Justin Skaggs is on the road to anywhere-as long as it's far from home-when fate throws a kindred spirit across his path.
Phoenix Montagno can't believe her luck when she runs into the hottie from the bar. He's the key to her getting everything she's always wanted, but she can't tell him that. Luckily, he's not interested in learning her story any more than he is in sharing his.
It's the perfect arrangement. No personal details. No talking at all. Just two strangers sharing the cab of a truck heading the direction they both need to go . . . until they decide to share a bed, too.
Contains mature themes.
Release date: March 1, 2016
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 368
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Listen to a sample
Justin paused at the sound of his name, his hand still on the door he’d just pushed open. As he moved into the bar and his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw the guy who’d greeted him before he’d even had a chance to clear the doorway.
Accepting that there was no way around it, Justin pulled out the barstool next to the man who’d known his family for decades. “Hey, Ray. How you been?”
“Eh, same old thing. Y’know how it is.” The older man, whose clothes reeked of cigarette smoke, hacked out a raspy cough before soothing it with a swallow of his beer.
“Yup.” Justin dipped his head, knowing one thing for certain—that Ray should stop smoking. He should probably stop drinking, too, if he wanted to see his grandkids grow up.
As for Ray’s statement about everything being the same old thing, Justin could definitely relate. That was exactly the problem in this town—things were always the same. The same people doing the same things in the same places.
In a community that small, there was no avoiding running into people he’d known for most of his life. Folks who knew him and his family’s past. Even when he wanted to get away from everyone for a little bit, especially when he needed to get away, it seemed he couldn’t.
All he’d wanted to do tonight was to be alone. His goal was to get shit-faced on some beer—or bourbon, if that’s what it took—and then sleep it off in the truck in peaceful oblivion for a few hours. He obviously needed to drive farther to find a watering hole where no one knew him. Possibly across state lines, and even that might not be far enough.
Justin raised one hand to get the bartender’s attention. “Bottle of light beer, please.”
His original plan to consume massive amounts of the hard stuff wasn’t going to play out, so he’d have a light one and then leave. One quick beer, a short good-bye, and then he’d get back in the truck and drive until he was so far away no one knew him.
“How’s your momma doing?” Ray’s tone was imbued with the same undercurrent of sympathy Justin had gotten used to hearing over the past two years.
“Good. Thanks.” Justin hated the question he seemed to be asked everywhere he went. What could he say to answer it?
Certainly not the truth—that his mother, a formerly vibrant woman, was now broken. A complete and utter mess.
His mother was as good as a woman who’d lost both her husband and her oldest son in the span of less than a decade could be.
Both men had been taken way too young, his father ten years ago by a massive coronary and his brother more recently by war.
Some days she didn’t get out of bed. Justin would come home from a full day of work at the Double L Ranch and find her in the same pajamas she’d been wearing when he’d left that morning. Still sitting in the same spot, either on the sofa in front of the television or, on really bad days, in her bed.
Other days, few and far between, she’d make a small attempt at normalcy. He’d come home and find her cleaning or cooking. But those days had become less and less frequent. More often than not, he’d be the one making dinner when he got home from the ranch at night.
As the man of the house—the only one left—Justin did his best to support his mother. He’d bring her food and coax her to eat when she didn’t want to. He’d give her space when she looked like she needed that or an ear to bend when that was what she needed most.
But some days, like today, Justin couldn’t deal with his own life, never mind his mother’s. Lord help him, because he felt like shit when he did it, but those were the days he’d disappear. Fire up the engine in his brother’s old truck and drive.
As the bartender delivered the beer Justin had ordered, the door swung open, letting the light of the afternoon inside the sanctuary-like darkness of the bar.
Justin raised the bottle to his lips and drew in a long swallow of the icy-cold brew. It slid down his throat, washing away at least a little bit of his stress. If Ray remained quiet, and the bartender kept the cold ones coming, maybe he could stay and hang here for a bit.
“Hey, is that Jeremy’s truck I saw parked outside?” The newcomer’s statement was like nails on a chalkboard, erasing whatever calm Justin had managed to achieve.
“You driving Jeremy’s truck?” Ray asked Justin.
Justin glanced from the guy who’d just entered—Rod, the old-timer who owned the lumberyard—to Ray.
“I like to run it once in a while.” He downed another two gulps of beer, bringing the bottle closer to empty and the time nearer the moment he could leave.
Rod pulled out the barstool next to Justin. With him on one side and Ray on the other, Justin was penned in. Trapped in polite conversation when all he wanted was to be an antisocial bastard.
“If you’re ever looking to sell it, give me a call. I always did like that truck.” Ray’s offer was the last thing Justin could take.
