A fender bender at a snowy intersection brings together a young homeless woman and a carpenter.
Special note: Matt and Maggie make a key appearance in A Mermaid's Kiss, the first book in the Daughters of Arianne series.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
© Copyright 2009 - All Rights Reserved
A man’s forearm captured Maggie’s interest first. This man’s forearm, revealed by the rolled-up sleeve of a denim shirt, showed dark hairs woven like a soft web over tanned skin. She leaned over to glimpse his face in his rear view mirror. It didn’t work. He was one car up on her in the right lane, in a Dodge Ram pickup that gleamed with care and polished chrome, even through the gray sleet. The pickup put him up higher. All she could see was the reflection of the forearm in the driver’s side mirror.
Maggie straightened back up in her seat and winced as the rip in the upholstery pinched her bottom. She shifted and grimaced. The light changed, but only seven cars inched through the icy intersection before the light caught her again. Maggie hugged herself, tucking her fingers into her armpits, and blew a cloud of steam toward the broken heater. Sexy Forearm was now two cars up on her right. No bumper stickers, no personalized tag, and still nothing to see except that tempting arm. She imagined Mel Gibson blue eyes, maybe Mel’s jaw, too, coupled with a Sean Connery voice and Jean Claude Van Damme’s body. Now that vision could replace a car heater.
She imagined meeting him in a boardroom for a one-on-one closing of a corporate merger, equal players in a game of high stakes that had gone on for weeks. There had been attraction there, yes, but they had both fought it. Now, the battle almost over, his hand rose to stroke through her hair in a way that she knew would turn into a deep plunge. His fingers would reach through her hair, find the nape of her neck and pull her forward to meet his lips. She indulged the idea, felt the meeting of lips, the solid press of a broad chest.
No, that was good, but a few more moments of anticipation would be better. She rewound the image. She raised her hand, meeting his in mid-air, deflecting it, staying tough, hard-to-get…
A horn blared behind her. Maggie jumped out of her daydream and punched the gas.
The Dodge truck pulled into her lane. She hit the brakes hard, shrieked and wrenched the wheel, but it was too late. Chains weren’t as responsive as expensive snow tires. Maggie crashed headlong into the satin smooth side of the truck bed. Horns blared to her right and tires squealed as the motorists behind them tried to avoid the collision.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God…” Maggie fought with her door latch, kicked the base that always stuck and scrambled out when the door came open. The wind cut through her worn sweatshirt, but she barely felt it. She held onto the side of her car and skidded in her thin sneakers across the ice.
He opened his truck door as she let go of her car to turn toward him. She was watching her feet to keep her balance and Maggie had a momentary impression of a pair of worn brown cowboy boots splashing down into the water and the resulting wet jean cuffs. Then her stomach dropped with the weightless sensation of impending injury and her arms flailed out. He lunged forward and caught her at the rib cage. Instinctively, she grabbed for those great forearms, her fingers clutching into the rolled-up sleeves of the soft cotton shirt. Maggie came to a safe halt in a classic Fred and Ginger dip pose.
“Are you all right?” she blurted from a ninety degree angle with the ground.
Mel Gibson’s blue eyes rated supreme in any beating female heart, but suddenly golden flecked hazel eyes that looked more amused than mad had their points, too. Her victim? rescuer? had a wonderful face, all solid jaw and prominent cheekbones, and thick brown hair that fell over his forehead but shaved in neatly at his neck. His right eyebrow crooked with an old, whitish scar. The nose had the faint ridge on the downward slope that all big men seemed to have. He righted her and the top of her head just grazed his chin. Maggie inhaled a scent of coffee on his breath and Aqua Velva aftershave, which she had always liked. Her brother wore it.
She looked him over, ostensibly to check for blood or broken bones, and got an eyeful of broad chest and shoulders. Maggie went back to his face. She liked his face. “You look okay,” she said. “Do you feel okay?”
“I’m fine,” he assured her. “A tank would have to hit that truck to hurt me. How about you, though?” The voice matched the face and body, deep and timbred by thirty plus years and a southern birth. He looked over Maggie’s shoulder and she twisted to see her car. The hood resembled the mouth of a disgruntled cartoon character, and smoke poured out between its crumpled lips like a stream of invective. Maggie suppressed a moan of anguish. She needed the steadying hands he kept at her waist.“I’m fine,” she said faintly.
He pulled her back against him and spoke in her ear. “What?”
“I’ll be just fine,” she said louder, to compete with the shower noise of the vehicles growling around them. “Just fine.” She would have to move again. She could make friends again. She could do it all again. “Really. Just fine.”
“Do you have insurance?”
Maggie turned her attention back to him. He released her and stepped back a bit, but he kept one hand at her elbow. A gentleman. She nodded. “I have it.” At least, I hope I do.
“Are you sure?” He studied her intently. “If you don’t have it, I won’t call the cops. We can work something out.”
It should have embarrassed her that her poverty showed so clearly, but she couldn’t afford the luxury of embarrassment anymore. She could take him up on his offer, just get her car to the side of the road, see him on his way and then abandon it, but they’d find the car and she’d still have to run again. It wasn’t fair to him.
Maggie folded her arms around herself, a mental hug to keep herself together. That’s why the Lord tried to give everyone arms, so when nobody could hold you, you could hold yourself. “I have insurance,” she repeated. “There’s a pay phone at that station over there. I’ll go call the police.” She hoped he took the tremor in her voice as shaking from the cold. Her feet had become ice blocks, ankle deep in water and slush, so it wasn’t a total lie.
“I have a phone. Come here.” He pulled her a couple steps to the truck. “Here, grab on.”
He turned her toward him, set hands to her waist and lifted her easily into the driver’s seat. “Scoot over and we’ll call the police from in here. It’s too cold to be freezing our butts off.”
Maggie scooted and he got into the truck after her. The powerful heater warmed the truck cab, driving out the cold air in moments. He plucked his cell off its cradle on the dash, and while he talked to a dispatcher, she checked out her surroundings.
The greasy, mouth-watering odor of a burger and fries filled her nose and she located them first, in the recessed area in front of the gearshift. A portable coffee maker was mounted on the dash and plugged into the cigarette lighter. The half full ten-cup carafe steamed, leaving a moist spot on the windshield above it. His coffee cup rested in a wooden holder mounted next to the pot. The mug, with a wildlife design of wolves and pine trees, had to be a gift, which meant family, or wife. No one bought decorative mugs for themselves. No ring on his left hand, resting casually along the top of the steering wheel, so maybe a girlfriend. The body in the shirt and jeans was in great shape, and the shoulders were the kind that gave Maggie a mushy, fuzzy feeling inside. Those kind of looks came with a constant girlfriend.
A pen and pad scribbled with figures lay in the floorboard next to her feet with a small crate of CD’s and a flashlight. She turned and saw several shirts and one pair of slacks hung up on a rack behind the seats. A small sack of snacks and a cooler were wedged in next to a duffel bag. He didn’t look like a traveling salesman, but he was obviously on the road a lot, from the economy of the packing and its careful arrangement in the truck.
Maggie held her cold hands to the vent and the blasting heat warmed her fingers. It had dual blowing options, so she enjoyed the heat on her legs, though her wet toes refused to thaw.
