Behind me, I heard my truck’s engine rumbling. Shit. I wiped at my eyes. Considering his butt-cheek injuries, I hadn’t expected Nick to come after me. I’d expected to have to call Cooper to pick up my truck.
“Maggie, stop!” he yelled out of the driver’s-side window. I slowed to a crawl, for me, and eyed him warily through the window.
I could just keep running. Hell, part of me wanted to phase right there and make tracks for Canada. But Grahams didn’t shirk away from problems. We didn’t run. Well, Cooper did, that once, for a few years. But he eventually came back.
None of this inner coaching was helping, as Nick was still staring at me through the rain.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I’m fine!” I told him. “I’m halfway home. Just leave me alone.”
“Are you crazy?” he yelled. “It’s pouring. It’s going to be dark soon. Get in the truck!”
I tipped my head back, blinking as I watched the dark clouds swirling overhead. The rain wouldn’t be letting up anytime soon. And I didn’t relish the idea of jogging all the way home with Nick trailing me at idling speed, yelling through my window.
“Damn it,” I grumbled, stomping toward the truck. He leaned over and popped the passenger door open, wincing in discomfort.
“Oh, you must be kidding. This is my truck. Scoot over,” I told him, opening the driver’s door. He carefully moved over to the passenger seat. I watched him settle against the bench, his face contorting, and I felt that twinge of guilt again.
“Why in the hell did you take off like that?” he yelled, pulling me close. My clothes slapped wetly against his, and he dug his hands into my snaggled hair. “What the hell was that? If I move too fast, you tell me. You don’t run off.”
I frowned. I’d been yelled at before. And I’d been hugged, but not at the same time. Weird.
“And how did you get so far?” he asked, pointing the truck’s heat vents toward me and cranking up the thermostat. “What are you, a champion sprinter?”
“Well, you gave me a pretty good head start,” I told him.
“Yeah, I couldn’t get your truck started,” he mumbled. “And it’s hard to steer . . . and slow down. Your brakes are making really weird noises.”
“The clutch is kind of tricky,” I confessed as he pulled at the sleeves of my wet jacket and made me shrug out of it before I slipped the truck into gear. “I think Cooper and Sam rebuilt the transmission a few too many times.”
“Why not just get a new truck?” he asked.
“It was my dad’s,” I said as I pulled a careful U-turn and pointed the truck downhill toward Nick’s place. “He died when I was really little. I barely knew him. And I just like the idea of having something that used to be his.”
The rain was pouring now, sheeting down the window in rippling waves. We rarely had what you’d call heavy rainfall, so the roads were slick with a layer of newly rehydrated oil and dust. I could hardly see through the windshield for the rain flowing down the glass, but I could tell that the landscape was moving by faster than it should be. I tapped the brake, but the truck didn’t respond. It rolled along faster, building speed.
Nick cleared his throat. “OK, Maggie, I know you want to get home, but you need to slow down.”
I pushed the brake with more force. “I’m trying.”
“If you were trying, the truck would be going slower,” he insisted.
I pressed my foot down harder, but the truck kept coasting along. The tires squealed slightly as I rounded a corner. “Hey, Nick,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “Did you notice anything weird about the brakes on the way out here?”
He shook his head. “Besides the noise? They were a little sluggish, but it was uphill most of the way. I didn’t use them much.”
I grunted as the end of the truck bed swiped an outcropping of rock while I took a curve. Nick’s eyes went wide with alarm. “Nick, I need you to pull up the emergency brake. Hard. I’d do it, but I think I need to keep my hands on the wheel.”
Nick nodded and scooted toward me. As he wrapped his hands around the brake lever, I braced myself for the jolt of the wheels stopping.
“This isn’t bad,” Nick assured me as I eased around a minor curve. “I once drove a Jeep down the Yungas Road in Bolivia; it’s the most dangerous road in the world. I came around a corner, and there was a logging truck stalled out—”
“Would you please shut the fuck up and pull the fucking brake!” I yelled.
“I am pulling it!” he exclaimed, tugging the brake arm up. Nothing happened. We locked eyes. Nick’s gaze flashed toward the road. “Look, just anticipate the turns; we should slow down enough to come to a stop.”
“We’re heading downhill. We’re picking up speed! Did you get your PhD online?” I cried.
“Hey, don’t yell at me because you’re panicking!”
“I’m not panicking!” I yelled.
We came to a particularly nasty turn, almost forty-five degrees overlooking a deep ravine. My heart thumped in my throat the closer we rolled. I pumped the brake furiously, hoping for some last-minute Hail Mary solution. I tried to turn the wheel, but the curve was just too sharp. “Hold on!” I shouted as he braced his arms against the dash.
The truck careened down the embankment, side-swiping trees and bouncing us back against the rear window separating the cab from the camper top attached to my truck bed. The truck pitched left, and my head cracked against the driver’s-side window. I closed my eyes, letting the pitch and roll of the cab flop me around like a rag doll as I concentrated on not throwing up. We finally slid into a bank of trees and skidded to a stop.
“Shit! Shit! Shitshitshitshit!” I yelled, my eyes squeezed shut.