Jaw clenched, Justin nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Jeremy was dead. His truck was one of the last things left on Earth that had mattered to him. He’d loved that damned truck. Justin couldn’t sell it any more than he could bring himself to take it over and drive it as his, full-time.
Didn’t they understand that?
He said he drove it to keep the engine in shape, but the truth was, Justin got in it when he wanted to feel close to his brother. And, truth be told, sometimes when he wished he could chuck it all and join his brother, wherever that might be. Even after going to church his entire life, he wasn’t so convinced Heaven existed. At least not exactly in the way the preacher said it did.
One more gulp and the beer was empty. Justin stepped off the barstool and dug in his pocket for his wallet.
“You going?” Ray asked.
“Put that beer on my tab.” Rod directed the statement to the bartender.
“Thanks, but I got it.” Justin threw a bill on the bar. “See y’all later.”
He didn’t wait for change from the bill he’d tossed down or good-byes from the two men. Instead he yanked the door open and stepped out into the air. Only then—outside and away from the oppressive presence of people—did he feel like he could breathe again.
Shit. He wasn’t fit to be around any other living thing today. Maybe he should pick up a six-pack, drive to a field somewhere, sit in the truck, and drink it.
It was coming up on two years since Jeremy had died. Justin knew he’d have to be there for his mother that day. Hell, for the whole month probably. But now, with over a month left to go before that grim anniversary, he’d give himself this time to wallow in his grief.
Justin would let himself get angry, too. At God for letting a good man die too damn young. At the bastards who’d planted that roadside bomb. Even at Jeremy for reenlisting when he could have been home safe instead of in Afghanistan.
He slid into the driver’s seat and stared down at the set of keys in his hand. The truck key. The house key. The key to the padlock on the toolshed in the backyard. Some mysterious key he didn’t recognize. He was starting to wonder if even Jeremy had known what it opened....
Justin ran his thumb over the smooth metal of the ring. It was the same key ring Jeremy had carried in his pocket since the day he’d bought the truck. He’d carried it until the fake leather tag on it that read Chevy had worn and frayed around the edges. He’d carried it until he’d deployed that final time.
Knocking himself out of the daze he’d slipped into, Justin reached for the radio and hit the Power button. The same station that had been playing the last time Jeremy drove the truck before leaving blared to life.
He couldn’t bring himself to change the station, just like he couldn’t throw out the stack of fast-food napkins stuffed in the glove compartment or the two-year-old, half-empty tin of chew Jeremy had left in the console under the dash.
Justin turned the key in the ignition and the engine fired to life, rumbling beneath him. It would be better to run it more often than the half dozen or so times a year he did. That would keep the tires from getting flat spots, or worse, dry rot.
He should be pushing it, too. Taking longer trips at highway speeds to get the fluids circulating and blow the carbon out of the engine.
But there were the ghosts of too many memories in this truck. It hurt to drive it. Then again, it hurt when he didn’t drive it, so what the hell did it matter?
It would be good for both him and the truck to gun it. Open up the engine and let the mud fly.
Decision made, Justin threw the truck in Reverse, backed out of the space, and shifted into Drive.
He hit the accelerator, peeling out on the gravel of the lot as he turned onto the main road, heading in the direction of the interstate. He would hit the highway for a few miles . . . or fifty. Let the road heal him for a couple of hours.
Escaping, running away from his problems, was no way to deal with them. He knew that. Any psychologist would tell him that. The grief counselor his mother had agreed to go to a couple of times sure as hell would have.
Justin didn’t care what the experts said. He had to do what he had to do. If getting out of town or getting drunk—possibly both—was what he needed to do, then that’s what he was going to do. The experts be damned.
Getting away for a little while sounded real good. Finding himself a woman wouldn’t hurt either. A night of some mindless sex with a stranger would certainly be a distraction.
The problem was, he couldn’t stand his own company right now. He couldn’t imagine charming a woman into bed for the night in his current mood, so he might as well forget about that.
The old guys at the bar annoyed him. The radio announcer was grating on his nerves. His own thoughts were like salt rubbed in a wound. There wasn’t a chance in hell he could stand talking to a woman long enough to woo her....
It was safer for everyone if he behaved as antisocially as he felt and steered clear of all living things, so that’s exactly what he intended to do.
Phoenix Montagno looked at the devastation around her.
The havoc she’d wreaked in the space that was her apartment hadn’t produced the results she’d wanted. All she’d made was a big mess.
Papers covered every square inch of the carpet immediately surrounding her, and in spite of the chaos she’d created, the one piece of paper she needed wasn’t among any of the others.
