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Blocking out the incessant nagging from the other side of the front seat, Max checked his watch and shook his head in disbelief. Nine hours. He’d been with Marcie for all of nine hours and already he was beginning to wonder if he’d survive the next nine weeks.

“Look, Daddy! Fort Apache. They’ve got real Indian stuff! Can we stop, Daddy? Daddy, please?”

“No, Marcie.” He was doing his best to keep his tone calm.

“But they’ve got cherry cider. Doesn’t that sound good, Daddy? Cherry cider? And you can buy me that Indian bracelet you promised—”

“I promised?” That one almost got his goat. “Marcella Carmody, I promised no such thing.”

“But you said—”

“Marcie, I’m trying to focus on the road.” And this time there was an edge to his tone. “We’re almost there.”

“You’ve been saying that for, like, miles and miles…”

“It’s true, nevertheless. So you can quit nagging, because we’re not stopping again until we get to your Aunt Meg’s house. Do you understand me?” 

“Yeah, yeah.” Marcie put on an exaggerated pout and flopped her head against the back of the seat, arms folded across her chest.

Max was grateful he was patient by nature and never given to a short temper. He warned himself to remember that. Marcie was going to test the full reserve of his patience—and then some.

In spite of his pronouncement, they hadn’t gone five miles before she was at it again. “Kachina Trading Post! Look, Daddy! They have a real live jackalope!”

“I don’t think so, Marcie. There’s no such thing as a jackalope.”

“There is. I’ve seen pictures. Come on, Daddy. Let’s stop. Please?”

“Marcella, I told you we’re not stopping again.” Max accelerated past the off-ramp to the Kachina Trading Post just to emphasize his point. As he did so, he asked himself what had made his daughter think he was made of money.

Almost as quickly, he realized the answer: he had. Until this morning when he picked her up at her mother’s home in Buena Park, he had been little more to Marcie than a provider of gifts and treats and an occasional trip to a theme park, zoo, or beach. He winced as he realized it might take some effort to persuade Marcella that he was something other than Santa Claus in disguise. He’d spent too many years teaching her that that was exactly what he was. He sighed. 

“Daddy, Daddy,” she started in again as they left the freeway in Holbrook and turned north toward Rainbow Rock.

“Marcella, I told you we are not going to stop again,” Max said firmly, then broke his word within minutes when his GPS didn’t recognize the address he gave it. He’d been so dependent on the contraption that he hadn’t taken good notes, so he couldn’t follow Meg’s final directions and had to pull over to make a phone call. He took a minute to call Nate while he was at it. Though he’d only been away from the business a couple of days, and today wasn’t even a normal workday since he wasn’t at work, he still needed to check in at the factory, just to be sure everything was all right.

By the time he clicked off the call, Marcie had prepared a lengthy speech about how unfair he was being. Max sighed and wiped perspiration from his brow as he turned the car in the direction of his sister’s home. It was going to be a long, hot summer.


* * * * *


“Rotten pile of junk!” Cretia kicked the right front tire just to let the car know what she thought of its latest stunt, leaving her stranded on the side of the road with two hungry kids. Predictably, she accomplished nothing but hurting her toes.

“I don’t think that’s going to help, Mother,” Lydia intoned from the open window of the front passenger seat.

Reminding herself the car problems were not her daughter’s fault, Cretia tried to keep the sarcasm out of her voice as she answered, “You’re right, sweetie.”

She popped the hood release and propped it open. Seconds later, her son joined her. “Maybe I can help?”

Cretia sighed. “I don’t know, honey. Maybe you can. I sure can’t figure out what’s going on. It’s almost like it’s running too rich—like it flooded itself out while running down the highway.” She paused, rubbing her chin in frustration. “I don’t even know if that’s possible.”

“Sounds like it’s probably the carburetor,” Danny said authoritatively.

Cretia nodded. “I expect you’re right, but I haven’t a clue what to do about it.”

“I’ll bet Dad could fix it.”

Cretia bit her lip rather than telling her son how she would feel about asking his father for help. “I’m sure he could,” she answered.

Lydia joined them then, just as a car passed, then pulled onto the right side of the highway and backed up, coming toward them. “Maybe the cavalry is coming to the rescue?” Lydia asked.

“Could be,” Cretia answered. “I could use the guys in white hats about now.”

“Aw, Mom,” Danny whined. “You know the cavalry guys wore blue hats.”

“It doesn’t matter whatever color hat, as long he knows what to do with this carburetor,” Cretia responded, and then turned gratefully to meet her would-be rescuer.


* * * * *


“I thought you said we weren’t going to stop,” Marcie nagged as Max pulled to the roadside and began backing up.

“I didn’t intend to, Marcie, but I can’t leave a woman stranded alone on the highway with a couple of kids—not if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“How do you know they’re not carjackers?”

