Chapter Eleven

They spent the next couple hours in silence, Richard expertly flicking his fly rod as his glances found Denise intently focused on her own inexperienced casting motions. Finally, he had found her and was caught, captivated. He’d actually seen her.

When she had hooked that first fish, her face had brightened, amplifying the sunshine glinting off the crystal waters. She’d bob her head, looking from rod to water, excited and absorbed, until the fish broke loose, but even then serenity touched her features. He considered his options, what he could do to make her stay that way and the success he’d feel in having her accomplish it through him.

As time passed, she let her coppery tresses free and they rode breezes around her face. He hadn’t completely fathomed the tension clutching him whenever near her, but he knew he wanted something from her that would not be easy for her to give. Hell, he wanted more than that, finding it a struggle not to think about the soft, curved figure beneath the snug jeans and tank top once she had wrapped her flannel around her hips. How nice she would fit against him. He could finally grasp the cool, fresh mountain breeze if only he held her, scent of wild raspberries….

Catching the slant in his thoughts, he slammed on the brakes, rewound to hit his point home. Getting her out here had worked–she had opened up to the country if not to him, relaxed and was momentarily free. He saw that much without involving plans parts of his body were making. If he figured her out that much, how she sought distraction from her troubles, then he couldn’t be far off in guessing a man was responsible for the tightness in her posture, her defense tactics, and her lying. His appearance had been what made her falter in bumming a ride in the first place.

What had happened? He couldn’t fix it until he knew, couldn’t get closer to her until he fixed it, and he couldn’t know until she felt ready to be honest with him. It was too soon, asking too much. He hoped she recognized what he’d given her before dropping her off at her next stop, to ride away from him but never losing what chased her.

“The water’s probably too warm to catch anything more,” he declared as he approached her.

She gasped and faltered back from the shoreline. Obviously, she had forgotten people existed on this planet but then she nodded, her back straightening, shoulders taking on the weight of the world, alone.

He sighed and shook his head. It didn’t have to be that way, but he’d pushed enough. He reached for her pole and said, “I guess I better keep to my promise, get you to that rest area.”

“’Guess so.” She stared off beyond his side, her doe eyes lowered as it burned him not to suggest an alternative. He couldn’t fight her battle unarmed. She had to give him something. He imagined himself snatching away her struggle, whatever it was, and flinging it far downstream. If only it was that easy, he thought.

“Denise …” he began, hesitated as he wondered if she’d even given him her real name. She must have seen the doubt in his expression, and he’d lost his chance. She went around him, headed toward the passenger side of his truck.

As she climbed up, he loaded the poles into the bed, then got behind the wheel and started the truck. The engine gave more kickback than she had.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“You kidnapped me,” she said. A slight smile played at her soft lips.

Her response went well with her line of defense except he couldn’t appreciate it as she was deflecting, again. “Is it going to hurt that much just to tell me?”

“Is it going to fix anything if I did?”

“It might.” What was he up against here? “If you weren’t afraid of trying.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Picking at wounds won’t help them heal,” she challenged.

“I think yours needs to be reopened, scrubbed down, and given fresh dressings.”

“Are you saying I’m infected?”

“Well you sure look inflamed to me.”

“Who asked you?” she fired.

“I did.”

At this point they were nose to nose, staring each other down, the green splashed in her brown eyes like spawning fish. His blood was pumping and her chest rose and fell rapidly. She was as exhilarated as he.

“Well … stay out.” But the energy was already leaving her eyes.

“Will that do you any good?” he tried again, prodding with all he possessed.

“At least you’ll stop hurting me.” Doe eyes, wide and wounded, and his hand itched to cup her cheek, comfort her, and apologize for the pain even knowing it wouldn’t go away if she kept behaving this way. She had started to pull away, her back straightening as she repositioned in her seat, her gaze left his, looking forward. Was it him, merely him, hurting her?

Thinking not but chaffing raw under her accusation, he shifted the truck into gear, brought it around, and dove back into the forest. She clutched the high handle as the trip out rattled them. The pine scent managed to infiltrate the cab and she had closed her eyes, inhaled deeply. There was the sweetness of sap. A smile flitted across her face.

She jerked up and looked across the cab to him but didn’t say anything. Her lips parted, and she breathed through her mouth. He was forced to suppose he probably even smelled like the man who had wounded her.

