Damien’s bike roared inland, the salt water wind whipping at his face. His father was dead. He had tried to feel something—anything—when he had received the phone call, but all he could muster was the numb realization that he was truly alone. The last blood tie, the final rope tying him to his past, severed.
His stomach clenched when he passed the dirt drive that led to his childhood home. It was miles from downtown, with a driveway that snaked toward a rundown Cape house. He could still feel the sharp bite of a belt licking his vulnerable skin, still smell the cheap alcohol curtaining the stale air. He ordered his mind to go blank, a trick he learned in the Marines to cool his nerves when shells exploded into the ground around him. Damien wanted to get into town, rent a room for the night, and fall into a dreamless sleep. He knew the latter wouldn’t happen, not with shadows and ghosts lurking around every corner and the funeral looming only days ahead.
He was thinking of stopping at Clancy’s for a bite and grabbing a six-pack from the convenience store when he rounded the bend, squeezed his hand over the grip, and came to a skidding halt. The small sedan was broken down in the worst possible spot—a bend in a blind drive. White smoke clouded the air around it. The driver stood on the side of the road, back turned to him, a thick fall of wheat-colored hair cascading over her shoulders. Damien forgot to breathe. Another ghost.
Lindsey Hunter turned toward him. It was as though someone landed a one-two punch square in his gut. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think. The familiar green eyes that matched the pines lining the roadway shot him a wary glance. The message was clear. Stay back. She didn’t remember him as he had her. And why would she? He was just the scrubby kid on the school bus with second-hand clothes. The kid that tried to steal the contents of her lunch box when it had fallen under the seat.
She’d caught him, gripped his wrists with surprising ferocity for a young kid, and asked him why. He wasn’t sure why he told her the truth; lies had spilled off his tongue like water for everyone else. She might not recall the extra peanut butter sandwich she carried in the metal Barbie box after that day, but he’d never forget it. Those two slices of bread slapped together with spread oozing out the sides might have seemed like a small gesture to some, but at the time it had been everything to him.
“You don’t have to stop.” Her jaw was set and her shoulders squared, but she stepped back. “I already called roadside assistance.”
Damien stood, swung his leg over the bike, and kicked the stand out. “There’s no cell signal on this road. Never has been.” He walked over and took a glance under the hood of the car. “When’s the last time you replaced the fluids in this thing?”
When he looked up at her, he was surprised to see the heavily rounded belly, and understood the caution that clouded her eyes. Voice softer now, he met her eyes. “Lindsey. Don’t you remember me?”
She paused a moment, and then recognition replaced the caution. She put a hand over her heart and let out a big sigh of relief before rushing forward. Lindsey swung her arms around his shoulders and he gave her back a quick pat. He hadn’t had much physical contact—in a pleasant way—during his time in Afghanistan.
“I’m so sorry, Damien. I didn’t recognize you. You’ve buzzed off all that hair, but the eyes are still the same coastal-blue.” She smiled at him now. “I should have known.” She puffed out another breath. “Pregnancy hormones have me on edge.”
“When?” he asked and looked back under the hood.
“Won’t be much longer now. My due date is August twelfth.” She rested a hand over her belly. By the looks of things, she wasn’t going to make it to the due date, but he kept his mouth shut.
“One month left. Congratulations.” She was as beautiful now as she was then, standing before him with a warm glow blushed over her face. Pregnancy looked good on her, as had everything else.
“You can’t just sit on the road. This thing’s not going to start up again on its own.”
She pressed a hand to her forehead. “I know you’re right about the car. About the cell signal. I just don’t want to leave everything, and my dog is in the front seat.”
He lowered the hood and sure enough a black-and-white dog with a flat face, bulging eyes, and pointed ears too big for its head stared inquisitively back at him.
“A dog or a bat?” he questioned. “Pop the trunk. I’ll get what you have and drive you and the bat into town.”
She bit her full bottom lip and sent a nervous glance toward the bike.
“I’ll go slow.” Driving her would put a wrench in his plans, but there was no way he’d leave her stranded—or the dog, if you could call it that. He glanced at her and his heart thumped faster. He’d never been immune to Lindsey.
“I’m not sure it’s safe in my current state, and with Daisy.” She put a protective hand over her belly.
“What choice do you have?” Damien rounded the car to the passenger side and opened the door. The dog was sitting contently in a little canvas tote, which was strapped around the headrest, hoisting it up for a perfect view of the road. He shook his head and a grin stretched over his face. The things people did for their pets. “Is the bat in a car seat?”
Lindsey laughed. “It’s a booster seat. She likes to look out the window, but she’s too short.”