“For heaven’s sake, Marcie. How do they know we’re not carjackers? Haven’t you ever helped somebody out just ‘cause it’s the right thing to do?”

“Are you kidding? In L.A.?”

“I stand corrected,” Max said, reminding himself he was talking to his thirteen-year-old daughter. “Don’t ever pull over to help anybody on the roads in L.A. If somebody needs help, use your cell phone and tell the cops.”

“So how come you can stop for somebody? And how come it’s okay here? Is this another one of your confused double standards, Dad? Because if it is—"

“Marcella!” He put enough power into it that Marcie stopped in mid-whine. Max set the emergency brake, then moderated his tone. “I’m going to see if I can help. You can stay in the car if you prefer, or you can come and talk to the kids. The girl looks about your age.” He slid his tool kit out from under the driver’s seat and opened the door.

“Whatever, Dad.” Marcie didn’t bother to hide her sarcasm, but she got out of the car and followed behind Max as he approached the woman.

“What seems to be the trouble?” he asked as he neared.

“We think it may be the carburetor,” the woman answered, turning as she spoke. It was a smooth motion, a natural, unselfconscious motion, and utterly feminine. Max, who until now had seen only a woman in need of help, was instantly aware of how attractive she was.

“Uh, maybe I can have a look.” He gave a reassuring smile and nod to the boy who hovered protectively at his mother’s side. As he stepped in beside the woman and was struck by the scent of her—rich, like honeysuckle and orange blossoms on a summer afternoon.

“I sure appreciate you stopping,” the woman said. She turned slightly toward him as she spoke, and her long, dark hair brushed his bare arm just below his shirt sleeve. His mouth went dry.

“Uh, no problem.” I’m as tongue-tied as a kid at a school dance! He struggled to remember that his daughter was behind him, striking up a conversation with the other girl. If he didn’t want to embarrass her, as well as himself, he’d better get his concentration centered on that carburetor—and fast. He leaned in closer, breathing deeply of hot engine odors.

“It seems to be running rich.” The woman’s voice was as warm and lush as her scent. Max thought he could get lost in it. You’ve been wrapped up in engines too long, he chided himself.

“Um, uh, yeah. I’ll check that.” He leaned forward, opening the carburetor.

For the next few minutes, Max fought to focus his attention on the task before him. He couldn’t remember when he’d ever been so instantly, intensely attracted to anyone. Every move she made distracted him; every word she spoke rang through him. It was only through long experience with more engines than he could count that he was able to spot the trouble and make the necessary adjustment.

“There, see if you can start ‘er up,” he said as he finished, not quite daring to meet the woman’s eyes. They were brown, as rich as dark, sweet chocolate and huge in her perfect oval face. Max, get a grip, he chided himself as the engine turned over. You’re losing it, man.

“You did it!” The woman gave him a stunning smile that made his knees wobble as she joined him again. “I really can’t thank you enough. Can I pay you for your trouble?” She reached for her wallet.

“Heavens, no!” Max couldn’t imagine taking money for being a good Samaritan, especially from a woman with two kids and a car that had seen better days. Besides her smile was payment enough. Heck, he ought to be paying her for letting him stand next to her, breathe her fragrance, touch her hair. “It’s just a temporary fix, unfortunately. You’ll have to take it in for service soon.”

“I’ll do that.” She nodded firmly. “Lydia, Danny, we’re going now.”

“Okay,” the boy answered. “Come on, Sis.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the girl responded, and it was only then that Max noticed how thick the two teens had become in such a short time. Marcie hadn’t whined in at least eight minutes. And the girls had been chatting animatedly the entire time he worked on the car.

“Oh, maybe you can return the favor.” He spoke to the woman as he closed the hood, taking his last jotted directions from his shirt pocket. “I’m supposed to turn right on Hummingbird Lane. Can you tell me how far ahead that is?”

“You passed it.” Her honeyed voice reached down into him, stirring emotions he hadn’t allowed in some time. She turned and pointed, and again he was struck by the easy way she moved. He also couldn’t help noticing her left hand—bare of jewelry, not even a wedding ring. “It’s the second turn on your left as you go back.”


“Oh, no. Thank you.” She beamed that high-voltage smile again, and Max thought he’d melt right on the spot, and not from the heat of the car or the Arizona sun bouncing off the pavement.

“No problem,” he murmured, then stepped out of the way as the little family loaded into the car. The woman waved as she pulled out and Max followed her with his eyes until she passed his car.

“She’s really nice, Daddy,” Marcie began.

“Uh-huh,” Max responded, thinking it odd that his daughter noticed, then tuning her out as he fell into step beside her, walking back toward their car.

“Her name’s Lydia Sherwood and she lives here. She gave me her address and phone. She said maybe we could get together later. What do you think, Dad? Would that be okay?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, uh-huh,” Max answered without really hearing. He was thinking what a shame it was that he hadn’t even gotten the woman’s name, or asked for her phone number.



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