Caught Up in the Touch Excerpt
What rock had that dude crawled out from under? He looked about a month overdue for a shower. It was a pity too, because under the grime he wasn’t an ogre. And he had his teeth. In fact, contrary to the stereotype, they were straight and white, but maybe it was an illusion of the dim bar and his dark, unkempt beard.
Jessica checked her watch. What the heck was she supposed to do in this mosquito-sized town for three hours? She refused to hang out at the Walmart. The heat exacerbated the headache that had been brewing since Birmingham.
The AC in her car had gone on the fritz, going in and out and not keeping things as chill as she liked. She loved her Audi, bought with her own money right out of business school. Sleek, black, expensive—at least it would have been if she hadn’t found a deal on the used car.
She tossed her bag on the passenger seat and climbed behind the wheel, the black leather, which looked buttery soft, cooking her like a hotcake on a griddle. The sweat trickling down the back of her neck would probably sizzle on the seat. She started the car, and an anemic burst of cool air chugged out of the vent. She turned the AC to max, but the air seemed to get warmer.
She reversed out of the parking spot, but before she could shift into drive, the temperature gauge blinked red and the car sputtered off. She turned the key over and back, pumping the gas pedal a few times. Nothing. An unwelcome helplessness set her knees into a tremble. She tried again. The battery buzzed, but the engine didn’t crank.
Her mind swirled until the tsking, logical side of her brain gained control. With the advent of smart phones, help was only a few clicks away. She would call AAA. They would send a truck and tow her car to the nearest garage. Then she could call a taxi. Simple. She sighed. As long as she had a plan, she could control the panic tramping around in her belly.
The car turned suffocating, the hot air constricting her lungs. She cracked the driver’s door, but the slight breeze coming off the tarry parking lot didn’t provide much relief. She riffled through her bag and came up with her phone. A tiny message in the corner of her screen sent ripples of unease through her stomach. No Service.
Were these people Quakers or something? No cell phone service? How did they communicate? Smoke signals? She shuddered a breath out of her dry mouth. Next logical step would be to head back inside and plead for help. A shadow crossed her body the same time a hard rap on the car made her bobble the phone to the floorboard.
“Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t mean to startle you. Are you having problems?” Mountain Man rested his forearms over the top of her door. His wrists were thick, his hands huge. The black under his fingernails was a workingman’s polish, and fresh red scratches zagged over the backs of his hands. As he repositioned the frayed blue-and-white baseball cap shadowing his eyes, the muscles along his forearm jumped. Dark brown hair flipped into almost curls around the edges.
The sunlight emphasized the thinness of his cotton shirt, one shoulder seam pulling apart across the broad expanse of his torso. His masculinity wove around her, at once disconcerting, yet her illogical, escalating panic eased.
“My car won’t start.” God, she hated the little girl, tinny sound of her voice. She cleared her throat and tried again, forcing a practiced steel into her words. “It’s been acting funny since I hit Birmingham.”
Mountain Man assessed the parking space she’d pulled out of and pushed the brim of his hat up a couple of inches with his forefinger. He squatted, and she slid out of the car to watch. He swiped his fingers through a puddle on the blacktop and rubbed. Then, he smelled his fingers. He turned toward her, still in a squat. “Looks like a coolant leak. Your AC been working?”
“Not well. And my temperature gauge flashed red just before the engine died.”
“Pop the hood, and let me take a gander.”
She pulled the lever on the dashboard and joined him at the front of the car “Are you a mechanic?”
“I’m a handyman, remember?” Again, he graced her with a grin before leaning over the engine compartment to jiggle hoses.
His scent filtered through the humidity to her. Not the stench of unwashed male she expected. Underlying the clean sweat and grease was a mystery that hooked her closer, until she was leaning over the hood too, close to his shoulder. The one with the ripping seam. She swallowed, her throat stiff as if a noose had tightened. Usually, panic accompanied the feeling, but not this time. This time a covey of birds beat their wings in her stomach.
He turned toward her, one hand on the edge of her raised hood. His eyes were brown, but not a plain brown or even a deep, intensive one, but an electric brown with sparks of gold. They danced over her face. His voice came out gruff, almost a whisper. “I understand your problem.”
She massaged the taut cords of her neck. For a heartbeat, she wondered if he referred to her or her car. Hope lilted her question. “You do?”
“Yep. One of your hoses is cracked. Probably due to the heat.”
She swayed on her heels and dropped her face, pretending to study the hulk of metal and plastic under her hood. No matter her degrees and successes, sometimes she was a complete and total idiot. Like now. This redneck mountain man could never understand her. Her hair swished forward, pieces sticking to her cheeks, hiding her face. “Can you fix it?”
He left her standing over the puzzle of her engine. He hadn’t even offered to call a tow truck. She felt oddly abandoned.
He stopped at an old blue-and-white Ford pickup truck parked in the shadow of a huge oak tree. Instead of climbing in and driving off with a grin and a wave, he flipped open a white, metal utility box in the truck bed. Clanging metal accompanied his search. He made a satisfied exclamation before trotting back toward her. “Duct tape. I always keep a roll handy. You mind hanging on to my hat?”
Without giving her a chance to answer, he pushed the ball cap into her hands, dropped to lay on the ground, and scooched under her car. Bent at the knees, his legs stuck out from under the bumper.
An embroidered flying falcon on the side of his cap had lost half of its thread, and she picked at the fraying brim. She shuffled her feet apart and flapped her blouse to catch the slight breeze ruffling her hair. The occasional rip of tape punctuated the unidentifiable song he hummed.
His shimmy reversed itself, and he emerged with new brown stains on the front of his shirt and a glossy smear along his cheekbone. He wiped his hands along the edge of his shirt, dirtying it further, and ran the back of his wrist over his forehead, wiping away a rivulet of sweat.
“You’ve got some grease on your cheek.” She pointed like a three-year-old.
He brought the edge of his T-shirt to his face and scrubbed it clean. At least she assumed that’s what he was doing, because she couldn’t tear her gaze away from his torso.
Michael, the boyfriend she’d broken up with six months ago, had kept his chest waxed to show off the contours he worked hard for in the gym. Mountain Man did not wax. Curly brownish hair led from his partially revealed pecs straight into the waistband of the gray boxer briefs peeking out of his jeans. And for all the time her ex-boyfriend had put in at the gym, he never built the solid, thick muscles of the man standing close enough to touch.
Mountain Man didn’t lift weights for an hour then push papers around a desk for the rest of the day. Maybe he chopped wood or moved bales of hay or broke horses. She’d watched a documentary on real-life working cowboys one sleepless night and had unusually erotic-laced dreams when she’d finally drifted off.
“Do you ride a horse?” Wait a holy-rolling second . . . had she said that aloud?