She stole another, closer look at the man that belonged with the truck. His gray denim shirt was so worn at the collar that the two mother-of-pearl, silver-rimmed button snaps open at the neck pulled the placket down into a curve that showed a generous mat of hair beneath and the shadowed curve of a pectoral. The scar on his eyebrow interfered with its feathered line, which started brown at its thickest point, but lightened into a sandy finish, as if the sun had found them around the brim of a hat. The lines of his eyes were drawn symmetrically with the strands of the eyebrows, as though the sun had sculpted the face and hair like wind rippling over desert sand. His face had the tight, lean look of a face used to bearing the sun, and his cheekbone bore the faintest impression of a shaved sideburn. Maggie noted a tool belt hung behind her, with a pair of work gloves tucked in the empty pockets. The belt was a work of Southwestern art, complete with beading and fringe.
He beeped off the phone and remounted it. “Well –“ he stopped himself. “How about we do this? I’m Matt Bryson.” He extended a hand. Maggie tentatively took it and returned the handshake. His fingers were so strong they felt like a caress when they pulled away.
“I’m Maggie Adams.”
“Matt and Maggie. Should be easy for us to remember each other’s names.” He smiled. “Nice to meet you, Maggie. Looks like we’re going to get to know each other real well. The police dispatcher says there’s an accident on about every corner this afternoon. You know how it is down south. Weather gets bad, people forget how to drive.”
Maggie looked away. Matt waved a hand.
“I didn’t mean you. I meant all those other idiots out there.” She bit back a smile and his eyes glinted with humor. “Anyway, it’ll be awhile before they can get somebody out to help us. She said we can sit tight where we are or move to the side of the road, if the cars can move. I’m betting yours can’t, so we’ll just sit tight.”
“I’ll go wait in my car, then,” Maggie said, reaching for the passenger door latch. “No reason you should have to—“
A horn blared. He reached over her and shut the door, his fingers covering hers. Maggie jerked back defensively, both at the touch and the proximity of his body.
“Hey,” he backed off, lifting his hands. “It’s all right. I didn’t mean to startle you. I just don’t want you to get hit. Why not stay here? It’s warmer. We might as well keep each other company. Plus,” he lifted a brow, “I want to know why you motioned me to go ahead of you and then plowed into me like a battering ram.”
“What?” Her voice squeaked a little, making it two syllables. Don’t show fear. You’re in the middle of traffic. You can get out of here if you need to, no matter how big and strong he is.
He turned slightly, crooking his knee upon the seat, and stretched his arm along the back as he rested his other on the steering wheel. “You motioned me to go ahead,” he lifted his hand above him, demonstrating. “And then, when I pulled forward, you hit the gas.”
“Oh.” The memory came back, only this time the man in the fantasy had a face. Maggie blushed. She had not done that in awhile. She hoped he would think it was the warmth in the truck.
“You look like you’re freezing.” He adjusted the heater up. “Here – well, that’s really what you need. Wait a minute.” He reached behind the seat, unzipped the duffel bag and started rummaging.
“This is good, really. I’m very warm.” While she couldn’t remember the last time she had been so warm that she wasn’t thinking about wanting to be warm, this was closer than she’d been to it in awhile.
“No, you’re not. This truck doesn’t come with a vibration option, so that must be you. And you haven’t answered the question.” He came back over the seat with a pair of heavy gray hiker’s socks that would reach her thighs. “Put your feet up here. If we’re going to be here a bit, you need dry feet. We can dry your socks out on the dash vents.”
“But—“ Maggie smiled and shook her head, realizing there was nothing to fear from this man, except being mothered to death. “Are you always this pushy?”
Matt looked surprised. “Pushy? I wasn’t being pushy.”
“No?” She grinned. “You order me into your truck, tell me we’re staying here until the police get here, demand to know why I caused this accident and insist I strip down to my bare toes in front of a total stranger.”
He lifted a brow. “We’re not strangers. We know each other’s names. And is there something strange about your feet? Do you have webbed toes or something? Or a lead foot? I’d believe that one, at least.”
Maggie dodged his playful grab at her ankle, squishing herself up against the car door. “Quit it,” she giggled, despite herself. She put her hand to her mouth, regaining some control. “You’re weird. You should be mad, but you’re not. You don’t know me, but you act like you do.”
“And you laugh easy. You must be used to dealing with people you don’t know.” He settled back, his arm back on the seat while he held the socks in his lap. “I didn’t mean to be pushy. I just don’t want your feet to freeze. I don’t really talk to people much, except to order them around. I guess it rubs off.” Matt flicked the socks against the car wheel, looking at her expectantly.
Maggie hesitated, then shook her head with another smile. She braced her toe against the heel of one shoe and got it off with a wet sucking noise. She pushed off the other one in the same manner and then pulled off the soaked socks. The cold damp cuff of her jeans touched her skin and she shivered. She reached for the socks. He flapped them at her.
“Put your feet up here. It’s tough to put socks on in a car. It’s a two person proposition. One to bring the feet and the other to bring leverage.”
Maggie capitulated, putting her bare feet onto the truck seat. He took her right foot and began working the wool over her frozen toes. It was strange to watch him dressing her. His hair fell over his forehead and his brows drew down over his eyes. He had a side part. The brown and gold strands mingled with a bit of white and gray, here and there. His deft hands were warm on her bare skin as he worked the sock up under her jean leg. A shiver prickled up her calf that had nothing to do with cold.
“European style, hmm?” his finger lightly touched the fine blonde hairs on her left leg before he covered it with a sock.
Lack of razor, Maggie thought, but she nodded, uncomfortable.
“I’ve always thought women spend too much time trying to undo what Nature knows is best. There. Is that better?”
She nodded again and pulled her feet back down to the floor. “What about you?” She nodded at his clean-shaven chin, rubbing her own jaw. “Is that what Nature intended?”
“That’s different. It makes my face itch. It’s practical to take it off.”
“Oh.” Maggie put her tongue in her cheek and nodded with exaggerated understanding. “Or is it that you like women to fantasize that you’re Robert Redford or something when they see you?”
He smiled, and it was a Dermot Mulroney smile, teeth and dimples and melt-in-your-mouth sexy. “Is that what you were doing? Fantasizing you were some kind of heroine in a movie, and you lifted your hand to your brow to fake a swoon?”
This time the blush was instantaneous. Maggie looked out the window and met the gaze of an intensely annoyed motorist who obviously thought they should be figuring out a way to move her dead car rather than sitting in a warm cab teasing one another. “I—I was just reaching for something in my visor. What do you do for a living that makes you so pushy,…I mean, makes you have to order people around?”
“I’m a master carpenter. I take special jobs around the country, where I go in and take charge of a bunch of other carpenters and subcontractors and build special projects. Right now I’m on my way to Florida, to help Disneyland build a new castle in their theme park. Then I’m headed for the Grand Canyon.” His fingers moved off the back of the seat and touched her shoulder. “I didn’t meant to embarrass you, Maggie.”
“You didn’t,” she fiddled with the frayed hem of her sweatshirt. “You’re just very direct.” She shook her head, managed a smile. “I’m being silly. That’s exactly what I was doing. Daydreaming. It wasn’t a swoon, though. A real heroine would never swoon. And I’m not going to tell you what it was about either, so you can just forget that,” Maggie warned, seeing the gleam in his eye.
