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Ride with Me by Ruthie Knox (1)

1

 

COMPANION WANTED. TransAmerica Trail. Will start in Astoria, OR, on June 1 and wrap up in Yorktown, VA, by the end of August. Camping as much as possible, with the occasional hotel. I’m easy to get along with and am looking forward to a grand adventure! E-mail [email protected].

Tom wiped the chain grease off his hand and answered the shop phone. “Salem Cycles.”

“I found you somebody,” his sister said.

“What are you talking about?”

“For tomorrow. I found you somebody to ride across the country with.”

They’d had this argument months ago, when he’d first told her about his plan to bike the TransAm this summer, and he’d thought they were done with it. He should’ve known she was merely engaged in a strategic retreat.

“Taryn—”

“Just hear me out. I found a guy, Alex, through an Adventure Cycling ad. He’s taking the same route you want to take, and he needs somebody to ride with him. You don’t even have to talk to him if you don’t want to. He cooks, and he’ll pay half on the camping fees. How bad could it be?”

It could be a nightmare. What Tom wanted was to spend a few months on the road alone, listening to the pavement under his tires and taking in forty-two hundred miles of sights. He didn’t want a buddy. He didn’t do buddies.

“I don’t need a babysitter.”

“Please, Tom. You can’t ride your bicycle across the country alone. It’s insane. You’ll end up being slaughtered by a serial killer.”

“Taryn, I’m thirty-five, single, tattooed, and antisocial. I’m the serial killer.”

“Okay, point taken. But you could get hit by a car and bleed to death by the side of the road.”

“How would riding with another person prevent that?”

“It wouldn’t, but he could call me on his cell phone so you could tell me you love me with your dying breath.”

Tom started pacing the small workspace, weaving around the bike stands and massaging his temple with the fingers of his free hand. He recognized Taryn’s tone of voice. There was something she wasn’t telling him, and whatever it was, he wasn’t going to like it. “I’ve toured alone before. There was the South America trip. Australia. Death Valley last winter. Why worry about me now?”

“I always worry about you. Worrying about you is my job. But for those trips, you didn’t give me enough notice to do anything about it. You just called me from the road to say, ‘Ta-ta, Taryn! I’m off to pedal across the Outback like a crazy person! Try not to lie awake at night imagining dingoes eating my corpse!’ ”

Tom winced. It was true, he’d deliberately left the country before telling Taryn about his plan to ride the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, but it had been for her own good. He’d spared her months of fretting—and saved himself a lot of nagging. He’d have done the same thing this time, too, if she hadn’t caught him studying the TransAm maps at his kitchen table one afternoon and managed to worm the information out of him.

Tom wasn’t about to let his sister’s irrational fears stop him from doing what he wanted to do, but given that she was his only nonestranged family member and pretty much his sole friend, he hated to make her unhappy. Taryn had stuck by him through the trial, and he owed her for that. She was probably the only reason he wasn’t living in an unheated cabin in the woods by now, composing paranoid manifestos about secret government conspiracies and mailing them off to The New York Times.

Not that she’d managed to turn him into a ray of sunshine. There was a good reason why the guy who owned the bike shop didn’t ask Tom to work the counter unless he absolutely had to. Tom would be the first to admit his social skills were rusty, and he tended to intimidate the customers. He spent his days alone, getting paid to fix bikes and riding them for free, and that was the way he liked it. But Taryn at least made sure he went out to eat now and then, even threw the occasional date his way, and he appreciated her efforts to keep him connected to the land of the living—however tenuously.

“Ground Control, Major Tom,” she said. “We’re having a conversation here, remember?”

“Right.” Another hazard of being a loner—one tended to lose the knack for polite discourse. “There aren’t any dingoes to worry about on the TransAm. It’s thoroughly civilized. Paved, even.” He considered his options, then offered a concession. “I’ll call you from the road every few days if you want. But I’m not going to ride with a partner. It’s not a vacation for me if I have to talk to someone.”

“Yeah, well, here’s the thing. I knew you were going to say that, so I didn’t exactly wait for your permission.”

