“Come on, baby. You can do it.” Henley Elliott petted the dash of her twenty-year-old Grand Prix and coaxed it over the hill. She loved the old green car, her first and only since getting her driver’s license her senior year of high school, but it was on its last leg, and Henley knew it. As the car chugged over the peak, she took her foot off the gas and coasted down the other side. She enjoyed the speed, and the view as the valley opened.
She didn’t blame the car for wanting to quit. She was tired too. She was exhausted from constantly running, always looking over her shoulder, jumping from town to town. She hoped she’d gone far enough to be safe. She had almost convinced herself she would be, that it would be okay to settle for a few weeks in the next town. She’d done preliminary research online at a public-access computer in the library a few miles back. Though a small and rural community, the next town appeared metropolitan enough to provide lodging and work for a while. She had too much dust on her shoes and needed to call somewhere home. Trappers’ Cove was as good a place as any.
As gravity pulled the limping car downhill, farms gave way to a residential area that must’ve bordered the town proper. The houses, small and large alike, were old but well maintained; they showed tradition, respect, and pride. Henley glanced at her dashboard clock—it was noon on a Wednesday in late April. Kids were in school, but she imagined later they would play in their yards and ride bikes in the street. Young women chatted over fences as they hung laundry on clotheslines. It resembled a scene out of a television show from her childhood or the Lifetime movie she’d caught in a motel last month. Henley smiled. It was charming. She loved it.
Her smile faded as the road leveled, and her car slowed.
“No, no, no, baby, just a little bit farther,” she pled. She pulled the car off the side of the road in time for it to roll to a stop, shudder, cough, and die. She laid her forehead against the steering wheel and sighed. She didn’t have much money and feared the car needed massive repairs. It was a miracle her baby had made it this far. Trappers’ Cove would be home for the next little bit—once she got there. Her immediate problem was getting herself into the main part of town, followed closely by locating a mechanic who would tow the vehicle in with only the promise of payment. Then she’d worry about securing lodging and employment. Henley grabbed her purse and the backpack she kept filled with a couple days’ worth of necessities, locked the Pontiac loaded with the rest of her meager belongings, and began walking west.
Late April in Minnesota wasn’t exactly balmy, so she’d dressed that morning in jeans and a long-sleeved tee. Always practical, Henley had also wrapped a sweatshirt around her waist in case she needed it. But after a few miles of walking in the afternoon sun, she began to perspire. Her hair clung to the back of her neck, and her shirt grew clammy. With practiced skill, she pulled the long, brown locks into a sloppy bun and secured the knot with a scrunchie she kept on her wrist. She pushed the sleeves up to her elbows and nudged her sunglasses higher on the bridge of her nose.
She heard the truck approach. It came around the bend in the road and into view, its appearance as dilapidated as it sounded. She kept her gaze on the horizon, but the truck slowed to a stop parallel to her regardless. She expected to see a grizzly old farmer behind the wheel, his teeth yellowed from tobacco, dressed in flannel and suspenders. She knew it was a snobby presumption, but she’d seen more than a few on her travels, and they drove similar trucks. Instead, the man behind the wheel of the once-blue jalopy appeared to be close to forty, and he was pretty.
She doubted he’d appreciate the description; in her experience, not many men would, but it was the first word that came to Henley’s mind. His dark brown hair needed a cut, the ends curling around his ears and nape. He had blue eyes framed in thick, black lashes, a day’s worth of stubble, though it wasn’t yet three o’clock, and a cleft chin. His full bottom lip curved seductively as he smiled at her in an amused but condescending fashion that suggested women tended to stare and he thought it funny. She realized her mouth hung open and snapped it shut. She tucked her hands in her back pockets. She wasn’t sure what else to do with them, but the move thrust her ample breasts forward, and the pretty man’s smile widened exponentially.
Sweet baby Jesus, some things in life aren’t just.
“Hi. Can I help you?”
“My car broke down. About three, maybe three and a half miles back.” Okay, she sounded like a functional human being. “I’m going to Trappers’ Cove.”
“Well, you’re heading the right way.” His smile warmed. “I’d be glad to give you a lift. My name is Carter. Carter McAlister.”
“I’m okay walking, but thanks.”
“Sure. I get it. Not safe, accepting rides from strangers.” He shrugged, but his eyes twinkled. “It’s not really safe offering a ride to a stranger. These days.” He creased his forehead in an exaggerated expression of suspicion. “Are you a crazed ax murderer?”
Henley tilted her head and considered him. “Recently reformed. I’ve adopted my own version of AA’s twelve-step program. You’d probably be okay.”
She enjoyed the full, throaty sound of his surprised laughter. He didn’t speak like a Midwesterner, yet she couldn’t place his distinctive accent. Her pulse thrummed in a delicious rhythm she hadn’t felt in a long time. He was probably harmless. But a frisson of sexual awareness and “probably harmless” weren’t good enough reasons to override basic caution.
“For both our sakes, I think I’ll walk. But thanks again.”