He chuckled. “Fair enough. Piece of gum?” He drew a pack from his shirt pocket and offered it to her. “Two sticks left. Cinnamon.”
“Sure.” He took one and then handed her the rest of the pack. She took the gum, slid off the outer wrapper and then tucked the gum in its aluminum foil in her coat pocket. She’d save it for later. Sometimes gum helped her think she was really eating. At this rate, she was going to miss the meal she had hoped for tonight. Someone probably needed it more, anyway. I will not look at his French Fries. I am not a starving dog. Not yet.
She pushed the thoughts away, with the sudden vision it brought of her dying car and the problems it brought. “That’s a really amazing job, different. What are you doing at the Grand Canyon?”
“Oh.” He reached down in the floorboards and retrieved her shoes, brushing her legs with his shoulder. He arranged the shoes on the dash and Maggie draped her socks next to them. “They want an outdoor wedding chapel constructed on a platform overlooking the canyon. It’ll bring in a little more money for the park without ruining it.”
“That’ll be beautiful,” Maggie said wistfully, imagining it. “Did you design it?”
“Sure.” He reached in the back again and pulled a sheaf of paper out of a large portfolio. “Here’s the design, if you’re interested in seeing it.”
Maggie tensed, but when he laid it in her lap and she saw the detailed drawing, she relaxed. The chapel was going to have a gazebo, a trellis awning, and he would build the whole structure around a small pond with a rock waterfall fountain in the center. It looked as if he planned to incorporate a great deal of rock formations into the basic wood structure, creating a natural blend against the canyon sketched in the background. “Matt, this is going to be gorgeous. I feel like I’m standing at the railing, just looking at it.”
He shrugged, but he looked pleased. “I hope it will look as good as it does on paper. It’s important that every job be the best I can do, but when it’s going to be somewhere that people are going to start a whole life together, it needs to be even better than that. Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?”
She shook her head. “My brother moved up to Colorado a while ago. I’m going to visit him one day.” One day.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Oh,” Maggie looked down and laughed at herself. “I take care of some kids during the day. For Christmas this year, we made a tree garland out of gum wrappers. The kids collected thousands of them, so I guess every time I get a gum wrapper in my hand, instinct takes over.”
“That’s pretty inventive.”
“That’s nothing. You can do all sorts of things with old junk to entertain kids. Can I borrow that?” She pointed to a paper clip on his sheaf of papers. He slid it off and handed it to her. She leaned forward and bent it into a triangle, overlapping the two ends on the dashboard. “You put pressure on the ends, then let it go, and in a minute –“
Twang! The paper clip popped open, jumping into the air and bouncing off the dash. She caught it and handed it back to him. “The kids and I see whose can hop the highest. You can also find a piece of rock, most of them write like chalk, and then do hopscotch designs on the ground,…” Maggie stopped. “Sorry, I tend to go on and on about the kids. They’re a great group.”
“Not at all. I like kids, too.” He reached forward and brushed the scar on her forehead with a knuckle, startling her with the touch and its gentleness. He had such large hands, too large to have that tender a touch. “Where’d you get that?”
“Look!” Maggie surged forward in her seat. “It’s snowing.”
He peered out the windshield. “You’ve got better eyes than I do. Hold on.” He switched off the wipers, and the first crystalline flake landed on the glass, followed by a clan of brothers and sisters, like white frost fairies alighting on a glass pond. “Well, look at that.”
“It never snows here,” Maggie’s voice quavered. She put her fingers up to the glass. “I love snow.”
“Well, I expect I’ll see more of it than I want to in Colorado. What are you doing now?”
She pulled her shoes off the dash. His thick socks made it harder to pull them on and she grunted a bit at the exertion.
“It’s snow,” Maggie said impatiently. “It’s bad luck not to catch some. I’ll be right back.”
“Well, wait a minute.” He snagged a coat from a rack behind him and shrugged into it. “Come out this side so you don’t get run over.”
He stepped down out of the truck and held out his hands to help her. Maggie allowed herself to enjoy the brief touch of his large hands at her waist again. The flakes fell thick and heavy now, as if encouraged by her enthusiasm. The angle of their impacted cars gave them a shallow triangle of protection from the cars passing on either side, though the occasional oncoming car spotlighted them before it changed into the left lane. Maggie spun in the white light of snow and cars, arms outstretched, face to the gray sky.
Matt might have said something, laughed a question, but her whole being focused on the snow, snow that happened so rarely in this part of the country her mother had said it was the ultimate magic.
Spin, spin, spin, snowflakes in the air, make a wish if you dare. If your heart be true, your wish will come to you. A mother’s silly rhyme, made up between loads of laundry and a grueling nightshift at the textile mill, but that’s how straw got spun into gold. All you had to do was believe, believe, believe… I believe, Momma, I believe… A cloud parted, and Maggie knew at least one bright star looked down at her.
Her heel hit ice and shot out from under her. Maggie went down clutching air. The left ankle crumpled and a lancing pain shot through her leg as the rest of her body landed on it. She yelped as a horn blared and she stared into the blinding headlights of a skidding minivan.
Her heart leaped into her throat, choking her, and she blacked out. No, she didn’t black out. Matt’s formidable body was between her and the van.
“Slow down next time,” he bellowed, punctuating the statement with an inventive curse.
The van roared off to the right, the driver thrusting them an obscene gesture.
“Maggie,” Matt knelt next to her, “Can you get up?”
Maggie looked behind her and grabbed her car door handle. She raised herself to her feet. She tried to put weight on the ankle and went white. He caught her elbow. “It’s sprained,” she gasped. She hoped her tears looked like diamond snow flakes. No wishes for you, Magna. You used yours up, threw them away…
She shook her head violently. She couldn’t do this, couldn’t lose hope…she knew what happened to those who lost hope. She had seen it.
“Maggie,” Matt was speaking to her. He was going to think she was nuts, holding an argument with herself. She tried to focus on him. When all else fails, think about something else, go home to Tara, think about it tomorrow. She giggled, imagining herself in a hoop skirt, ankle deep in slush and rump deep in trouble.
“Maggie,” he repeated. He shook her slightly and she calmed down. “Do you have anything like an ace bandage in all this junk?” He looked into the dirty window of her car.
“Hold on, I think you do. Hang onto that door handle.” He opened the back door, which unfortunately did not lock, and which also did not stick. He paused, looking. Maggie hopped a turn so she could face the driver’s door and yanked it open with enough force to pull it off its hinges, if frustration could translate into arm muscles. “I’ve got something better up here,” she mumbled.
“What?” he dragged his attention from the interior.
“I said,” she shouted, “I’ve got something up here.” The Norman Rockefeller Christmas cookie tin held her homemade first aid kit. Her gaze fell on the picture on the tin, where the whole family bowed their heads in prayer over their sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner. It was a lie. It was all a lie.
Maggie gave it up, turned and sank into the driver’s seat, letting her feet mire in the sleet and snow washing past the wheels. She held the tin in her lap and cried as if she could bring back Noah’s flood. She didn’t care that he saw, that anybody saw. They were all strangers. They could all go jump off a cliff.
“Maggie,” he squatted down next to her, bracing his hand on the door, sheltering her from the wind with his large shoulders. “Honey, don’t cry. Does it hurt that bad?”