She sighed. How could she lose her birth certificate?
When she’d moved out of her parents’ house, she’d made sure to take everything important. That had included her high school and college diplomas and her birth certificate.
Her diplomas were there, along with her income tax paperwork going back three years—as if she’d ever need that. She’d never be audited. Not on her minuscule teacher’s salary. The IRS had far bigger fish to go after.
She’d found her social security card, but what she’d been looking for—the birth certif icate—eluded her. She even remembered holding it in her hand and thinking how she’d better put it in a safe place, but she’d be damned if she could remember where that safe place was.
It should have been right there with everything else. Why wasn’t it?
Her parents were going to flip.
They’d offered to keep her important papers for her, locked up in their fireproof document safe. Instead Phoenix had insisted she would be responsible for holding on to her own things. She’d taken it, against their advice, and now she’d lost it.
Her father had always said she should be more organized. How everything important should be in labeled folders inside a locked, preferably fireproof filing cabinet.
That was his way, not hers. They were different people and they operated completely differently. Just as she hadn’t picked up even a little bit of her mother’s perfect housekeeping skills, her father’s organizational skills had also skipped her generation.
Phoenix huffed out a breath in frustration. How could she lose anything in this tiny apartment?
Her place wasn’t small in a bad way, just cozy and quaint. She loved the home she’d created and the space she’d chosen to create it in. From the big windows that offered a view of the park across the street to the location, close enough to town so she could walk to school and the coffee shop on nice days.
Most important of all, it was all hers.
Besides, it was what she could comfortably afford right now on her teacher’s salary—living in California wasn’t cheap—but the point was, her place was too damn small to lose something in it.
It was also too small for the big, not to mention ugly, metal filing cabinet her father would have her get if she’d listened to him—or if she admitted to him that she’d lost her birth certificate.
Phoenix liked her own filing system. She kept her important papers in a big floral hatbox on the floor in the corner of the room. What didn’t fit in there went into a few more decorative rectangular boxes. They were sold by stores for photo storage, but she used them for paperwork and was very proud of her decorating savvy in repurposing the items for her own unique use.
The most pressing things that required attention, such as bills that needed to be paid, went into the wicker basket on top of the hatbox. She had a system and it worked fine for her—usually.
She had to find that certificate, and not just because it was an important piece of identification. She needed it or there’d be no passport. Without a passport, there’d be no trip to Aruba during midwinter break with her friend Kim.
That was enough inspiration to find the birth certificate, but on top of her trip and her need for official ID for any number of reasons in the future, if she had to admit to her parents that she’d lost it, she’d never hear the end of it.
Sometimes it was painfully obvious she’d been adopted, and she wasn’t talking about her blond hair and blue eyes being the opposite of her father’s dark brown hair and eyes and her mother’s chestnut hair and green eyes.
When it came to her temperament, her interests, her easygoing nature, she couldn’t be more different. She loved her parents to death, but she was nothing like them.
The differences just proved the nature versus nurture debate. She could grow up with parents who had every aspect of their lives planned, organized, and compartmentalized, but somewhere deep in her DNA she carried the genes that made her the opposite of the couple who had raised her.
Usually being a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of girl worked for her. Not today.
This was too much to deal with alone. She needed backup.
Crawling toward her phone, on the floor just past the mess, Phoenix stretched and grabbed the cell before flopping back onto her butt amid the explosion of papers.
Phoenix dialed the number and waited for Kim to pick up.
Bracing for her friend’s displeasure, Phoenix drew in a breath. “We have a problem.”
“What kind of a problem?” The wariness was clear in Kim’s tone.
There was no way around it. She had to ’fess up. “I can’t find my birth certificate.”
“Um, okay. And that’s a problem because . . . ?”
“I need it to get a passport so I can go with you to Aruba. That’s why.”
“You don’t have a passport?” Her friend sounded shocked.
“No, I don’t have a passport. I’ve barely traveled outside of California, never mind leaving the country to go anywhere I needed a passport.” Phoenix sighed.
Kim was missing the point. Her lack of a passport wasn’t as big a problem as her current lack of the proper identification she needed to get a passport.
“Don’t worry about it. You have plenty of time to get a passport. We’re not going away for months.”
“But I read it can take months to get a passport. And that’s not the problem anyway. Didn’t you hear me? The problem is that to apply for a passport I need my birth certificate, which I can’t find. What do I do about my birth certificate?” Phoenix was ready to scream as her frustration mounted.
How could Kim, whom Phoenix knew was an intelligent woman, not understand the enormity of the situation?
“Oh, well, that’s easy. You just have to send away for a duplicate birth certificate.”