“You’re in for a rude awakening when that baby comes,” Damien said to the dog. He ran his hand over its head, and the dog turned its snout to lap its tongue over his palm. “You and your booster seat can sit right on the bike.” Damien lifted the dog out and started tying the booster to his bike.
Lindsey rounded the car, poked into the driver’s side, and popped the trunk. It was a wonder it hadn’t busted open on its own.
“Planning on staying long?” His brows popped up when a bag sprang out of the over-packed car. Was she running from something?
“I never should have left.” He could read between the lines. She didn’t wear a ring, not that it meant anything, but no man with a spine would let the mother of his child-to-be take a road trip alone—especially with the due date looming so close. “I’m putting down roots,” she said now, voice fiercer. “What about you? You only have a backpack.”
“I’m pulling them up. I won’t be staying long.” Was that disappointment that flashed over her face, or the heat and smog from the highway tricking his eyes and fogging his mind?
“Do you have a pack of essentials? We can take what you need into town, call the tow service, and get the rest when it pulls into the shop.”
She nodded. “I’ll just need a second to sort through.” He watched her retrieve a purse from the front seat and a small duffel from the back, and thought of how appealing she looked in the long breezy skirt and simple white tee. He had no business thinking of her that way—pregnant and all. Just as he had no business thinking of her in grade school. She had been honor roll and pom-poms. He had been torn jeans, leather jackets, and trouble.
“Okay, I think that’s all the necessities.” She struggled with the zipper until it finally closed. It would be a challenge to ride with the overstuffed bag, but he’d make it work. Damien opened the left saddlebag and stowed her purse.
“Put this on.” He shifted and handed her his helmet. Her long silky hair flowed over full breasts. He swallowed and looked away.
She clipped the helmet straps under her chin and held his shoulders for balance as she slowly—and very awkwardly—mounted the bike.
“Now hang on real tight,” he called over the roar of the engine springing to life. She listened. Her arms wound tight around his waist, gripping on like he was the last life preserver on a sinking ship. Lindsey’s scent, something sweet and warm, teased his senses and made his stomach grip. Her belly bump pressed against his back, reminding him to ignore his visceral reactions.
He had enjoyed women through the years, but they never stuck—or he never let them. He was smart enough to know he wasn’t his father, but not naive enough to forget they were of the same gene pool. Damien wasn’t sure if he was cut from the kind of cloth that wrapped itself up in a relationship, one where the threads grew stronger over time instead of fraying. It was the same reason he allowed himself a beer or two, but never drank to excess. He wasn’t an addict like his father, but never forgot he came from one, either.
He drove more slowly than he ever had, avoiding potholes as if they were sinkholes in the road. The dog seemed to be enjoying the journey, as it sat in front of him on the bike. Her head was tilted to the sky and her nose wrinkled as she sniffed the scents that tangled in the breeze. Lindsey on the other hand, had a tight hold on his waist and didn’t loosen it until they pulled into a parking space in front of John’s Tire Shop and Road Side Assistance.
“Thanks for the lift. Under different circumstances, I think I would have really enjoyed it.” She smiled a little now, and lifted the saddlebag for her purse.
Her face was just as he remembered, so fresh and pretty. Damien was faced with a moral dilemma. Should he leave her? Let her sort this out on her own?
He couldn’t help himself. “Who are you staying with?” he asked, and took the helmet she handed back to him.
“Myself—and Daisy. I purchased the cottage on the shore.” She smoothed her hands over her skirt and unclipped the dog from the booster. “A place to start fresh,” she added. “Do you remember Mrs. McFee’s old place? That’s the one.”
“Yeah, I remember it.” He also remembered it was in a remote area, with no other homes for miles and miles and Daisy was the furthest thing from a watch dog. “What about your folks? They still in town?”
“Time-share in Aruba.” Lindsey turned away from him and walked to the door of the shop. “They’ll be back closer to my due date.”
A heavy weight of responsibility rested upon Damien’s shoulders. One for the perfect little girl he once knew, and one for the woman he was standing with now.
“Okay then, let’s get the car towed.” A cold beer and solitude seemed a long way off but this was Lindsey.
“Damien, I appreciate your help, but you don’t have to wait.” She brushed a strip of hair off her face. She must be dying in this heat.
“By the time John gets back with the car, it’ll be almost dusk. When he fixes it—if he can fix it today—it will be dark before you get to the cottage.” By the look on her face, he knew he’d hit a mark. She may be independent, but she wasn’t stupid. “You should get a room in town. Wait until morning to open up the cottage.” He shoved his hands into his jean pockets.
