The map to you, p.1
The Map to You, page 1
They both had secrets that could drive people apart—or bring them together forever . . .
Keeping his inner demons at bay means Blake Malone has more than enough trouble on his plate. He doesn’t need any extra complications. But that’s exactly what he gets when, on his way to North Dakota, he leaves his truck unattended—and returns to find a beautiful woman sleeping in the front seat.
Opal Allen seems to have a knack for attracting trouble. Which is why she isn’t about to tell her new road trip companion the real reason she needs to hightail it out of town. But Blake has a way of seeing right through her, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. Now her biggest problem is figuring out how to resist their undeniable attraction. Because once this road trip is over, she plans on never seeing Blake again.
But the best adventures don’t go according to plan.
The Map to You
A Least Likely Romance
USA TODAY Bestselling Author
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Copyright © 2017 by Lindy Zart
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First Electronic Edition: November 2017
First Print Edition: November 2017
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I miss your music. Your jokes and the sound of your laughter. I want you to know I’m okay. I’d like to sit with you one more time, and hug you without it having to be in a dream, or a memory.
Last I checked, I was traveling alone.
I walk to my grandfather’s truck, a 1987 Ford F-series pickup in blue and white, and blink at the small form curled up on the seat.
Under the darkened dome of the sky, it’s hard to discern anything other than the size of the thing inside my truck, and that it has dark hair. It could be a man, a woman—even a kid. I quickly scan the parking lot, searching for any accomplices to a premeditated crime involving yours truly.
It’s the end of August, and the days can be wicked humid and hot, but the same can’t be said for the nights. I have on a light jacket to help keep the chill off my skin. I glance into the cab of the truck. Small as this person is, they have to be feeling the cold.
The night is still and quiet, only two other vehicles taking up parking spaces of the 24-hour convenience store. It’s after midnight on a Wednesday. Most sane people are home and in bed. I focus on the stranger in my truck. Whatever they’re up to, it’s bound to be nefarious. I like my share of nefarious dealings, as long as I’m the one doing them.
Muttering to myself and craving a cigarette, I carefully set down the plastic bag of chips, beef jerky, and orange juice I purchased to curb the hunger gnawing at my gut. I rub the stubble along my jaw, head cocked, as I come to a decision. It’s an easy one—whoever they are, they can’t stay in my truck.
Hands out, palms down, I soundlessly skulk around the front of the truck and toward the passenger side. My eyes shift from side to side in pursuit of any possible friends of theirs hoping to make my night especially spectacular with a blunt object to the back of the head. I feel ridiculous, sure I look like the Pink Panther slinking around in the dark.
My boot kicks a piece of gravel and it pings against the side of the truck my mother secretly kept in a storage unit all these years for me. I didn’t even know the truck was still around until my brother Graham unknowingly drove it from North Dakota to Wisconsin my last week in the Cheesehead state. I just about cried when I saw it. Just about, but not quite—because crying would be bad for my image. My throat burned from keeping it in, though, and when Kennedy, Graham’s girlfriend, commented on the redness of my eyes, I told her it was a reaction to whatever perfume she’d doused herself in.
Smooth, that’s me.
I wince, hoping the rock didn’t do any damage to the truck. This is one of the last pieces I have of the man who never judged me in all the years he was alive. Good thing for my grandfather’s untarnished view of me that my life didn’t completely fall to shit until after he died.
A head snaps up, and large, dark eyes slam into mine. I freeze against the unexpected jolt of them. The woman appears youngish, her face pointy and elfin. Her features are interesting, like it couldn’t be decided whether to make her look exotic or plain. We study one another for one charged moment, and then whatever had her immobile collapses. Her mouth opens in a piercing scream, and she scrambles to the middle of the cab. I jerk back, her reaction startling me.
“What the hell kind of a person creeps up on someone like that?” she accuses. Her voice is breathless, but there is an undertone of huskiness that brings my nerve endings to attention.
I open my mouth with the intention of apologizing, and then realize what I’m about to do. Scowl taking over my features, I grip the door handle and pull. She scoots across the seat with her back to the driver’s side door and, wide-eyed, looks back at me.
“Get out…of my truck,” I say slowly, setting my palms on the worn and torn vinyl upholstery to lean forward menacingly.
“You left the doors unlocked. And the windows down,” she adds, like that makes it acceptable for anyone to commandeer my vehicle.
I nod. “A clear welcome to all vagrants far and wide.”
