Kay Doherty © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Smoke billowed from beneath the hood of Case Holden’s Mustang as he slowed, easing to the side of the road, where the engine gave a final rattle before dying. Case did his best to maneuver the car completely off the pavement to avoid getting hit by other vehicles. Rain was coming down in sheets, and he cursed when he felt one of his tires come to a sudden halt in the mud along the shoulder of the road. He was on a remote country byway and hadn’t passed another car in quite a while, but he still didn’t want to risk anyone knocking into his baby with the limited visibility caused by the downpour. This Mustang was his pride and joy. He had spared no expense when he bought the car, adding every luxury available. Though he was careful to keep it in pristine working order, this trip had pushed the vehicle to its limit.
Case didn’t know a damn thing about cars. He had entrusted the Mustang’s mechanical issues to one of his many boyfriends—a boyfriend who was just one of many reasons he was making this drive. Case had become a partying drunken slut in the past several years, hemorrhaging money. Now, because of choices made and paths taken, he was stranded in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain. He lifted his cell phone out of the middle console and let out another string of expletives. There was no service and the battery was about two seconds from dying.
When he finally managed to arrive at his aunt’s house, he was going to have a discussion with her about her choice of address. The last time he visited his Aunt Sylvia, he had fallen in love with her cozy house and the massive amount of land he’d been allowed to explore for hours on end. He didn’t remember the drive being so long and desolate, though. Sylvia and her late husband, Ed, had bought the acreage with the hopes of starting a ranch, but that idea had died a quick death shortly after they had moved into the two-bedroom cabin. The house was situated at the edge of a forested area, with an awesome lake for fishing within walking distance, but the cabin itself had been in need of serious attention.
Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, Sylvia and Ed had basically rebuilt the place. When Case last visited at age fifteen, it had been state of the art with all the modern amenities and taken every dollar his aunt and uncle had put away for the ranch. It had been ten years since Case was out this way. He’d slept in the back seat for the majority of the drive during that family trip, which he now knew he preferred after being alert, painfully aware of every boring mile traveled. It was mind-numbing. Case allowed the engine to cool for several long minutes before he turned the key in the ignition. The engine made an awful grinding noise but never caught. He gave a few more futile attempts before slamming his palms against the wheel in frustration.
“Damn, damn, damn. What the hell am I supposed to do now?” he yelled to the empty seats. He was out in bumfuck nowhere, alone, with a dead phone and a dead car. He was a city boy surrounded by the most up-to-date electronics, none of which were any use to him. He twisted in his seat and looked down the road behind him and then slowly turned to look out all the windows to assess his options and found zero. There were no houses, no traffic—nothing but rain and flat terrain as far as the eye could see. Admittedly, that wasn’t all that far at the moment. He stuffed his phone into his bag, jerking his jacket on with angry motions. The chances of another car coming upon him and actually stopping were slim to none. Walking seemed to be his only option since he couldn’t call anyone for help.
Case grabbed the strap of his bag and dragged it across the seat as he got out of the car. Once he was free from its confines, he slung the strap over his shoulder and locked the doors. Rain instantly soaked through his jacket, droplets sliding down his neck onto his chest and back, making him shiver. He stuffed his hands into his pockets, ducked his head against the occasional gust of wind, and started walking, hoping like hell there was a house or gas station or something with a phone in the near distance. After almost losing a shoe to the sucking mud that lined each side of the two-lane highway, Case decided to risk walking on the pavement. Since there hadn’t been a car in recent memory, he figured he was safe.
Sheriff Rawley Kane massaged the stiff muscles of his neck with one hand as he maneuvered the steering wheel with the other. Despite the heavy rain, the truck’s speedometer showed he was pushing fifty miles an hour. He’d driven on this highway almost daily for the past two years and was familiar enough with it to know the chances of another vehicle being on the road on a sunny day were small, let alone in a downpour. The population of Clover City just didn’t go out in weather like this, and if they did, they knew the road just as well, if not better than he did. Worst thing Rawley had to worry about was a stray dog or a deer running out in front of him.
Bright gold winked in the distance so Rawley slowed the truck. As he drew closer, he realized the bright gold was a car on the side of the road. Rawley carefully eased alongside the vehicle, a Ford Mustang that was all kinds of fancy and all kinds of expensive. It was also empty. As he passed the vehicle at a crawl, he looked at the car through the side mirror and noticed the front passenger wheel was sucked pretty deeply into the mud. Rawley sighed as he stopped the truck right in the middle of the lane.
