Chapter OneAfter spotting a cockroach beneath his chair, Bruce Kelly ruled out the soup. Cautiously, he stirred his coffee, and found nothing swimming inside it. He tasted it, and decided it wasn't too awful. After doctoring it with sugar and creamer, he sat back to revive himself with some much-needed caffeine.
The cracked plastic seat of the booth snagged against his behind every so often, forcing him to shift around until he faced the window.
Evening had settled over North Carolina hours ago, bringing with it a black velvet blanket studded with stars and a chill that could cut to the bones. He should have been in bed by now, and usually he was, but he'd been too tired to continue driving without a break. He had another fifty miles to go, and he wasn't fool enough to make the trip half-asleep.
His visit back to Ohio had been a pleasure, and he'd lingered too long chatting with friends. There was a time when he'd felt deeply rooted to his projects there, but in less than a year, Visitation had become home.
He was lost in thought, his cup nearly empty, when a semi pulled up outside the diner. The headlights briefly blinded Bruce before the truck swung around and stopped. As Bruce watched, the passenger door jerked open and a young woman tumbled out in haste, almost falling to the broken concrete lot. His attention caught, eyes narrowed, Bruce absorbed the sight of her. She seemed to be all luxuriant, tangled hair, long legs and defiance.
Leaving the big rig idling, the trucker threw open his door and thundered toward the woman. He was a large man, in both stature and girth, dressed in a flannel with jeans that belted below his protruding belly. He seethed with aggression.
Hastily, Bruce laid enough change on the table to cover his coffee and slid from his seat. His gaze never wavered from the unfolding scene.
As the trucker drew near, the woman didn't back up. No, she grabbed a suitcase and shoved it behind her, then strangely enough, she took a stance. The disparity in their sizes was ludicrous, and yet she squared off with the big bruiser as if she intended to duke it out with him.
Bruce couldn't hear the argument, but he could tell by their postures that emotions were high and driven by anger. The young lady practically bounced on her toes in provocation, amusing Bruce even as he feared for her safety.
From one second to the next, things escalated from a verbal confrontation to physical combat. The trucker grabbed her by the arms, jerking her forward and into his chest. The woman's mouth opened on a silent cry.
And Bruce bolted for the door.
He'd seen plenty of violence against women, but it hadn't made him immune. Just the opposite - more than ever, it infuriated him.
With all the recent changes in his vocation, protecting women was no longer his job. Yet, the instinct remained as strong as ever.
Ignoring the other customers who watched him curiously, Bruce shoved the glass door open and was halfway across the lot before his mind registered the scene before him.
The trucker had dropped to his knees with his hands cupped around his testicles, his face a twisted mask of excruciating pain. Surprise didn't slow Bruce's stride, and he reached the woman just as she drew back her foot to kick the trucker in the chin.
Catching her from behind, Bruce swung her up and away from the other man, then set her back down out of striking range.
The second her feet touched the ground, she rounded on him, drew back a bent arm to plant her elbow in his face - and paused with a look of mute surprise. Their gazes clashed and locked for long seconds that to Bruce, felt like an eternity.
He was captivated.
She appeared more than a little wary.
Blinking away his astonishment, Bruce came to his senses first. He felt like a fool and no wonder since he was acting like one. "Are you all right?"
Breathing hard, she shook back her long black hair and demanded, "Who are you?"
Many of the bulbs in the diner's outdoor lighting had burned out, but they still provided enough illumination for Bruce to fall headlong into her exotic features. Pale, icy blue eyes were tilted on the outside corners, heavily lashed and direct. Never in his life had he seen eyes like that.
Her petite body had generous curves enhanced by snug jeans and a soft cotton top. Long limbed, delicate but lush, she was a male fantasy come to life. Because the night air was cool, her nipples had stiffened. Bruce felt his stomach muscles clench as he watched her chest, now rising and falling in agitation - and suddenly her elbow connected.
