Revenge, decided Sabina Jones, was a dish best served on the side of the road to the tune of a police siren.
It had all started with Sabina doing what she always did on Thanksgiving—hitting the road and blasting the radio to drown out the lack of a phone call from her mother. Thirteen years of no Thanksgiving calls, and it still bothered her. Even though she now had her life pretty much exactly how she wanted it, holidays were tough. When things got tough, Sabina, like any normal, red-blooded American woman, turned up the volume.
In her metallic blue El Camino, at a red light in Reno, Nevada, she let the high-decibel sound of Kylie Minogue dynamite any stray regrets out of her head. She danced her fingers on the steering wheel and bopped her head, enjoying the desert-warm breeze from the half-open window.
So what if she had her own way to celebrate Thanksgiving? This was America. Land of the Free. If she wanted to spend Thanksgiving in Reno letting off steam, the Founding Fathers ought to cheer along and say, “You go, girl.”
The honk of a car horn interrupted Kylie in mid–“la-la-la-la.” She glanced to her left. In the lane next to her, a black-haired, black-eyed giant of a man in a black Jeep aimed a ferocious scowl her way. He pointed to the cell phone at his ear and then at her radio, then back and forth a few times.
“Excuse me?” Sabina said sweetly, though he had no chance of hearing her over the blaring radio. “If you think I’m going to turn my radio down so you can talk on your cell phone while driving, forget it. That’s illegal, you know. Not to mention dangerous.”
The man gave an impatient gesture. This time Sabina noticed that his eyebrows were also black, that they slashed across his face like marauding Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that his eyes were actually one shade removed from black, with maybe a hint of midnight blue, and that his shoulders and chest were packed with muscle.
She rolled her window all the way down, pasted a charming smile on her face, and leaned out. With her window wide open, the noise from her radio had to be even louder. “Excuse me? I can’t hear you.”
He yelled, “Can you please turn that down!” in a deep, gravelly voice like that of a battlefield commander sending his troops into the line of fire.
Despite his use of the word “please,” it was most definitely not a request. Sabina guessed that most people jumped to obey him. An air of authority clung to him like sexy aftershave. But she’d never responded well to orders off the job. At the station she didn’t have a choice, but here in her own car, no one was going to boss her around, not even a gigantic, sexy stranger. She reached over and turned up the volume even higher.
“Is that better?” she yelled through her window, with the same sweet smile. With one part of her brain, she wondered how strict the Reno PD was about noise ordinances.
She couldn’t hear his answer, but she could practically guarantee it included profanity.
For the first time this miserable Thanksgiving, her mood lifted. Her childhood holidays had always been spent fighting with her mother. In her mother’s absence, she’d have to make do with bickering with the guy in the next car over. As someone who prided herself on never complaining, she’d much rather fight than feel sorry for herself.
It occurred to her that he might be talking to a family member. Some people had normal families and celebrated holidays in a normal fashion—or so she’d heard. She moved her hand toward the volume dial, ready to cave in and turn it down.
The man rolled his window all the way up, stuck one finger—a very particular finger—in one ear, and yelled into his phone.
Sabina snatched her hand away from the dial. If he yelled at his family like that, and had the nerve to give her the finger, he deserved no mercy. Besides, the light was about to change and she was going to make him eat her El Camino’s dust.
She stared at the red light, tensing her body in anticipation. The light for the cars going the other direction had turned yellow. The cars were slowing for the stoplight, and the last Toyota still in the intersection had nearly passed through. She poised her foot over the accelerator.
Then something black and speedy caught the corner of her eye. The Jeep cruised through the intersection. The big jerk hadn’t even waited for the light to change. It finally turned green when he was halfway through the intersection.
Indignant, she slammed her foot onto the accelerator. Her car surged into the intersection. He wasn’t too far ahead . . . she could still catch him . . . pass him . . .
A flash in her rearview mirror made her yank her foot off the accelerator. A Reno PD cruiser passed her, lights flashing, siren blaring. It crowded close to the Jeep, which put on its right-turn signal and veered toward the curb. She slowed to let both vehicles pass in front of her. As the policeman pulled up behind the Jeep, she cruised past, offering the black-haired man her most sparkling smile.
In exchange, he sent her a look of pure black fire.
Sweet, sweet revenge.
Sabina’s cell phone rang, flashing an unfamiliar number. For a wild moment, she wondered if it was the man in the Jeep, calling to yell at her again. Of course that was impossible, but who would be calling from a strange number? She’d already wished the crew at the firehouse Happy Thanksgiving. She’d already called Carly, her “Little Sister” from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Was her mother finally calling, after thirteen missed Thanksgivings? Annabelle wasn’t even in the U.S., according to the latest tabloid reports. But still, what if . . .
Her heart racing, she picked up the phone and held it to her ear. “Hello.”
Clucking chicken noises greeted her. She let out a long breath. Of course it wasn’t her mother. What had she been thinking?
“I can’t talk right now, Anu. I’m in Reno.”
“Yes, skipping Thanksgiving. That’s precisely what I want to talk to you about.”
“I’m not skipping it. I’m celebrating in my own way.”
“I located a potential partner for you. A very obliging guest here at the restaurant. He’s letting me use his phone so you can install his number in your contacts.” Anu, who was from India, claimed pushy matchmaking was in her blood.