A fresh convulsion of sobs took her and she nodded. She knew by his look that he knew she didn’t mean her ankle. Matt laid his hand on her knee, squeezed gently, then half rose, staying bent over before her. “Put your hands around my neck; leave the tin there.”
There he went, being pushy again. She put her arms around his neck and he scooped her up, tilting her toward him so the tin caught in the bent crevice of her lap. She wrapped her arms tighter around his shoulders and buried her face in his neck, suddenly not caring that he was a stranger. Sometimes, the momentary kindness of a stranger could get you through another day.
He seemed to hesitate, shifting her in his arms, then he muttered something under his breath. He slammed the car door with his booted foot and strode back to the truck. Maggie loved the smell of Aqua Velva. She planned to buy a bottle of it to carry around with her from now on.
Matt opened the truck door, still holding her, and levered it open with an elbow. He put her down on the fabric seat. “Slide over so you’re backed up against the passenger door and let me see your foot.”
Maggie obeyed, trying to stifle her runny nose with a shaking hand as she stilted her way back with one arm. Sometimes it happened this way. She lost control of her nerves and they just had to fray until the natural anesthetic of exhaustion kicked in. She didn’t want this to happen in front of a stranger, in front of anyone, but there was no help for it. She looked down at her lap and watched the dark splotches grow on her dark brown coat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to fall to pieces. It’s just--“ her voice caught, and he glanced up at her. “It’s been a hard day,” she quavered. “Do you have a tissue?”
“Sure,” Matt said, working her shoe off like he was handling a porcelain doll. “Look in the glove compartment.”
She found an assortment of fast food napkins, a neat stack of car papers and one screwdriver. “You must be some carpenter, if you can do it all with one tool.”
“What? Oh.” Some of the seriousness left his eyes. “I keep most of my tools in the box in the truck bed.” He pressed her ankle gently and she winced. “That looks pretty bad, Maggie. It’s already swelling. We might want to get you to a hospital.”
Maggie shook her head. “It’s a sprain,” she insisted. “Look in the tin. There’s a couple ace bandages in there.” She blew her nose, wiped her eyes and pulled herself together. “I’ve never let a man get so intimate with my feet.”
He slanted a glance at her. “I have that effect on women. They see me and they can’t tear off their Reeboks fast enough.”
Maggie laughed through her tears. She hoped that whoever called this man hers knew how lucky she was.
Matt rummaged through her first aid kit. Most of it had come from the hospital dumpsters. The rolls of bandage tape discarded with a few inches of tape left had made one fat roll. Handfuls of clean gauze pads and Q-tips got thrown away unused all the time. Her real find had been a full bottle of peroxide, unnoticed in the far corner of its cardboard case. The box had been used as a refuse container and then trashed.
He unrolled one of the ace bandages, examining it critically.
“It’s clean,” she hiccuped. For the life of her, she couldn’t stop crying. “It’s just stained.”
Matt sighed, laid the tin aside. He picked up the burger, unwrapped it, spread it on her lap and shook the fries out next to it. “I’ll wrap your ankle. You eat that. You weigh less than a hundred pound sack of grain.”
Her eyes snapped up to his face. He returned her look in full measure. He looked braced for anger, for denials, for the necessity of force-feeding her. Based on what she knew thus far of his nature, she wouldn’t put the last past him. Maggie swallowed, and reclaimed her dignity with simple honesty. “Thank you,” she said.
She picked up the sandwich, pressing her fingertips into the soft, fresh bun, and sank her teeth into it. The satisfaction of a mouthful of warm food took her away from everything for a moment and her eyes closed. She chewed slowly, savoring every bit of it. Once, she had chewed food like a cow working its cud because diet books said you felt full faster if you chewed your food like that. Now that same advice helped her conserve what little food she could find. If she ate slowly enough, she could stretch a meal over a whole day, eating a little here and there.
“So, you’re a Winnie the Pooh fan?” he asked lightly.
She opened her eyes and he nodded at the box of band-aids in the tin.
Maggie self-consciously used her napkin to wipe a blob of ketchup escaping down her chin. “Like I said, I take care of kids during the day. They like the band-aids with pictures.” She almost managed a smile. “That’s my second box. The first time I used them, all the kids kept falling down and scraping themselves so they could have one.” The band-aids were the only store-bought item in the kit. They brought laughter and light to the kids’ eyes, and that also could carry her through a whole day.
Matt twisted her leg a bit to accommodate the bandage he wrapped tightly around her ankle and Maggie drew in a breath. He glanced at her. “Okay?”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“It’s okay.” His eyes got that still, serious look to them again, wandering over her tear-streaked face, and she didn’t want it to get serious again. Her insides were still quaking. “Tell me where you live when you’re not building castles at Disney or wedding chapels at the Grand Canyon.”
He picked up on her need and bowed to it. “I live in a one-blink town called Crestonboro. It’s in the North Carolina mountains. Population 300, which consists of me, a bunch of cow farmers and a cell of nine survivalists who are sure the government is coming to enslave us any day now. One of them bakes great cookies in her solar oven.”
“Is that your girlfriend?”
Matt glanced sharply at her, then he inserted the metal clamps in the wrapped bandage. “Nope. I don’t have a girlfriend. Nosy female.”
“I—“ Maggie opened her mouth, then shut it with a smile. “All right, so I’m nosy. All women like to know that kind of thing. Just like men always think they’re right about everything.”
“That’s because we are,” he informed her, a twinkle in his golden flecked eyes that grew into a full faced grin when Maggie wiggled her toes experimentally. “No, I travel too much to make a good husband, or boyfriend, or whatever. Here, though -- I’ve got a picture of my house.”
He turned, stretched out a leg and lifted a hip to remove his wallet. Even through misty eyes, Maggie appreciated the fact that the man wore the heck out of a pair of jeans. He flipped open the billfold and handed it to her.
“Do all master carpenters carry pictures of their houses instead of their families?” she asked, carefully wiping a greasy hand on her napkin before taking the billfold from him.
“I have pictures of my family in there, too,” he informed her.
The picture had been taken from a crest overlooking the house. She looked at a brown wooden castle burrowed in a green nest of trees. The house was a structural wonder of gazebos, cupolas, balconies, winding staircases and screened porches framed with elaborate wood scrollwork. The fence around it looked like wrought iron, but as Maggie peered closer, she realized it wasn’t. “The fence is wood,” she exclaimed.
Matt leaned forward, and the lock of hair on his brow brushed her forehead. “Yep. Mom says I’m overdoing it, but the house is kind of my testing ground for paid projects. Next time I’m home I’m going to replace the drain spouts with wood gargoyles. One of the guys who lives near me carves with a chainsaw. He’s going to show me how to do it. Did you know the word gargoyle originally came from the word garglers, because they were put at the end of spouts and the water from the gutters came out of their mouths?"
“Wow, no, I didn’t.” Maggie looked up into his eyes, hazel green and all of two inches from her face. His gaze dropped from hers to her mouth and the perusal made her feel kissed, brief as it was. She sat back abruptly, flushing. He looked at her, motionless, then slowly he leaned back. Maggie looked down at the opposing picture. “So this is your family?”
“The whole clan. Mom, Dad, my two brothers and my sister.”