“Wait, I can do that?”
Her heart leaped. If what Kim said was true, it would solve everything.
“Yes. Of course you can, silly. Seriously, you think they expect people to be able to hang on to one little piece of paper from birth until death? That’s crazy. Did you think you were the only person in the country ever to lose their birth certificate?”
“No. I guess not.” That concept made Phoenix feel moderately better about the whole situation. Could it really be that easy? It was hard to believe. “You’re sure I can just get a new one?”
“Sure. My mother lost my brother’s. When he got old enough to drive and needed it to get his permit, she just had to apply for a duplicate in the county where he was born. It came in the mail like a week or two later.”
“Wow.” She could do this. Fix her mess without her parents ever knowing. “Wait. I’m not sure what county I was born in. I only know my parents adopted me in Arizona.”
“Just ask your parents.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Will they care we’re going to Aruba? Aren’t you going to tell them? How are you going to explain your tan?”
“I’m not trying to hide the trip. I’m trying to hide the fact that I lost my birth certificate. My father thinks I’m scatterbrained as it is, and I doubt my mother has ever lost a thing in her life. I’ll have to try to get out of them where I was born somehow. . . .”
“Think about it.”
“About what?” She was in no mood for Kim’s guessing games.
Phoenix frowned, not understanding what Kim was hinting at and wishing she’d just come out and say it. “What about my name? A Phoenix is a mythical bird.”
“And it’s also the largest city in Arizona, the state where you were adopted. And it’s in . . . hang on a second . . . Maricopa County. At least it is according to the search I just did online.”
“You think that’s where I was born? Phoenix, Arizona?”
“I think the odds are pretty good. If you really don’t want to ask them, I’d try applying for the duplicate certificate in Maricopa County and see what happens. The worst they can do is say you weren’t born there.”
“Hmm.” It was definitely something to think about. And if it kept her from having to admit her mistake to her parents, it would be worth the gamble. “You might actually have a good idea.”
Kim laughed. “Thanks for sounding so surprised by that.”
“Aw, relax. You know I love you.” In fact, thanks to Kim’s idea, Phoenix was feeling lighter than she had all day. “But I gotta go.”
“My parents’ house. I’ll call you later.” Phoenix figured before she went to the trouble of wasting the time applying for the duplicate in possibly the wrong county, it couldn’t hurt to do some recon.
Casually bringing up the subject of her name and seeing if her mother was just really into mythology, or if Kim was right and she’d been born in Phoenix, could save her weeks of time and needless paperwork.
Fingers crossed, she staunchly ignored the mess she was abandoning for now and grabbed her car keys.
Phoenix pulled her used but beloved Volkswagen Bug along the curb in front of her parents’ yard.
She cut the engine and glanced at the house where she’d lived the first twenty-three years of her life. In fact, this had been her home from the day they’d brought her here from Arizona right up until a couple of years ago.
That’s when, armed with her degree in education and a burning desire to prove she could make it on her own, she’d gotten a teaching job, saved what she needed for her security deposit and first month’s rent, and moved out to her own place.
Her father’s car wasn’t in the driveway. He’d be back from work shortly, but her mother would be home.
Breathing in, she prepared for the mission ahead of her.
It should be easy enough for Phoenix to get her parents to confirm where she’d been born. Once she’d done that, she could request a duplicate birth certificate, get her passport, and no one would be the wiser about the little mishap with the original paperwork.
If she could get her mother to confirm Kim was right that she’d been born in Maricopa County, that duplicate certificate could be winging its way to her in mere weeks.
She hated lying to her parents, but this wasn’t exactly lying. It was really more like selectively withholding information. She might have been irresponsible in losing her birth certificate in the first place, but she was handling replacing it, and that proved she was responsible after all.
Good thing the kids she taught couldn’t see her now. This deception, and her pretty weak justification of it, wouldn’t set a very good example for her students. The impressionable youth she’d been tasked to educate by the State of California would never know she was both disorganized and deceitful.
With her purse hooked over one shoulder and her guilt resting heavily on both, she let herself into the house.
Once inside, she called out, “Hey, Mom. I’m here.”
“I’m in the kitchen, sweetheart.” The response came from the back of the house.
Phoenix walked in the direction her mother’s voice had come from. She found her standing over the stove in front of a large pot.
The enticing aroma that filled the room had her mouth watering. “Mmm. That smells good.”
“Just stuffed peppers. Nothing special.” Her mother waved off the compliment. Wiping her hands on a dish towel, she turned away from the stove to face Phoenix. “I didn’t know you were coming over.”
“I, uh, didn’t know either. I was out . . .
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