“Seriously. Can’t talk.” Especially about that.
“Very well. You go to your soulless casino filled with strangers, drink your pink gin fizzes, and pretend you’re celebrating Thanksgiving.”
In the midst of rolling her eyes, Sabina spotted the police cruiser in her rearview mirror.
“Gotta go.” She dropped the phone to the floorboards just as the police car passed her. The cop cruised past, turning blank sunglasses on her.
A sunny smile, a little wave, and the officer left her alone. A few moments later, the black Jeep caught up to her. The gigantic black-haired man looked straight ahead, either ignoring her or oblivious to her. For some reason she didn’t like either of those possibilities. Or maybe she just wanted another fight.
She reached for her volume control and turned the radio up full blast. The man didn’t react, other than to drum his fingers on his steering wheel. Fine. She rolled her window down to make it even louder, knowing how ridiculously childish she was being.
Thanksgiving brought out the worst in her, she’d be the first to admit.
The corner of the man’s mouth quivered. Good. She was getting to him. The sounds of Kylie filled the El Camino, high notes careening around the interior, bass line vibrating the steering wheel. Adding her own voice to the din, she sang along at the top of her lungs. She might as well be inside a jukebox, especially with that gaudy light flashing in the rearview mirror . . .
One hundred and twenty dollars later, she pulled up in front of the Starlight Motel and Casino. Why couldn’t she experience, just once, a peaceful Thanksgiving filled with love, harmony, and mushroom-walnut stuffing? Her mother had always dragged her to some producer’s house where she’d be stuck with kids she didn’t know, rich, spoiled, jealous kids who mocked her crazy red hair and baby fat. She’d always ended the evening in tears, with her mother scolding her. This is what we do in this business, kiddo. Would it kill you to make a few friends? Those kids could be getting you work someday.
Her mother had gotten that part wrong. Sabina had found her own work, thank you very much. And it meant everything to her.
The setting sun beamed golden light directly into her eyes, mocking her with its cheerful glory. Thanksgiving always messed with her, always bit her in the ass. On a few Thanksgivings, she’d tried calling her mother, only to get the runaround from her assistant. But now Annabelle was in France and none of her numbers worked anymore.
Damn. Why hadn’t she just signed up for the holiday shift at the station and spent the day putting out oven fires?
She grabbed her bag and marched through the double front doors, only to stop short, blocked by a giant figure looming in her path. Even though she couldn’t see clearly in the dimmer light of the lobby, she knew exactly who it was. A shocking thrill went through her; she should have guessed the man in the Jeep would turn up again.
“Well, this is a lucky coincidence,” the man said in a voice like tarred gravel. “The way I figure it, you owe me three hundred and sixty-eight dollars. Cash will be fine.”
“Excuse me?” She peered up at him, his black hair and eyes coming quickly into focus. Her stomach fluttered at the sheer impact of his physical presence. He was absolutely huge, well over six feet tall, a column of hard muscle contained within jeans and a black T-shirt. “If you’re referring to your well-deserved spanking from the Reno PD, don’t even start. No one made you run that red light.”
“Sorry, did you say something? I can barely hear you over the ringing in my ears.”
Sabina lifted her chin. If he thought he could intimidate her, he didn’t realize who he was dealing with. She worked with firefighters all day long, not one of them a pushover. “Maybe you should try not yelling at your family for a change.”
“Excuse me?” He glowered down at her, looking mortally offended. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Realizing she’d probably crossed a line, Sabina scrambled to recover. “Anyway, you already got your revenge. They gave me a ticket too. We’re square.”
“I wouldn’t have had to yell if you’d had the common decency to respond to a perfectly reasonable request.”
Sabina felt her temperature rise. He wasn’t making it easy to make peace with him. “Request? Something tells me you never make requests. Orders, sure. Requests, dream on.”
“You think you know me?”
“Why should I want to know you when all you do is scowl and shout at me?”
“Shout?” He shook his head slowly, with a stupefied look. “They told me the people were different out here. I had no idea that meant insane.”
Sabina tried to sidestep around him and end this crazy downward spiral of a conversation. “I wish the police gave tickets for rudeness, you’d have about three more by now.”
He blocked her path again, so she found herself nose-to-chest with him. Sabina imagined him as a Scottish laird or a medieval warrior hacking at enemies on the battlefield. The man was fierce, but annoyingly attractive. He even smelled nice, like sunshine on leather seats.
“How about drowning out a man’s first phone call with his son in two thousand miles? How’s that for rudeness?”
He had a point. But a surge of resentment swamped her momentary pang of conscience. So some people did talk to their children on Thanksgiving. Normal people, irritatingly, aggravatingly, unreachably normal people. People who were not her or her mother.
“Fine,” she snapped. “Here.” She dug in her pocket and took out a handful of change. “We’re at a casino, right? Play your cards right and you’ll get your precious three hundred and sixty-eight dollars. Good luck.”
She lifted one of his hands—so big and warm—and plopped her small pile of change into his palm. With the air of an offended duchess, she swept past him, deeply appreciating the way his black-stubbled jaw dropped open.
So maybe she’d been wrong before. Maybe revenge was a dish best served in a hotel lobby with a side of loose change.