Bracing a hip against the cluttered workbench, Tom resisted the urge to stick the phone in the stand clamp and press down on the handle until the plastic handset shattered. No one was a more creative meddler than his sister, and her self-satisfied tone told him she’d concocted something extra special this time.

“What did you do?”

“Like I said, I found you a guy. Alex Marshall. You’ve been e-mailing him on and off since April to hash out your plan for the tour, and he’s really excited to start the ride tomorrow. In fact, he sent you a message this morning to confirm he’ll meet you on the beach in Seaside at six A.M.”

“You set me up on a blind date with a riding buddy?”

“Oh, I’d say you’re a little more committed than that. Alex is counting on you to go all the way with him. To Virginia, that is.” He could practically hear her winking over the phone. Taryn was pleased with herself.

“So call it off.”

This was absolutely not his problem. But he had the sinking feeling he was going to have to be the one to solve it.

“No way. Alex is at a motel in Astoria as we speak, packing up his gear and getting totally stoked to meet you in the morning. I’m not going to be the one to disappoint him.”

Ah, hell. She was going to play it like this. Now he had a picture in his head of friendly old Alex Marshall waiting on the beach in his best jersey, map at the ready, panniers all packed, hopes high, looking around for a riding partner who wasn’t going to show—unless Tom drove a hundred miles out of his way to meet him. Taryn certainly wouldn’t be coming to the rescue. Once his sister made her mind up, she was as stubborn as a pit bull. She would be perfectly happy to leave Alex dangling on the beach as bait for Tom’s heroic impulses.

He kicked the corner of the workbench with one boot-clad toe, causing a few boxed tubes to tumble to the floor.

Taryn knew his weakness for hopeless cases. Achilles had that bum heel, and Tom had an unshakeable compulsion to champion the underdog. It never worked out for him any better than the heel had worked out for the Greek. If Tom hadn’t insisted on playing the hero, he wouldn’t have ended up testifying against his own father, destroying his family and his marriage in one disastrous blow. He’d still be a suit, rather than a guy with grease ground so deep into his fingertips it didn’t wash out.

It’s not like he wished he could be that other person again. But it would be nice to feel as though he had choices.

He sighed into the mouthpiece. “Why are you always backing me into corners?”

“It’s the only way I can make you do things my way,” she countered, sounding amused.

“You’re such a pain in my ass.”

“Ha! I knew it would work. You’re going to Seaside, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “And you’re going to drop me off. But I swear to you, I’m not riding with this guy all the way across the country. I’ll meet him and keep him company until we can find somebody else to be his riding partner, and then I’m taking off.”

“You could change your mind,” she said brightly. “Maybe you’ll like him.”

Tom already hated Alex Marshall. Six A.M., and he was standing around on a beach in Seaside waiting for the guy instead of sleeping in his own bed.

According to Taryn, Marshall had insisted they needed to begin the ride by dipping the wheels of their bikes in the Pacific Ocean. The moron was actually going to be riding in from Astoria to ensure he didn’t miss any of the officially mapped miles. Which was particularly stupid because it was only just now getting to be light out. Alex must have left Astoria in something close to darkness. Tom hoped the guy had flashers and a headlight, at least.

He’d just as soon have met up with Marshall at his own place in Salem. It was only a few miles off the route. What difference did skipping the first hundred miles make when the trail was more than four thousand miles long? No difference at all, except to people who were totally inflexible or inexcusably sentimental. He didn’t know which Alex was, but neither possibility inclined him to like the guy.

It didn’t help that he was late. There was nobody on the beach this early but Tom and some woman who’d rolled up at the other end of the parking lot a few minutes ago. She was obviously about to start the TransAm herself—she had a sweet steel-frame touring bike and a trailer for her gear. Looked like she was waiting for someone, which made sense, since women tended not to ride alone.

He was tempted to say to hell with Marshall and take off. Taryn had already fled the scene. A quick hug, a peck on the cheek, and she’d driven away mere minutes after he’d unpacked his stuff from her SUV. Having set this plan in motion, the last thing she’d wanted was to stay here and watch it unfold—not when the odds were good that Tom would tell Alex all about her meddling and make her look as manipulative as she was.

With Taryn gone, the only thing keeping him here was the knowledge of how guilty he’d feel if he knowingly stranded a complete stranger on his first day of the TransAm. But wouldn’t that wear off? How many miles could guilt chase him across the country?

