the car door.
Blue Eyes blinked. She folded her arms over her middle uncertainly.
Luke smiled at her. “You know the marauding mountain men up here usually have long beards and dirty clothes, right?”
Her eyes widened slightly, but then she slowly smiled, producing a dimple in one cheek. “Is that how I spot them? Thank you—that’s information I need to have.”
He grinned. “No offense, but you look a little lost. I’m from around here, and can probably point you in the right direction.”
“Pine River,” she said, dropping her arms. “The guy at the gas station told me to take Sometimes Pass road. He said it was straight up the road I was on, but I can’t find it.”
“You’re on it.” Luke casually flicked his gaze over her. Definitely a nice figure. Not too thin, curvy in all the right places. He wondered what business she had in Pine River. “The problem is, only the locals call it Sometimes Pass. It’s only a pass after the snow season. Hence the name.”
“No wonder I couldn’t find it! Would you mind?” she asked, and crowded in beside him, brushing against his arm as she leaned into her car—way in—affording Luke an excellent view of her derriere. He had only a moment to admire it before she emerged holding the map. She spread it on the hood of her car and clicked her highlighter for action. “Where am I?”
Luke pointed at the county road that was Sometimes Pass on the map.
“Aaah,” she said, and highlighted it.
She stood back, admired her highlighting for a moment, then glanced up. She seemed surprised to find him still standing there and peered up at him with those Caribbean blue eyes. “So which way is Pine River?” she asked.
A man could definitely lose his way around those eyes, Luke thought. “West.”
“And that would be…?” She pointed north.
Man she really was lost. He pointed down the road. “That is west, the direction you’re headed. Pine River is about ten miles down.”
“Great. Thank you.” She picked up her map.
“Welcome.” He looked at those sparkling eyes again and moved to the safety of the back of the car. She had taken out the spare, the change kit, and had laid out the tools in a neat row. He took a look at the back tire that had gone flat. “Probably a nail or something like it,” he said.
“I worried about that when I drove into the construction site,” she said.
Where the hell was there a construction site around here? Luke paused to look down at the tools lined up.
“Oh, ah…I’ve been reading the manual,” she said, and hopped around him. “It says to loosen the lug nuts first.”
“Does it?” He reached for the Mickey Mouse car jack. “Not to worry. I’ve changed a lot of tires in my life.”
“Sure, sure,” she said, looking at the jack in his hand. She didn’t look as if she fully agreed with him. “I just thought maybe, since it’s a small car…you know.”
No, he didn’t know. He stepped around her, going down on one knee to slide the jack into its little sleeve beneath the car. He started to jack it up, but she was standing too close. He paused, looked up. “It’s probably better if you stand back.”
“Right,” she said, stepping back. But her feet, stuffed into her heels, were in his peripheral vision.
He removed the flat tire, then fit the spare donut onto the rim. He noticed her turn the page of the manual, as if she was following along. He secured the spare and stood up. “You’ll want to get that tire fixed as soon as you can.” He began to toss the tire change implements into the trunk. “Those donuts are definitely not made for the roads up here.” He shut the trunk, put his hands on his hips. “Anything else I can help you with?”
“I think that should do it.” She shut her manual. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Luke,” she said. “Luke, thank you, so much. I’m Madeline.” She smiled gratefully, and extended her hand to be shook.
Looking head on at that smile knocked Luke back a step or two. It changed her face, made her softer somehow. Her eyes shone, and her mouth—well, there were a lot of fantasies floating in his head at the moment. He suddenly wanted to take Grok’s claw from her hair and unbutton the top two buttons of her blouse… But instead he took her hand. It felt weightless in his.
“Thanks,” she said again, still smiling, and backed up to the rail again. “I won’t keep you any longer.” She slowly pulled her hand free.
“Welcome,” Luke said, and with a weird little touch of two fingers to his brow—where the hell had that come from?—he added, “Take care.”
“Thanks!” She clasped her hands behind her back and stood next to her car like a cheerful little armed guard.
Luke couldn’t help but smile with amusement as he passed. He walked back to his truck, started it up again. He pulled out onto the road, drove up the road a little bit until he could turn around, then headed in the direction of Pine River. He waved as he passed her. She waved back. He glanced in his rear view to see what she was doing.
Blue Eyes had her map on the hood of her car and was folding it into a neat little square.