“Do they live near you?”
“No. They’re scattered out. We all try to get together in Atlanta at Mom and Dad’s each year for the holidays. I didn’t get to see my sister this year, though, because she just had a baby and couldn’t make the trip. I figure I could see her after I leave Florida. She lives in Alabama.”
“You’re an uncle,” Maggie said, pleased for him. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks. Hey, you barely touched that,” he protested, as she began to wrap up the sandwich and the remaining fries.
“I ate about a third of it,” she corrected. “I’ll save the rest for later, if you don’t mind me having it.”
He helped her turn her back to the seat. He propped her foot on a small lumbar pillow he dug out of the back. It still had its tag, probably an unused Christmas gift. The heat from the dash warmed her toes. He laid his arm along the back of the seat and looked down at her. Meg’s shoulder was very close to his rib cage, much closer than strangers should sit. But she guessed they really weren’t strangers any more.
“Whoever you’re saving it for, I’ll buy them a whole new sandwich,” he said bluntly.
“Do you get lonely, living up in the mountains by yourself?”
Matt suppressed a sigh. Maggie could tell because his chest touched her briefly as the swallowed breath expanded his rib cage. “I have a couple dogs that wander in and out when I’m home. They belong to the cow farmers. No, I don’t usually get lonely.” He shifted and crooked his left leg up on the seat, stretched the other leg out further. It touched her hip and thigh. She got a twitchy feeling, like she didn’t want to move the leg, but she was so worried he’d move if she moved that her muscles twitched in reaction. She bade them sternly to be still and tried to keep her eyes open. The tears, food and heat were taking their toll, but one did not fall asleep in someone else’s truck. It simply wasn’t proper. She smiled to herself.
“Why’d you move up there to begin with?”
His response came slow. She suspected the real answer was more than what he gave her. “I like the quiet. It gets too noisy down here. You get sucked into the momentum, forget what’s real.”
She rolled her head to the right so she could peer up at him without lifting her head. It tangled her hair into his loosely dangling fingers over her opposite shoulder. “So what’s real?”
Matt looked at her a long moment as she blinked sleepily at him. He curled his fingers in slightly, and Maggie felt them brush her skull. He began to move them, stroking her hair down. Her eyelids dropped further.
“Easy things are real. Tomatoes coming up in the garden; the way cicadas sing when it’s dog-nap hot; sitting on the porch for an hour with nothing to do…”
Her eyes fell closed. At one level, she stayed aware of his presence as a distant warm strength, supporting her, giving her an unusual sense of safety, but everything else disappeared into the soft, feather-grey muzziness of sleep.
Maggie felt him move his arm from beneath her. “I’m going to go check something,” Matt whispered in her ear, just the voice of a pleasant dream. “I’ll be back. Maggie, let go of me, hon, I’ll be back.”
She lifted her hand from the collar of his shirt and shifted off him. Cold air touched her briefly, making her frown, then it got warm again. It felt so good to relax, to be warm and not-so-hungry, and to sleep. Darkness eased into her vision, sleep taking her like the gradual dimness of twilight.
The glass of the passenger door shattered and a two-by-four swung toward her face. Maggie threw her arms up and screamed, scrambling away, scrabbling for a weapon to protect herself. Pain shot through her leg, but it was her head, her head that hurt. She latched onto something and swung it.
“Maggie, wake up! Wake up!” It was Matt, Matt’s voice. Matt, the man in the truck. Maggie came fully awake to find her wrist caught in his grasp, his flashlight locked in her hand. She opened her fingers reflexively and it dropped back to the floorboard. Maggie gasped, trying to get her breath and slow her rapidly pounding heart. A sharp rap hit the window behind her. Maggie yelped, tearing her hand loose of Matt’s to jerk around defensively.
“Maggie, it’s okay,” Matt soothed, stroking her hair back with one hand and making a placating gesture toward the window with the other. “It’s the police, okay? They knocked on the window and it startled you. You’re all right.”
Maggie saw a very tense-looking officer standing outside her window. He circled around the back of the truck to Matt’s side. She looked back at Matt and released him to push hands in her hair. She knocked her cap off and scrambled to retrieve it.
Matt motored down the window. The officer approached warily. “Are you all right, ma’am?” he called across Matt.
Maggie came up with the toboggan and jammed it on her head. “Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he responded, a slight smile crossing his face. He looked to be in his fifties, and like he had suffered through a really bad day. Maggie’s heart went out to him.
“I’m okay,” she added. “I just fell asleep. You startled me.”
“Fair enough. Let me see if I can get you two out of the intersection. There’s a wrecker that will come get your Toyota as soon as it finishes with the accident over on 4th and Brown. I assume you’re going to just drive your truck, sir?”
“Yes,” Matt nodded. The cold air woke Maggie up further and she realized that one of his hands rubbed her lower back, his strong fingers kneading her spine and the knotted muscles.
“Do you two know each other?” The officer asked.
“We just met,” Maggie said. “But we’re getting along pretty well.”
That caused both Matt and the officer to smile. He cleared his throat. “I guess that’s good, as long as y’all’ve had to wait. I’m Officer Briggs. I need to see your licenses and registrations first, then we’ll talk about what happened for the report.”
“Mine is in my car,” Maggie said, prepared to hobble out of the truck. “I’ll go---“
“I’ve got it,” Matt nodded at the dashboard. “I saw it in the seat when I went to check out the damage to my bed. Figured you weren’t in much shape to go get it.”
“The lady injure herself?”
“It’s just a sprain, officer,” Maggie said abruptly. She thrust the billfold at him. Officer Briggs glanced at her tight face, took Matt’s license and registration and nodded. “I’ll be right back.”
Matt put the window up and Maggie rounded on him. “That wasn’t in my seat. You were in my car, snooping around.”
“The plastic flowers in the coffee can are a nice touch, Maggie. They make your car seem like home. How long has it been?”
“That’s none of your business,” she snapped. His lips compressed into a hard line and she noted his eyes got greener when his will was thwarted. The truck cab filled with a brooding silence. Maggie gathered up the sandwich and fries and put them in her jacket. She would have left them, but people didn’t eat someone else’s half-eaten food, and she wasn’t going to leave it for Matt to throw away. Pride wasn’t as important as hunger.
She replaced her shoe on her foot, then reached for the door handle. “Thank you, Matt,” she said quietly. “I appreciate all your help.”
“I want to help you more, Maggie. Let me.”
Warmth filled her at the simple, direct way he said it, like he meant it. “You did. Good luck in Florida.”
She opened the door and slid out of the truck. The police car was parked to the right of the truck, protecting her from oncoming cars now, but she still had to hold onto the truck to support her ankle. The sleet and snow on the ground immediately soaked her shoes, the thick socks and the bandage. The wind sucked her breath out of her body. Maggie gritted her teeth, hobbling along. The wind wouldn’t be in her car, and the wrecker would drop her downtown. On a night like tonight, she could get a bed at the shelter.
The truck vibrated as the driver’s door slammed, none-too-gently. She heard two splashing footsteps before the world tilted and she was lifted into Matt Bryson’s arms. She grabbed at his shoulders, but he had her securely.
“Women,” he muttered.
“Matt, I told you—“
“I’m just taking you to your car. I’m not going to sit on my butt and watch you bust yours. Now shut up and say thank you.”