Lindsey sighed. “You seem to be the voice of reason today. As much as I want to get to the cottage, I don’t know what condition it’s in or what type of cleaning it will need.”
Satisfied that she’d taken his advice, he shoved the keys into his pocket, and joined her on the sidewalk. Together, they walked into the shop where Damien had held his first job in high school. It had been a taste of financial freedom and a chance to get away from the house and his father. John and his friends sat there as they had a thousand times before, talking town gossip and politics over cans of Coke. They all looked up when the door chimed.
“My God. Look what the tide has washed in,” John yelled over Axl Rose’s voice belting “Sweet Child O’ Mine” from the shop stereo. Gasoline, rubber, and sweat lingered in the air.
“Damien Trent and Lindsey Hunter—and a little muskrat.”
Lindsey clutched the dog in her arms. Damien recognized the fire chief, the one who’d served the town for nearly thirty years.
“I’m sorry about your father, son.” He stood, clapped Damien on the shoulder. Lindsey’s eyes met his, filled with apology.
“Nice to see you kids end up together, and with a baby on the way,” John said.
Lindsey blushed, a deep pink rising on her cheeks. “Damien actually just stopped on the roadway to help…my car broke down.”
He reached out and lightly touched her shoulder. It must suck, having to face all the unknowns of having a baby on her own. It took guts to return to this small town where gossip churned like a white-water rapid. People would speculate and judge.
They told John the location of the vehicle, and he promised to text Lindsey when it was finished. After they left the shop and were a few feet down the road, Lindsey grasped his arm to stop him.
“Damien, I’m so sorry about your father.” She gently stroked his forearm. The tension in his muscles went lax under her fingertips.
He shrugged and started walking again. He didn’t want to see the pity that swam in her eyes.
“I know your childhood wasn’t easy, but all the same, you came here to grieve. The last thing you probably needed was to find me on the side of the road. I appreciate the lift, and your help.”
“Took my mind off things.” He slowed his pace to a crawl, realizing she was carrying a basketball-sized human in her belly and the dog, while he was plowing forward at a brisk clip. “Let me take her.” He shifted Daisy out of her hands without waiting for a reply.
They reached the Seahorse Inn and every parking spot in front of the hotel was taken. Shit. He should have made reservations. In the chaos of it all, he’d forgotten how packed the hotels and motels got during the summer. He held the door for Lindsey and walked up to the front desk.
“Any vacancy?” he asked the woman behind the counter. Damien knew the answer before she opened her mouth. In the lobby, kids ran around in water shoes with soggy towels draping from their sunburnt shoulders. Their parents tried to corral them into the elevator with arms burdened with leftover picnic supplies and water boards.
“I’m sorry…we’re sold out through the week. I’m afraid you won’t have much luck at the other hotels, either. There’s a convention in town. I could call around for you—save you a trip.” Her concern seemed genuine and she began typing something into her desktop.
“I’d appreciate that. Thanks.” Where were they going to stay if everything was sold out? He rolled his shoulders trying to ease the knot that rested between them.
Stress coiled in Damien’s gut. He couldn’t stay in his father’s place. He’d have to drive a few hours inland, come back in the morning. Damien and Lindsey stood in silence, watching the unruly kids begin a sword fight with their pool noodles. Their parents’ demands and threats fell on deaf ears. The dog tilted its head with each loud noise, but didn’t bark.
He looked over at Lindsey. Her eyebrows were drawn together, and she bit her full bottom lip. “You ready for that?” Damien smiled at her, and tried to lighten the mood.
“God, I hope so.” She let out a shaky laugh and wrapped her arms over her chest. “Listen, if there’s no vacancy here you can crash with me for the night at the cottage. It’s really no big deal.”
He searched her face. There was no hesitation in her voice, no reservations, only a kind offer to an old friend. Under normal circumstances he’d brush it off, but he had so much to do. The wake was two days from now, the funeral after that, and then he was burdened with the task of cleaning out the house and listing it for sale.
His temples throbbed, like a marching band stomping and parading through his brain. The front desk agent beckoned to him, her face grim. Damien walked over to hear the news he could already read on her face.
“I’m sorry sir, no vacancy in Chatham tonight.” The woman’s voice was apologetic.
“Well, that settles it. Come on, bunkmate.” Lindsey’s fingers brushed his arm and a bolt of attraction zinged through him.
Lindsey was off-limits. Way off-limits. She was weeks away from delivering a baby—one that would need around-the-clock care, unlimited diaper changes, and would delight in lots and lots of squawking. He had enough baggage to fill a double-deck jet. Together, they would bring an airbus screeching to a halt. He’d spend the night, and figure things out in the morning with a clear mind and strong cup of black coffee.