Why wasn’t she being cherished? He would, all he wanted, he thought as he merged the truck onto the highway. Before she had pulled away, when he had called her inflamed, he could have stopped pressing; brought her closer until they shared more than the air they breathed, shared warmth in human contact, kissing her soft mouth.

Forcing out a ragged sigh, he rammed a hand into his hair, mussing it more than combing it. The rest area came up too quickly. He pulled in and braked but didn’t reach for the shifter or parking brake; he waited.

The area was a very distant cry from Sven’s Comfort Inn. More like a truck stop with a half-lit neon sign. The outside green, metal trash bin had been stuffed to overflowing, and evidence of people attempting to top the hill of refuse lay around its base. The restrooms probably suffered the same neglect.

He checked on her as she hadn’t moved either, but then her eyes quickly alighted. She stepped down from the cab, and he put the truck into park. She turned back to him. He had his door open ready to come around and meet her.

“That won’t be necessary,” she said.

He stopped. The door remained open with his hand upon the handle.

A touch of rose tinged her cheeks. “I’ve been needing the facilities for some time. I’ll just say thank you.” She closed, opened her mouth and then closed it again. After thinking for a moment, she nodded. “I had a nice time,” she offered.

His reply was muted by her whipping around and marching straight toward the building, stepped through the portal for the women’s half of the rest area, and he knew she would not be coming out until he left. What would she do now? He wondered. Would she tent-up or hitch a ride from a stranger?

He chose to wait, make sure that if she chose a ride, that it was a safe one, maybe even get their license number. He’d wait a little while, find assurance she was safe. He couldn’t leave with less.

However, he did have to make it seem like he left. He started his truck and pulled down into gear, doubled back on the highway and opted for a clump of trees as a shield, pulling off the road and parking down into the ditch. Now he was just a broken down truck, hidden from the eyes of the rest area.

He didn’t see much that looked worthy of a ride for Denise. A semi had settled in for what looked like a few-hour-long siesta. A minivan would be loaded down with five children once the parents or guardians managed to round them up.

The crunch of rock signaled a vehicle pulling off the highway behind him. A grey and blue patrol car slowed, pulled up alongside Richard’s truck. Richard had unknowingly allowed space enough for another car to come between him and the interstate.

“Need any help?” the officer hollered out from his rolled down passenger window.

After recognizing the light brown hair, similar build, squared shoulders, Richard looked to the highway. “Hey, Frank. No thanks, it’s alright.” He patted the dashboard. “She just needs to cool off for a bit. I think my new thermostat turned defective.”

“Even a mechanic doesn’t get any breaks, huh?” He chuckled.

“Suppose not. How about you?”

“Well, I’m not here for a break that’s for sure.” He patted the dash. “And she’s been running pretty well of late. It’s just the city over the hill has us combing through the local rest areas.”

“For what?”

“Oh they think we might find that crazy in our neck of the woods.”

“The one causing those wrecks? I didn’t realize we were in the crosshairs.”

“We’ll see …” The CB radio shot out a muffled utterance. Frank picked up the handset and rattled off a short reply. He turned to Richard. “See you in town.”

Richard furrowed a brow when Frank’s car pulled out from the shoulder. Despite what Frank had told him, he’d heard what sounded like a serious clunk. He would have to take a look at Frank’s car when they both made it back.

He watched the trooper continue ahead to the rest area. Frank circled the entire lot before parking near the building. He stepped out and hoisted his belt, shifting leather packages holding radio, baton, and holster into a walking-friendly position.

Then Richard’s head rose to attention as Denise emerged. She hovered near the door until she confirmed his absence. Her brows knitted and he saw an empty space at her side. He should be there. Is that what she was thinking with that–

His reflections on her thoughts lost inspiration as she returned to the present. Her eyes widened as she observed Frank heading straight for her.

A conversation took place and before Richard knew it, Frank had turned her around and locked her wrists into those definitive metal circlets joined by a short chain.

When she was directed to turn back and walk to his car, her doe eyes were wide as they searched about, desperate. No, she wasn’t afraid of trying, he decided, because he’d never seen her look afraid like that before. Frank unshackled her before closing her up in the back seat.

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