A few moments later, careful fingers pried my fingers loose from their death grip on the steering wheel.
“Maggie, the truck’s stopped. You can stop murdering the English language now,” Nick said. He gently turned my head to examine the rather impressive swelling on my temple. I winced and hissed as his fingertips brushed the throbbing skin.
The passenger side was wedged against a pair of trees at the bottom of a ravine. Frankly, it was a miracle the truck hadn’t flipped. God bless solid, pre-plastic American auto engineering.
“Are you OK?” I asked, gripping his wrists. “How’s your ass?”
His lips quirked. “I’m fine. I’m worried about you.”
“And I’m worried about your ass,” I told him, a sudden wave of dizziness washing over me. “I’m really sorry about that,” I said, tracing my hand along his cheek. I smiled, feeling sort of loopy. “You have such a nice ass.”
He chuckled as I leaned my forehead against his. “You cracked your head pretty good, huh?”
I nodded, cringing at the pain that spiraled out of that small motion. I dug into my pocket for my newly recharged cell phone. I had a healthy battery but no bars. “No cell-phone reception out here. You?”
“I paid an obscene amount of money for 3G network coverage.” He shook his head.
I carefully stuck my head out through the shattered window, staring up the steep rock and earth wall that separated us from the road. Nick could barely walk. There was no way I was making it up that incline in human form in this rain. I considered knocking him out and phasing so I could run for help. But knocking someone unconscious sort of made rescue efforts irrelevant. Plus, the last time I ran with a concussion, I woke up in Juneau, naked in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, with no clue what day it was. I could forget where I was running, and he could end up stuck out there for who knew how long.
“We’re not getting out of here anytime soon,” I told him.
“So, what, we wait for morning or for the weather to break?” he asked, looking back into the truck bed.
I nodded. “Whichever comes first. There’s some blankets and stuff in the back. We’re going to need to cover the window. It’s still fall, technically, but it’s going to get cold tonight.”
I pushed the back window, which Sam and Cooper had custom-installed. It was just wide enough to shimmy through, though Nick was going to have some trouble with his injuries. I was glad that I’d recently cleaned out the truck bed. The camper top wouldn’t allow us to stand or move around much, but at least we had shelter from the wind and rain. I passed the blanket and some duct tape through to him and started putting together a pallet. I’d insisted that everyone in the valley keep emergency kits in their cars, for situations like this. But I’d been expecting something more along the lines of a blizzard or a zombie invasion, rather than failed brakes and an impromptu slumber party with my human crush.
I gnawed my lip and considered the situation. My truck was old, but it was well maintained. Samson took a look at it every few months, inspecting the rebuilt engine, the aging axles, and the brakes, which he’d replaced last winter. It didn’t make any sense for the brakes to crap out like that. Samson was goofy and lazy, but he was a solid mechanic. Also, as far as I knew, he didn’t want me dead. Of course, that might change after I went home and put a boot up his ass.
“Well, this is cozy,” Nick said wryly after struggling through the camper window. He pulled one of the blankets off the pallet and wrapped it around my shoulders. “Maybe I should have you redecorate Susie’s place for me.”
“Funny,” I muttered.
“I know this is going to sound like a line, but I think we need to get you out of those wet clothes,” he said, pulling my boots off. I pushed his hands away and yanked them off myself. “It’s going to get cold in here, even with the blankets.”
“I have an extra set of sweats in here, just in case,” I told him, not bothering to add that they were there “just in case” I woke up naked in a strange place after a run, which was sort of an occupational hazard.
“I’ll turn around,” he said.
I arched my brows, then laughed as he dutifully turned his back and covered his eyes.
When you spend so much time around people who pay no attention to nudity, you forget niceties like modesty. It was sort of strange, but a refreshing change from guys who paid no attention when my boobs were exposed to God and everybody. It was nice to have a little mystery about me . . . you know, beyond the furry issue.
I peeled the wet shirt over my head and slid into the warm, dry sweatshirt. It felt absolutely delicious against my skin. It took a bit of effort to fight my way out of the wet jeans, but it was worth it to pull on the dry sweatpants.
Now that the adrenaline was wearing off and I was seventy-five percent sure we weren’t going to die, I was suddenly so tired I felt as if I’d just run a marathon. I pulled my hair into a messy bun on top of my head. I wasn’t going to win any beauty contests, but I was comfortable and warm. I couldn’t want much else.
“You decent?” he asked.
“Depends on who you ask,” I retorted.
He turned, pulling the emergency bag open. “And for dinner, we have our choice of protein bars that taste like peanut butter or protein bars that taste like chocolate and dirt. Paired with a lovely domestic bottled water.”
“I think I’m going to go with the peanut butter,” I said, shuddering. “The chocolate and dirt one lives up to its reputation.”
“Excellent choice,” he said, tossing the packet to me.
I stripped off the foil and shoved most of the protein bar into my mouth. Between the run and keeping warm, my body was starved for calories. His eyes went wide, and I swallowed. I tended to forget my table manners when I was hungry.
“I eat when I’m nervous,” I told him.
“How’s your head?”