“I’m not a vagrant,” she insists, tightening her arms around herself.
Something in her tone gives me pause, and I sweep my gaze over her. Her hair looks dark brown or black and is styled choppily around her face and jaw. The woman’s chin juts forward as our eyes connect, silently rebellious. There are dark splotches beneath her eyes and she’s holding herself protectively. Under the cropped jean jacket and jeans, her figure appears slight. She reminds me of a terrier, tiny and fierce with more boldness than common sense.
“Who are you and what are you doing in my truck?”
“I was contemplating hotwiring it and selling it, but then I wondered if it would actually start.”
“It starts.” Usually.
When she doesn’t answer the first question, I lambaste her with my eyes, refusing to be the first to break the stare.
“Conversations generally work best when you talk,” I say shortly.
Sighing, the woman regards me as she sits up straighter. “I fell asleep,” she mumbles, her mouth twisting at the confession.
I squint my eyes as I straighten, peering over the hood of the truck. We appear to be alone, but that doesn’t make me relax any. Appearances are commonly shit and not to be trusted.
My shoulders pop as I rotate them, and I level my gaze once more on the stranger. “I want to make sure I’m understanding this right—you picked a random truck in a gas station parking lot to fall asleep in?”
“No.” She picks at the hem of her jacket, a shiver going through her small frame. “I watched you go into the store.” Almond-shaped eyes latch onto me. “You seemed harmless enough.”
I lock my fingers behind my head and look at the star-strewn sky. This is an insanity I cannot be a part of. An urge to laugh hits me and I repress it, knowing it won’t sound in any way normal. I don’t need this right now. I have enough problems without this, whatever this is.
I stride around the truck and grasp the door handle at the same time she propels herself in the other direction. My blood ignites, and with a stiff jaw, I reach into the truck, grab her tiny wrist, and pull, my eyes refusing to let go of hers. Anger flashes through her eyes and contorts her features. She doesn’t look quite as innocent now. She looks vicious, and mighty—for a munchkin. Calling me an assortment of colorful names, she fights to get free of my grip, and I only tighten it, swinging her down from the cab. She lands awkwardly, stumbling into me, and then she savagely kicks my shin with a booted foot. I grunt and twist her around, her back to my front, and barricade her with my arms.
“Let go of me!”
She squirms against my shackled arms, her head barely reaching my chest. Her body is a compact heat source, singeing me where it connects with mine. She’s tiny, proportioned more to that of a teenager than a young woman. There’s too little of her, and yet her rambunctious attitude seems to make up for it. I put my mouth close to her ear and feel the pulse pick up in her wrist I hold. The pose would be erotic, if not for the hellion in my arms.
“Start talking. Now. Or the police get involved.” I am loath to involve law enforcement in anything that pertains to me, but she doesn’t know that.
Her body goes limp, tremors having their way with her form. “Please, no. No cops,” she beseeches, her small voice twinging my conscience.
Has she been in trouble with the law? Has her past been so twisted with corruption, like mine, that she sees any authority figure as an enemy?
With a frustrated growl, I release her.
She spins around, a triumphant look on her face, and dives to the left. I move with her, blocking her. Her eyes narrow as she calculates her next move. She feints right and goes left again, but I am right there with her. She’s fast and sneaky, but I am a professional at games, no matter that I retired from them years ago. There was a time when I spent most of my days either getting in trouble or trying to get out of it.
One word leaves me and it is coated with warning. “Talk.”
The woman’s shoulders curve inward and the bravado drops from her face, making her look young and scared. “People are after me,” she whispers.
Interesting. I cross my arms and widen my stance. “Who?”
“I don’t know who.” She drops her eyes and resumes her pathetic look, hands clasped before her. “They’ve been following me for days and…when I saw that your truck was unlocked, and unattended”—I frown as her voice loses its softness and turns sardonic—“I took cover until they left. But they’ll be back. I know they will.”
She grabs the front of my jacket and yanks me forward, her eyes enormous and pleading. She is stronger than I would have guessed. “Please, wherever you’re going, please take me with you. Before they come back for me. Who knows what they plan on doing with me, but I’m sure it’s something bad.”
“You’ve been outwitting and outrunning unknown assailants for days?”
“Yes.” She nods vehemently.
Her hands drop from my jacket and she steps back. “What?”
I gesture around the mostly barren parking lot. “Where’s your mode of transportation? How exactly are they following you? How many are there? What do they look like? And if they’re so gung ho on apprehending you, what made them take off?”