Not on his nose, thank God, but against his solar plexus, stealing his wind and making him gasp while staggering back a step. "That hurt."
She tossed her hair again. "The first ten seconds of ogling were free. But you went way past that."
Pressing a fist to the ache she'd caused, Bruce swallowed, cautiously drew two more painful breaths, then rasped, "My sincerest apologies."
Her incredible eyes narrowed. "Are you for real?"
He almost smiled at the irony of the situation. "I saw your predicament from the diner and had some vague notion that you might need assistance."
"Yeah?" She glanced behind her at the trucker, who was making noises of renewed life. "I still might."
The trucker staggered to his feet with a lot of grunting and grimacing. With his right hand, he pointed a short, meaty finger at her. "Fucking whore," he spat. His left hand continued massaging his crotch.
Offended, Bruce said, "That language is unnecessary."
The trucker snarled. "She promised to - "
"I didn't make any promises." The young lady didn't raise her chin, but instead tucked it in and looked down her narrow nose at the trucker with icy disdain. "I was nice, and you made assumptions."
"I gave you a ride and even bought you lunch!"
Her rosy lips curled in a taunting way. "And you thought a hamburger and fries got you special favors? Get real."
"They sure as hell weren't free."
Fuming, the trucker reached for her again, she physically prepared herself, and Bruce, feeling like the biggest idiot alive, got between them.
Quickly, before the trucker tried to take him apart, Bruce asked, "How much does she owe you?" Then he held up a hand. "And don't mention sex, because that's obviously out of the question. And besides, prostitution is illegal here and there's a cop sitting right inside the diner."
The trucker, with one worried glance at the restaurant, subsided. He pushed his ball cap back on his head and scratched at his ear. He seemed undecided, but finally said, "Forty bucks oughta cover it."
The woman bristled. "Forty bucks! Are you out of your friggin - "
"Fine." Bruce pulled out his wallet. "Here. Now go. We're drawing a lot of attention."
Hearing that, the woman looked over her shoulder, and grinned. The front window of the diner had at least ten noses pressed to it. "So we are. Probably the most excitement any of them have had in a decade. Oh and look. There is a cop." She waggled her fingers at the officer before turning back to the trucker. "Get lost, Tarzan."
The trucker folded the two twenties Bruce had given him into his back pocket. "Cock tease," he muttered with pure venom and headed for his idling semi.
In saccharine sweet tones, she shot back, "Buffoon." But the trucker wasted no more time in throwing the big rig into gear and grinding his way out of the lot.
Bruce exhaled his relief, gave himself a few seconds to prepare for her impact, then returned his attention to the young lady. Her features were as devastating now as they had been moments before, but at least this time he wasn't taken unawares. "You're okay?"
"Fine and dandy." One arched brow lifted. "You?"
"I'll live." But his chest still hurt from the blow she'd delivered. She might be small, but she wasn't helpless.
She looked around her with interest. "I don't suppose you'd want to buy me something to eat? The hamburger was hours ago and I'm starving."
Her brazenness might have put another man off, but Bruce had spent most of his adult life in the company of brazen women. His mouth twitched and he said gently, "Not here, no."
She took that on the chin. "Sure Gallahad, whatever." Readjusting the satchel-type purse she carried, and grabbing up the handle to her suitcase, she started for the diner. "Maybe some other Good Samaritan will feel differently."
Bruce stopped her. "They have cockroaches."
She twisted to look at him over her shoulder. Her grin made his stomach knot with unheard of sensations. "No problem. Most of the people I know are probably related."
Sympathy saved him, brought out his more professional persona. If she didn't mind eating with bugs, she must truly be hungry. And he knew from experience that her joking attitude was no more than bravado, anyway. "I'm heading to Visitation."
"It's an hour south, but at the next gas station, I can buy you something prepackaged."
Slowly, she turned to face him. Her lush lips pursed, and then formed the word: "Yummy."