He wasn’t about to pull off the pavement because the weight of his truck would sink him into the same mud the Mustang was mired in. A nice car like this no doubt belonged to some hotshot city dweller unfamiliar with country roads or driving too fast for the conditions. He flipped on the bar of police lights on top of his truck to alert any potential motorists he was stopped in the middle of the road. He mentally ran through the list of deputies who might be in the office as he picked up the radio.
“Ted, you in?” Rawley asked through the CB. He jotted down the Mustang’s license plate number while he waited for a response.
“Yep. What’s up, Kane?” was Ted’s static reply.
Two years after being elected sheriff of Clover City, Rawley was accustomed to small-town informality. He had come from the Denver Police Department, broken and jaded, and hadn’t adjusted all that quickly to the change. Now, the friendship and camaraderie of Clover was familiar, comfortable—he wouldn’t trade it for anything. He eased his foot off the brake, allowing the truck to coast down the highway at a snail’s pace while he scanned the surrounding area for the car’s missing occupants.
“Can you let Dusty know we have a car stuck in the mud just south of McKesson’s farm heading toward town?”
“He won’t go out in the storm. Afraid of getting struck by lightning or some dumb shit. You know that,” Ted said.
Rawley rolled his eyes. “Just tell him it’s there. He can go get it later when it clears.”
“All right, I’ll call him. You on your way back?” Ted asked.
“I’m heading that way, but the car was empty, which means I’ve got a driver and possibly passengers missing in action. I may be awhile if they aren’t on the road ahead.”
“Roger that, boss man,” Ted said.
Rawley set the radio back into the cradle as he pressed on the gas to increase his speed. His gaze slid across the rain-soaked terrain as he moved down the road, hoping to find the owner of the Mustang hunkered down under a tree or lumbering through the mud because he did not want a missing person investigation to deal with. Three miles down the road, he slowed once again when he caught sight of a man, hunched over against the rain, walking down the middle of the lane. The red and blues were still flashing, but he hit the button for the siren long enough to alert the person to his presence. The man turned to face Rawley as he skipped to the edge of the pavement, out of the way. Rawley unlocked the doors as he pulled up alongside the man. Without any encouragement, the guy opened the passenger door and climbed into the warm, dry cab of the truck.
“I’ve never been so happy to see a cop in my life,” the man said.
He turned a radiant smile on Rawley, causing Rawley to momentarily forget how to breathe at the man’s stunning beauty. He was young, handsome with dark hair made black by the rain, gray-blue eyes with thick, dark lashes, and he was thoroughly soaked. It had been years since Rawley had seen a man as beautiful as this one, and urges he thought he’d left behind in Denver once again stirred. Rawley shifted slightly in the seat as he cleared his throat.
“That your car back there?” Rawley asked with a backward jerk of his head.
“Yeah. Engine died. There was a grinding noise and smoke coming out of it,” the man answered with a flourish of his hands Rawley assumed was to indicate smoke rising.
The man lifted the strap of his duffel bag over his head to push the bag to the floorboard between his feet. Rawley caught himself staring at the man’s muscled bicep and thigh as the guy leaned forward. Rawley yanked his attention back to the windshield when the man straightened. He shut off the emergency lights and stepped on the gas.
“What’s your name and where you headed?” Rawley asked as he pushed the truck up to speed.
“Case, and I’m going to my aunt’s. She lives out here…somewhere,” Case said, twirling his finger in a circle. “Hey, do you have a phone I can use to call her? What are the chances of me getting my car towed?”
“I’ve already called for a tow. Your car will end up in Clover when the storm blows over. As for a phone—here.”
Rawley pulled his cell phone from his coat pocket, unlocked the screen, and handed it over to Case. He tried not to shudder from the hot tingles Case’s touch ignited when their fingers brushed.
“Thanks,” Case said as he worked the phone.
“Sure. I’m surprised you don’t have one.”
“I do, but the battery died.” Case lifted the phone to his ear and waited.
“Having a streak of bad luck today,” Rawley pointed out.
Case scoffed at the remark, and then muttered, “You don’t know the half of it.”