She settled for tightening her jaw and her grip. He got her car door open and set her down in the driver’s seat. He turned on his heel and went back to his truck without a word.
When Matt didn’t have anything to say, he didn’t waste the air. He worked alone a lot, and in the mountains he was alone a lot. He knew that thinking something through was a good sight smarter than running his mouth to cover awkward silences or talking himself into decisions he’d regret. Noise distorted judgment. He had taught himself to enjoy silence, to leave the TV and radio off so that he could hear what his heart had to say, clear. He’d gotten so good at it, now he could hear what it had to say even when he was out of the mountains and among the noisemakers.
His mom had always said he was a magnet for damsels in distress. Over the years, he had gotten embroiled with women who were trying to ditch abusive husbands, those who were trying to raise kids alone, those broken down on the side of the road without money to pay for the repairs. All of them trying to make it in a world that said women were supposed to do it all without the help and care of a man, or anyone, for that matter. That was a load of crap, as far as he was concerned. Caring about each other and helping each other out were the only good things that lasted. So he fixed flat tires, bought bus tickets for new lives, and babysat for mothers trying to make it on their own. In return, he got the occasional homecooked meal and a hug and a kiss from a tiny, sticky face, and that was a fine trade.
But this damsel in distress was different. She had wrapped her small cold hands around his heart the moment he laid eyes on her.
Matt knew about being careful. He knew first hand that the lady with the broken down car could have a boyfriend hiding in the car with a gun to take your wallet. Sometimes women turned the bus ticket down to go back to the same abuse and spat in your face for calling it what it was. It was a tough world, and it could suck everything out of you. And Maggie seemed like she was just about sucked dry.
He watched her through his driver’s side mirror. She took her knit cap off and ran fingers through her hair. It was a nice color, golden brown like a deer’s hide. The cop came back to her window. She offered him her passenger seat with gestures, but he shook his head. She smiled up at him. Nobody could resist that smile, or those eyes. Their spring day blue had startled Matt when he first caught her in his arms. An angel’s eyes looked like that, a combination of timeless wisdom and eternal innocence that could give a person faith at first glance.
As he watched, her smile disappeared and those eyes got worried looking. Officer Briggs gestured and she nodded. She began speaking, fast. The officer held up a placating hand, but he shook his head, and he kept shaking it as she became more agitated.
Matt was getting pretty uptight himself. He wanted to get out and see what was going on, but cops didn’t much care for someone butting their nose in when things were getting a little hot. So he sat on his hands, watching and hating it.
Maggie's hands fluttered back down to her lap like dying butterflies and she nodded, staring straight ahead at the windshield. Officer Briggs gestured with his clipboard. She looked at it, then at him, and then she spoke one short sentence, her face tired and sad. Officer Briggs nodded, spoke for a few minutes. Maggie nodded again and signed the clipboard where he pointed.
The police officer started to turn toward Matt, hesitated and turned back. Maggie shook her head at whatever he said and half-smiled. It looked like a fish hook was pulling up one side of her mouth. She rolled up her window and became a shadow behind dusty glass streaked with gray tears from the sky.
Matt hit the automatic window button and the airy noise of wet weather and passing traffic came in, along with a foggy cloud of Officer Brigg’s breath. “Problem, officer?”
“’Fraid so, Mr. Bryson. The young lady claims the accident’s all her fault, said she basically t-boned you when you pulled into the lane ahead of her.”
Matt nodded. “So why is that a problem?”
“Her license and registration are out of date, and her insurance card expired about eight months ago. You’re going to have to turn it in to your own company.”
“What about her?” Matt looked back at Maggie’s car. She was moving around in there, but he couldn’t tell what she was doing. “She’s not being charged with anything, is she?”
Officer Briggs hesitated, and the lines on his fifty plus face softened. “Well, Mr. Bryson, I could ticket her for all those things, and for the fact that heap of junk she’s driving is out of inspection. But I’d say she has enough problems, wouldn’t you?”
Matt met the officer’s shrewd gray eyes, and they understood each other. “She won’t let me help her.”
“Sometimes they won’t.” The officer grunted. “Women.”
Matt grinned. “Officer Briggs, did I offer you a cup of coffee? I’ve got some here on my dash.”
The officer looked at the coffee maker, and an eyebrow lifted. “That’s real handy.”
Matt poured him a cup in a paper container and handed it over to him. “My sister gave it to me for Christmas one year. If she doesn’t ever give me anything else, I’m happy. They’re great when you travel a lot. She got it at Wal-Mart,” he added helpfully.
“I’ll have to mention it to my son. He keeps getting me things like meditation tapes.” The police officer took a sip of the coffee.
Matt looked back at the Toyota. “She told me she had insurance.”
“She probably thought she did.” Briggs grunted. “Listen, Bryson, I don’t want you thinking she was trying to pull anything on you. I’m not sure how she got a driver’s license in the first place. She can barely read.”
Ten minutes later, Matt sat in his truck, thinking again. Briggs had gone over the accident report and he had signed it. The officer told him he was free to go, that Maggie’s car would be impounded but the wrecker service would take her wherever she needed to be dropped.
Matt sighed and turned the engine over. He put the truck in gear, checked his mirrors, and providence gave him a moment of clearance. The miracle of a five second lull in rush hour traffic cinched it. He punched the gas and snaked the truck behind her car, then killed the main lights and let the emergency blinkers take over.
Matt shrugged back into his coat as he got out. He had seen the junk in the passenger side of Maggie’s car and knew he wouldn’t get one leg in. He went to the driver’s side. Maggie looked at him through the glass, and it seemed like her face faded into the drops, a memory rather than a real person. He yanked open the door with one pull.
Maggie looked up at him. “Hi,” she said.
Matt squatted down in the water, which put him at eye level with her. He framed her face with his hands and buried his fingers in her hair. He found the nape of her soft neck and brought her face to his. Maggie’s hands lifted to his wrists, but she did not stop him. He pressed his lips to hers and he knew he was right.
Maggie was stunned into numbness at first, but under his hands and lips, numbness did not last long. She had thought of a thousand reasons for him coming to her car, and this was definitely not one of them.
He deepened the kiss and somehow got one arm snugged around her waist. He pulled her to his chest as he went to one knee in the water. His other hand stayed under her hair, gentling her with soft caresses to her neck. She reached up and pulled off her knit cap so his caress became a full fisted hold. If this was a dream, she wanted the full effect.
When he finally lifted his head, she felt like soup in his arms. A delicious, hot chicken noodle soup on a cold wintry day.
“I was right,” he murmured.
“About what?” She was surprised she could speak at all, was glad he was so close, because what came out of her mouth was a weak whisper.
He shook his head. “I’ll tell you in a minute. Maggie, why haven’t you gone home to your brother? If my sister was in this kind of trouble, I’d do anything to help her out, and she’s mean as a snake and not half as pretty as you are.”
She fiddled with the cap in her lap. “Your sister has to be mean, to stand up to you. Are your other brothers like this?”
She looked up at him. “Matt, why do you need to know?”
“Because I want to ask you something else, but I want to hear your answer first.”
He didn’t say anything else, even though Maggie stared at him for several long minutes. He was done talking, apparently. Sleet splattered onto his shoulders and misted her face and hands, clenched tight on her toboggan. The warmth of his breath touched her face, reminding her of the touch of his lips. He could be on his knees out of pity, but nothing about Matt Bryson suggested he’d act in any way except as he was, a trait as infuriating to a woman as it was appealing.
Maggie sighed and relented. What did it matter, really? “I’m in the kind of trouble you don’t bring home to the people you care about, Matt. My husband’s chasing me. Well, ex-husband, if I could deal with divorce papers.” She shrugged at his confused look.
“Okay, Reader’s Digest version. I wasn’t very smart in school,” she swallowed. It was harder to get the words out than she expected. So a scrap of pride has managed to survive, Magna. Imagine that. “I don’t read very well. Something looks wrong. Somebody at the last shelter told me I might have some kind of learning disability.
“Because school was so hard, I tended to cut up in class. My parents didn’t graduate from high school themselves, and I grew up poor, Matt. Not starving poor, but the kind of poor where people just assume that you must be slow and there’s not much that can be done about it. Even Momma told me it didn’t matter that I wasn’t smart bookwise. She told me straight out that I was beautiful, and looks would take me farther. I guess it did. It bought me homework from boys, and teachers don’t tend to call on you as much if you’re pretty.”
Matt stiffened and she shook her head. “I didn’t give that away, Matt. I just always got along real well with people, that’s all. Anyway, I dropped out and worked a couple of places, but it never lasted long because of my trouble with reading. Then a friend of mine opened a coffee shop with her grandma’s inheritance when she graduated. It was one of those yuppie type places where they serve French Vanilla cappucino.”
Matt grunted. “Never drink the stuff.”
Maggie smiled. “You probably like it straight out of a gas pump.”
He shot her a disparaging look. “You’re stalling.”
“You’re being pushy again.” She made a face at him. “I did good at her place. We discovered I was really good with customers. I had a feel for what would make them want to come back, and I listened to the way smart people talked, so I wouldn’t sound uneducated. She put me in charge of all the staff, and she handled anything with reading and writing.”
“So why’d you leave?”
“I fell for a guy. My husband.” The humor died out of Maggie’s eyes and she looked out the windshield, seeing things other than what lay before her. “Carlin Darby. Mr. Charming. Well, I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic. He was charming, and he was nice to me. I guess I liked him because he was one of the first guys I’d ever met who saw me first, instead of the face and the body. He was at a wedding reception we catered at the shop, and he told me he had never seen a person with such a natural gift for handling people. He made me feel good about myself. He became a regular and we started going out. He took me to a lot of places I’d never gone before – upscale night clubs, art museums, golf resorts for the weekend, dinners with his business friends. A lot of times, he seemed to be sitting back, watching the way I dealt with each new situation. At the time, I didn’t think about it, but later I realized all of it was a test.”
Maggie sighed. “I won’t get all bitter about it, Matt. I really liked being with Carlin. We talked a lot, and I found him interesting, and I grew to care a lot about him. Maybe that’s what was so hard about it in the end. He was the first guy I dated that became my friend more than anything else. I mean, we were physical sometimes, but he didn’t seem as interested in all that as he was in just being with me. I’d had the other type of guy, the type that would rather me just keep my mouth shut, look decorative on his arm, and then play his fantasy girl.”
At Matt’s narrow look, she thumped him. “I’ve already told you, I don’t play that game. Up until Carlin, I didn’t date much, for that very reason. Why is it, when you aren’t that smart bookwise, people assume you’re dense as brush about life? If anything, I find it’s just the opposite. Most people with a suitcase full of degrees wouldn’t know how to get to the ocean on a one-way highway going east.”
A wry smile twisted Matt’s mouth, but he didn’t say anything. Maggie blew air through her nose. Speaking of one-way highways.
“Eventually, Carlin sat me down, told me that he wasn’t in love with me yet, but he felt what was between us could really grow into something over time.”
Matt grunted. “Real romantic.”
She smiled wistfully. “It was one of those weird coincidences. My momma told me that the best marriages start with a good friendship and a modest attraction. So, when Carlin told me almost the same thing, and asked me if I'd marry him, it seemed like destiny.” Maggie looked down at her hands again, blinked back the tears that always came with the words. “See, Momma died that year, so it felt like what I was supposed to do. I thought maybe she was guiding me, like an angel, taking care of me.”
Maybe if she switched into autopilot it wouldn’t hurt as much to run through it aloud. It wasn’t like she never thought about it. It ran through her head every other hour of every day like a movie she couldn’t switch off. “As you’ve probably guessed,” Maggie said in a calmer voice, “Carlin was really rich, and he had a lot of business demands. I organized a lot of parties for him, worked my magic, as he called it, on his business prospects, and entertained his friends.” She raised a shoulder. “It was easy for me. There wasn’t much difference between them and the people I waited on at the coffee shop. Everybody likes someone to listen to them, to help them feel like they’re an interesting, okay person.
“Carlin never made me feel dumb. He always had a way to help me get around my reading problems. We seemed to be doing great together, but after awhile, I noticed that our feelings for each other just stayed affectionate. We weren’t really…” she flushed a little. “Passionate.”
It must have showed on her face, because Matt put his hand on her wrist. “Maggie –“
“No,” she shook her head. “Let me finish it. He had one business partner that didn’t like me, and I couldn’t figure out why. Carlin told me not to pay any attention to him, that Greg was just very blue-blooded. He told me that Greg thought he had married beneath himself when he married me. I found out the two of them were,…well, involved. And I found out in the worst possible way you could imagine.”
Maggie closed her eyes, unwilling to see her own emotions reflected on Matt’s face. She had told herself that pride kept her from telling the story of her life to others, or a noble unwillingness to burden others with her problems. Now she knew it was a self-preservation mechanism, the unwillingness to open a wound. Unhealed emotional scars could be fatal in her environment, a world infected by despair.
“It had been right in front of me, and I hadn’t seen it. Carlin told me that he hadn’t meant to hurt me, that he loved me and considered me one of his closest friends. He needed a wife to keep up his image in business, which is still pretty much an old boys' club, and I had been perfect. He thought I was the perfect combination – easy with people, a great icebreaker, good to look at, but a little slow, so I wouldn’t figure it out for awhile. By the time I did, he thought it wouldn’t be that important to me because I’d be used to living with the things money could buy.”
“Oh, Maggie.” Matt’s hand touched her knee, stayed there in comfort.
Maggie managed a pained smile. “He didn’t say it that cruelly, but it’s what he meant. I told him I didn’t want anything but a divorce, and then I went back to the coffee shop and my life there.”
She blew out a breath. “He turned mean about it. He wouldn’t let me go. He refused to have the papers drawn up. People are funny, you know. You can be friends with someone, think you know them, but then find out they’re a totally different person when they face losing something they think they can’t do without. When it came down to it, I was too good at what he had wanted. Magna Adams Darby was an important part of his image, and he figured he could get his dumb trailer park kid back once she got over her injured feelings.
“When he realized it ran deeper than that, he sent people to embarrass me on the job. It worked. I quit, because it was driving business away from Marta’s place, and she had been nothing but good to me.”