Bruce's stomach took a free fall. He rubbed the back of his neck and tried to ignore her blatant sex appeal. "Once we hit town, if you can wait that long, I can get you some real food."
She cocked out her hip and crossed her arms under her plump breasts. "You offering me a ride?"
"As far as Visitation, yes."
"Well, what about that?" Her wide smile left twin dimples in her soft cheeks and had her eyes warming with surprise. She shifted the handle of her suitcase into her left hand, and held out her right. "I'm Cyn."
His automatic "nice to meet you" froze on his tongue. Sin? What was her middle name? Temptation?
As if she'd read his thoughts, she smirked. "Short for Cynthia, though I haven't used that name in a long, long time."
"I see." He needed to get his thoughts in order, fast. He folded her slender fingers into his. "Bruce Kelly."
Her hand was small and warm and her handshake held no reservation, no uncertainty. Bruce gestured to the side lot. "My car is over here."
She'd been rolling her suitcase along, but the uneven lot, littered with rocks and other debris, made it difficult. Bruce took it from her, lifted it with ease, and led the way. He knew she'd follow.
Where else did she have to go?
He started to put the luggage in the back of the aged station wagon, but Cyn stopped him. "Put it in the backseat. Not that I don't trust you, but if I have to make a fast exit, I don't want to leave my stuff behind."
Bruce didn't question that, he just did as she asked. "This thing weighs a ton."
"Books." She shrugged. "I like to read."
Her mouth quirked. "Somehow I doubt we share the same interest in topics."
He was well used to untrusting women and he always did his best to reassure them as often as possible. He opened her door for her, and without a word, she checked to make sure the lock hadn't been tampered with.
He was wondering how many cars she'd been trapped in when she explained. "I read in a book that some sickos fix the door locks so once you're in, you can't get out." Her eyes slanted his way. "Hope you don't mind me checking."
"Not at all. I think it's smart."
"Yeah, me too."
He wanted, needed, to know more about her. But he'd learned patience and wouldn't push her. Simple questions seemed the best, and he'd ask them whenever the opportunity arose. "You ever find yourself in that situation?"
"Nope. And I don't plan to either." She fastened her seat belt, kicked off her sandals, and slouched down comfortably. Bruce watched her a moment more before closing her door and circling the hood. He dug his keys out of his pocket.
Before seating himself, he pulled off his windbreaker and offered it to her. "I noticed you were chilled."
She laughed and accepted the jacket. "I noticed you noticing." She pulled it up over her like a blanket. "Thanks. It's still warm from your body. Feels good."
The things that tripped out of her delectable mouth would set a man on fire. He merely nodded and gave his attention to the car.
Once he'd left the lot and entered the main road, he asked, "So what do you like to read?"
"Where I'm at, what I'm doing. I've read books on self-defense, on psychology, on self help." She turned her face toward him. "What about you?"
Her choices surprised him, but he hopefully hid his reaction. "I'm partial to mysteries." He meant her as much as the stories he read. "Where are you headed?"
"Visitation, with you." The night was dark and quiet. The lights of the console barely limned her face.
He shook his head. "I meant ultimately, where are you going?"
"See, that's the funny part." She idly coiled and recoiled a long ebony tress around her finger. In nervousness or out of habit?
Bruce divided his attention between her and the road. "Funny, in what way?"
"Fated, maybe. Like destiny or karma. Whatever you want to call it." She turned her head to face him. "Believe it or not, I was going to Visitation."
"Really?" Bruce didn't look at her, but with every fiber of his masculine being, he was aware of her. Her scent, soft and warm, wrapped around him in the closed confines of the car. "Why?"
"I don't really know. I just ... I have a vision of it in my mind, and it's beautiful. A good place to be." She closed her eyes and smiled. "I see open spaces and wildlife and fresh air ..." Suddenly she grew quiet. "That sounds lame, doesn't it?"
"Actually, it sounds like Visitation."
"Really?" She half twisted in her seat to face him. "Will you tell me more about it?"
"What do you want to know?"