“I don’t—I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve been too busy trying to stay alive.” As if knowing I don’t believe a word she’s saying, her eyebrows lower, and she hides her eyes from mine.
The whole situation is mad, and I’d have to be mad as well to even contemplate having her as a travel mate. And yet…free entertainment. Because if she is nothing else, she is certainly amusing. Something niggles at my brain. Something annoying. Knowing it’s my conscience, I could ignore it, or I could face it. There is a reason she is so desperate to leave with me, and I’m pretty sure that at some future time I’ll wonder what I was thinking to agree to this, but…
“I’m going to North Dakota,” I tell her slowly, never once looking from her.
Hope brightens her eyes. “North Dakota sounds great. Perfect, really. Exactly where I was hoping to go.”
I step closer, and she steps back. We do this until her back is flush with the truck box and there is no escape. Her throat bobs as she swallows, and though trepidation runs across her face, she doesn’t look away. I set a hand on either side of her, trapping her within my arms as the cool metal of the truck box freezes my palms.
“I have an idea who you are,” I say conversationally. I let those words sink in; I watch a million thoughts race across her features.
“Y-you do?” she squeaks.
I focus on her lips. They glisten under the light of the moon, soft and inviting. “How old are you?” I ask absently, my voice a low hum.
“How old are you?” she shoots back.
“Twenty-six. What’s your name?”
She fidgets, and as if realizing she is, goes still. The pulse at the base of her neck flutters like it wants to fly away. “Piper.”
But I’ll let her have it, for now.
“Piper,” I say softly, bringing my face dangerously close to hers. “You…are a liar.”
She swallows, her lips parting. The motion is done without thought, a nervous gesture, and yet I fight to straighten from her, to put space between us. To step back. It’s either that or kiss her. I can do without knowing what the lips of a con artist taste like.
“Let’s go.” My tone is rough, strained with unwanted attraction for a duplicitous stranger.
She doesn’t move from the side of the truck, and with a hand braced on the door, I turn to her. “Are you coming or not?”
“But you…you said…”
“That you’re a liar? Yes. I recall. It wasn’t that long ago.”
“But…” She hesitantly moves away from the truck.
“You went to great lengths to procure a ride with me.” I look her up and down, wondering what secrets she has trapped inside that imaginative brain. “Who am I to deny a damsel in distress?”
Her eyes narrow at my tone as she angles her body toward the passenger’s side of the truck. She knows the kind of person she is, but she has no idea who I am. The look she shoots me before she gets in the Ford tells me she’s having second thoughts. I wonder if I should tell her to get out whil
* * *
He’s an alternative rock boy. That I am not surprised by. He’s got the look—dark unkempt hair, derisive cast to his sharp features. The black bomber jacket with the upturned collar, the straight-legged jeans covering black boots. I bet beneath that jacket he has on a shirt sporting a band name. His vibe screams rebel and bad boy and loner and any other thing most mothers warn their daughters against. My fingernails dig into my palms, wondering if my mom would have done the same.
All he needs is a cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth and he could be the quintessential man a woman’s heart should always avoid. I’ve met his kind before. I’ve even dated them. Never for long, and never without wishing I hadn’t.
This guy looks and smells like trouble. And his voice—it isn’t smooth or all that appealing. In fact, it sounds like broken glass. Grating and sharp. Nothing about him cries “love of my life” material. Which is just as well. I don’t need trouble right now.
“Why are you going to North Dakota?” I ask to fill the silence. My eyes want to close and I slide my fingers under the crisp denim fabric of my jacket and pinch the skin near my wrist. Hard. The resulting throb keeps my brain occupied and slumber out of reach.
A good portion of me thinks I will end up regretting my insistence on pairing up with the sullen man with the easily accessible truck. It was a spontaneous decision, brought on by lack of sleep, hunger, and being ditched by my ride when I slapped a roving hand from my thigh. I saw the North Dakota license plates on his ancient truck, and I figured that was a good sign he was heading in that direction. North Dakota is one state over from Montana—my destination.
“What’s your real name?” he counters.
“Jackie,” I fib, turning my head to look out the passenger window. Shadows and indecipherable shapes meet my eyes.
“We should make it to North Dakota in a day or two, depending on how far I can get before needing sleep,” he comments, after a prolonged pause in which he silently called me a liar. Again.
by Lindy Zart have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes