Why the hell didn’t I go with the flats?
That thought would kick my ass later.
Shoes? Really? At a moment like that, my heart pounding in my ears, sweating through fifteen miles of lace, silk, and guilt, and picturing everyone’s appalled faces right about now—I was just wishing for good running shoes?
I was a selfish, horrible troll.
A troll who they’d be looking for any minute.
“Shit!” I huffed, weaving through the cars parked along the street, holding up a dress that cost more than my car—“My car!” I gasped, stopping short and spinning around. It was in the back of the church, waiting to take Jeremy and me to the reception…but no, my keys were in Jeremy’s pants pocket, on his body, at the altar, waiting on the selfish horrible troll. Don’t think about that. “Damn it!”
I whirled back around and jogged into the street on my four-inch heels to make better time, knowing that at any minute someone would figure it out. Jeremy, my brothers, my friends—no, Jeremy’s friends. Someone would come to see why the big heavy music that shook the floor so hard I felt it in my hoo-hah didn’t come accompanied with a girl in a big white dress. My window was narrow at best.
I just had to make it to the signal light at the corner. Then I could—what? Call a cab? In Cherrydale, Texas? Right. And on what, my special holographic phone? Unlike my actual one still back in the dressing room.
Breathe…run…breathe…run…I chanted in my head to the rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement. Hopping really, like I was on stilts. Breathe…run…At the light, I could duck into the old Smith’s Drugstore, and pray that Mr. Dan, the pharmacist, would let me use his phone to call an Uber.
Breathlessly, I reached the drugstore door, the glass etched with time and dust and grimy fingers, and pulled. Nothing.
“It’s two o’clock,” I huffed. “Who closes at—” I shut my eyes, willing back the tears of panic I felt welling up in my eyes and throat. Mr. Dan was at the wedding, too. Of course he was. Because Jeremy’s mother invited the whole damn town…
Plan B—what the hell was plan B when there was never really a plan A? I glanced upward. Really to drive back the tears, but I’d take any help at that moment.
What are you doing, Micah?
The unmistakable rumble of a Harley preceded an all-black machine straddled by an equally unmistakable male in jeans stretched to love him and a black T-shirt, his head and face completely covered in a black helmet as he rolled up to the light and set boots on the ground to balance the bike.
He turned his head my way and goose bumps went down my back. I swear there was a question there. I couldn’t see his face, but—no. No. That’s not plan B, little voices said in my head. You’re a responsible person now. You own—well, you sort of own a business. You have bills. Obligations.
You’re a Roman.
Yeah. That one right there should have slapped me back down the street. But being a respectable Roman, always held to some invisible standard that only my oldest brother could pull off, wasn’t working for me today.
Harley-guy’s right hand reached up, sliding the mirrored visor open, revealing dark eyes that even from twenty feet away made my breath catch. In a good way.
Shit, double fuckwaffles! No! I didn’t need breath-catching in any way. I just ran my dumb ass away from one man. But what the hell were my feet doing? I took two steps toward him, and I definitely saw the question that time. Curiosity. Puzzlement. Wariness? Yeah, Harley-guy should have that, because clearly I didn’t have enough.
“You need help?” he called out over the idling rumble, his voice deep.
I caught a distorted reflection of myself in the dirty window. Hair falling out of the expensive ornate up-do, poking out in unruly frizzy corkscrews above the short veil. Black spreading under my eyes from sweat and tears. Standing on a steamy sidewalk in a mountain of blinding white. It was probably a logical question, but damn the guy had to have balls to jump off into that crazy.
All I could hear was my racing heart and my breathing, even over the motor.
No. This is lunacy. All of it is lunacy, but what you’re thinking of doing here is the cherry on top of the—
I gasped so hard it made me cough, as I jerked in the direction I’d come from, toward the familiar voice I’d known since I was twenty-four. In eight years, I’d heard every possible inflection or emotion in Jeremy Blankenship’s voice. I’d heard every range of happy, sad, and controlled anger, but I’d never heard this. Even from all the way down the road, I heard the timbre of mortification in his yell, maybe mixed with a little hurt and what-the-fuck. I’d give him that. He deserved the what-the-fuckedness of this situation.