He knew the answer, though. Thousands of miles. Dozens of months. Guilt never gave it a rest.

The woman started pushing her bike slowly toward him. Fantastic. Now he’d have to make small talk with a stranger about how excited he was to be starting, what he thought about prevailing headwinds, blah blah blah.

He made up his mind. Marshall had five minutes, and then Tom was out of here.

“Sorry to bother you, but are you Tom Geiger?” She smiled uncertainly.

It had been a while since he’d been recognized, but the automatic reply came out as quick as ever. “No comment.”

She blinked and shook her head, confused. “Is that a yes or a no?”

“That’s an ‘It’s none of your business.’ ”

This time, she narrowed her amber eyes at him in a glare that would have been menacing on a two-hundred-pound man. Coming from her, it was actually kind of … cute. Probably not the effect she was going for. “What, your identity is some kind of state secret?” she asked. “All I want to know is if you’re Tom Geiger or not. It’s a pretty simple question.”

And then he heard it—what he should have heard as soon as she’d opened her mouth. She wanted to know if he was Tom Geiger. Not Tom Vargas. Tom Geiger. Which meant she hadn’t recognized him. The woman was looking for the man he was now, not the guy he used to be.

While that was still sinking in, she added, “I’m Alex Marshall.”

Shit.

“You’re supposed to be a man.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I never said I was a man. Sometimes Alex is a woman’s name.”

When Tom didn’t reply, she shrugged as if to say What can you do? Life throws curve balls at us all. “It’s short for Alexandra. You can call me Lexie if you like that better. A lot of my friends do.”

“Well, I’m not your friend.”

“Not yet, but you’re getting off to a smashing start.” She planted her hands on her hips, staring at him. If she’d been able to breathe fire, he’d be toast by now, but considering her size and general adorableness, it was like being stared down by Tinker Bell.

“This isn’t going to work,” he said finally.

“Because I have breasts?”

Not precisely because she had breasts, no, though at the moment they weren’t a point in her favor. Those breasts were going to make it a lot trickier for him to find the right person to ride with her—he’d have to make sure whoever it was wouldn’t take advantage of her. Which, in turn, meant he was likely to be stuck with her company for a lot longer than he wanted to be.

That was the problem. Because attractive as she was, the woman screamed Type A. One look at her bike told him everything he needed to know. It was expensive, immaculate, and tricked out with high-end components. The narrow handlebars were choked with accessories, including an air horn to scare off dogs, a flashing LED safety light, a bike computer, and a handlebar bag topped with a plastic map sleeve. Inside the sleeve, she had a TransAm trail map—annotated, if his eyes didn’t deceive him, with tiny tape flags.

His general aversion to humankind aside, Tom liked women as much as the next guy. But hyperorganized, controlling women like this one reminded him of his ex-wife, and that was a reminder he could live without.

And if she needed another strike against her, there was the eight-inch reflective orange triangle hanging from the back of her saddle, on which she’d written, in large black letters, “Lexie—TransAm—OR to VA.” It may as well have read: Hi! I enjoy talking to strangers about riding my bike! Please drop whatever you’re doing to engage me in inane conversation.

Not his cup of tea.

Tom knew better than to say any of that aloud. He stuck with “This is a bad idea.”

“Which part?” she asked, with a perplexed shake of her head. She had wavy reddish brown hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Very pretty.

Very definitely not a man.

“Riding together,” he clarified.

“But wasn’t it your idea? You answered my ad.” She looked irritated with him, a little confused. Vulnerable. He wanted to help her out, except he was the problem.

This was exactly why he avoided getting tangled up with people. You reached out a helping hand, and the next thing you knew you were up to your neck in quicksand, trying and failing to figure out a way to get everybody back out again.

“My sister,” he said.

“What about your sister?”

“She answered it.”

“You’re kind of losing me here.”

“Yeah.” He crossed his arms and stared at her. Maybe if he was rude enough, she’d give up and go home. There was a risk she would cry first, and that would be unpleasant, but he could weather it if he had to.

She crossed her own arms, mimicking his posture, and stared right back. “Yeah.”