Maggie thrust fingers through her hair to push it back from her scalp, then pulled the knit toboggan over it, and folded her hands back in her lap resolutely. “I got a job at a sewing plant pretty soon after that, but as soon as they processed my social security number, Carlin found me again. I’ve been moving ever since. The fact I can’t read and I need to be paid in cash narrows down the job field, but I’ve found odd work here and there. I’m providing daycare for the moms at the homeless shelter now, and in return they give me some of the money they earn from their work. I’ve got a little of that, enough to take me to another town.”
Matt rubbed a thumb over her cheek. “You went from caviar to this.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I hated that stuff. And it doesn’t really happen so fast, Matt. I mean, it happens in small steps. You run out of money, so you lose your place to live. You see your friends less and less because you’re embarrassed, so next thing you know you’re sleeping in your car a night here, a night there, crashing at friends when you can make them think it’s nothing more than you hanging out and spending the night with them. Then one day you don’t have enough for a meal, so you go to a soup kitchen. You’re sleeping in the car on a regular basis. One night you’re hungry enough to face the fact that restaurants throw away a lot of food. At that point, it’s just one more step toward surviving.” Her voice held a matter-of-fact tone until she looked at him. His hard glance broke the eggshell bravado.
“Sometimes I think I’m so stupid,” she admitted in a near whisper. “I say, ‘Magna, go back to him, get a doctor to fix this reading problem, get an education, grin and bear it, and then cut him loose.’ But I can’t. I won’t.” She squinted her eyes against the too-bright lights of the passing cars. “I’m not a liar, and I never will be. I can’t pretend to be something I’m not. It eats my soul up. I’d rather live the rest of a real life on the street than live a lie under chandeliers.” Maggie snorted at herself before he could open his mouth.
“Oh, hell, I say that today, but there isn’t a night that I don’t wake up right at that hopeless dead-of-dark time and think, if Carlin shows up right now, I’ll sell my soul for a warm bed.” She shook her head and looked up at him. “Holy Moses, look how wet you’re getting. Come in the back seat, at least. Your legs will be bowed up, but you’ll be dry.”
Matt shook his head. “I’m fine. I’ve built houses out in hail storms.”
Maggie raised a brow. “Tough guy BS.”
“Maggie, I want an answer to my question now.”
She tensed. “What is it?”
Matt took his hand off her knee and hooked it on the top of the door to balance himself. “You’ve told me you don’t need someone like me, that you can handle yourself. Okay, I won’t argue with you about that, for now. But do you think you might want someone like me in your life?”
Maggie was glad there were no flies this time of year. They’d be buzzing in and out of her open mouth. “Wha---what do you mean?”
“I don’t mean that,” he said hastily, apparently taking her shock for offense. “I mean, obviously we’ve got some chemistry here, but that’s not what I mean. I mean,” he took a deep breath, “I like you, Maggie. I hate you being in this situation,… but that’s not it, either. I can’t think of the right words. Heck, maybe I should just kiss you again. That seemed to make everything clear to me.”
Maggie put a quick hand to his chest. “That will make things less clear to me,” she warned. “Now, explain what it is exactly that you’re proposing.”
He captured her hand, holding it there so she felt his strong, steady heartbeat. “I’m saying, go with me to Florida. We’ll take it real slow, get to know each other, though I might feel compelled to kiss you every once in awhile to make your eyes get all soft like they were a few minutes ago. If we get along, we’ll run with that and see where it takes us. If we don’t, I swear I’ll take you to your brother in Colorado, no grudges. One thing, though,” he added before she could say a word. “It doesn’t matter what happens between us, I won’t let you go back to living like this. I’ll drag you kicking and screaming to your brother first. I have a sister, too, and if I was your brother, I’d kick my butt from here to California if I did it any other way.”
Maggie imagined her slight brother and the athletic Matt in such a scuffle and almost smiled, despite the doubts crowding her chest and throat. “Matt, I don’t know.” She scratched the side of her nose. “Would you teach me to be a carpenter? I mean, I guess you need to read to do that.”
“You want to build houses?”
Maggie shrugged. “Well, I seem to need a job, don’t I?” She smiled. “I like your house, what you do. Maybe I’d like doing it, too.”
He pursed his lips, looked her up and down with a glint in his eye she was beginning to anticipate. “Well, I guess I could teach you. Of course, as klutzy as you are, falling down all the time, I’d have to make sure you didn’t fall off any scaffolding –“
She tried to pull her hand away, but he held it, so she swatted him with her other hand instead. Maggie shook her head, chuckled.
“You.” She looked him over frankly, and got tickled when she noticed a hint of color rise in his cheeks. “Asking me ‘do I want you’. You look like one of those Chippendale guys who do the cowboy strip routines. Any woman in her right mind would want you.”
He grinned. “My mother always said I was easy on the eyes. ‘Course, you can’t believe mothers about those things.”
Maggie sobered. “My mother told me to use my face instead of my mind.”
Matt shifted, took her other hand and cradled them both. “Use your heart, Maggie. What does it tell you?”
She looked at her small hands, held in his gentle grasp. He had offered her food earlier and she had taken it without argument, because she was hungry. What he was offering now could get a lot more complicated, but maybe it didn’t have to be. Could she believe in the impossible? He had a good heart, and she had a pretty face. It could make him believe…
“Maggie, I got a chance to see wolves mate once.”
She focused her attention back on him. “What?”
“Wolves. In one afternoon they see each other and decide to mate for life. It’s the prettiest dance you’ve ever seen. That’s not hormones, you can’t make me believe that. No one puts up with someone all their life because of a few moments of hormones. I think a wolf knows his soulmate when he sees her.”
Maggie eyed him skeptically. “You’re not saying we’re soulmates.”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “All I’m saying is… well, I’ve helped a lot of women in trouble. My mother calls them my damsels in distress.”
“And I’m your latest damsel?”
“I’ve never met one more in need of rescuing,” he said bluntly. When she would have pulled away, he held on. “But listen, Maggie, it’s not that. Some of the women I’ve helped didn't want my help, or took advantage of it. That hurt, and sometimes it made me mad or frustrated me, but that was because I could see they really needed help. But you-“ he paused, swallowing. “This is hard, because I’ve got to get it right. I don’t know how to say things in a fancy way. Sometime during this afternoon I started having this feeling about you. I knew I had to hold onto you, not because you needed my help. I needed to hold onto you -- for me. When I kissed you, I was sure of it.”
Maggie stared at him. Two people came together in a boardroom, players in a corporate merger, attracted to each other by power. But the fantasy had melted, and now the fantasy was here, one man on his knees in the snow. He wanted to rescue her, not with the things that made survival possible, but with the one thing that made life worth living. It was a fantasy that wiped the boardroom away like the sleet on her windshield.
Could she give it one more try? Maggie bit her lip, then tentatively slid her hand up his chest and curled her fingers around his neck under his coat and felt warm skin, short hair, and a soft, velvet mole. She leaned forward, pressed her lips shyly to his, testing his theory. He stayed still, letting her find her own truth, but she felt his fingers tighten around her other hand.
She pulled away just enough to look into his eyes, the warm greens of the sea. “Matt?” she murmured.
“Yeah.” His voice was husky with desire, and it sent tingles through all the right places.
“Do you have a razor?”
“I’m not much into the European look.” She closed in on his lips again, and pressed her smile against them.
“Let’s go to Disneyland.”