He was standing in the church parking lot alone, until two other tuxedoed men appeared in the doorway behind him. Thatcher and Jackson. My eyes filled again as I turned away from them and stared back at Harley-guy. I couldn’t face my brothers right now. I couldn’t explain to them why—
“Micah!” Jeremy yelled again, this time in the tone I recognized. Not the one that told me he loved me last night. The one that said How dare you embarrass me. I glanced back to see him striding purposefully in my direction, and the panic seized my chest.
“Lady?” Harley-guy called out, yanking my attention back his way. “Light’s green.”
Fight or flight.
Fight or flight.
I looked into eyes I didn’t know from Adam and felt the weirdest pull ever. My stilettoed feet made the decision for me, carrying me off the curb, into the street, hauling my weight in dress up to throw a leg over the seat and straddle his ass.
“You sure?” he said over his shoulder.
“Are you?” I felt a laugh rumble through his body as he shook his head. “Yeah, touché. You aren’t gonna kill me, are you?”
“Because if I was, I’d tell you?” he said, revving the engine. “Put on that helmet behind you and hold on.”
Oh, sweet Jesus, what am I doing?
That was my last thought as I tugged the veil off, bobby pins flying in all directions, shoved the helmet on, shut my eyes tight, and wrapped my arms around his middle the best I could with all that dress. Shut them against the reality of the world I’d just created. Against the sight of my veil lying in the street. Of Jeremy running down the street after me. My brothers running for Thatcher’s truck.
All there was, was the bike moving under me and the man between my legs as we sped away, out of Cherrydale. Toward the highway. To God knows where.
“Where are we going?” I yelled over the din as we hit the highway going south.
“I’m going to Charmed,” he yelled back, turning his head slightly so I could hear him. The I’m in that sentence was stressed to let me know in no uncertain terms that anything after that was on me. “It’s about an hour.”
I nodded, trying to calm my heart rate and breathe like a normal person. I knew Charmed, or I knew of it. My family’s flower farm rented beehives from Bash Anderson, the owner of an apiary there. That was fine. That’d be good. Not so far away that I’d totally lost my mind. Just maybe a little. Give me a minute to pull my shit together before the cavalry came. Also, it was good that the stranger I was straddling had a destination. Higher odds that he wasn’t going to rape and kill me and leave me in a ditch.
My decision-making abilities needed an overhaul.
“Probably less than that, actually,” he continued, making my heart skip in my chest as he upped the speed. “They are going to come after you and I don’t feel like fighting today.”
“You don’t have to fight for me,” I yelled.
“I’m not,” he said. Well, so much for chivalry. “But that guy’s gonna need to hit something, and it won’t be you.”
There was that.
“What are you going to Charmed for?” I asked.
He paused. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard me.
“Work,” he finally tossed back.
“You work there?”
“I will shortly.”
We sped along the road in silence for the rest of about forty-five minutes, me attempting to look over my shoulder with a giant ball on my head while maintaining my death grip on some really good abs. A few cars tapped their horns at us, probably thinking we’d just gotten married, but no little old Mustang of mine whipped up next to us with an angry Jeremy inside. No big four-wheel-drive truck loomed, either. Which surprised me, because while Jeremy might give up, my older brother, Thatcher, wouldn’t. They must have assumed I’d gone home first or was hiding in Cherrydale somewhere.
That would have been the logical thing to do. Well—if bolting for the door microseconds before walking down the aisle was the relative comparison. In that case, a logical person would have maybe just gone outside to calm her frayed nerves. Maybe walked around the block even. If that person had gone so off the rails as to climb onto a stranger’s motorcycle and speed away, smart thinking would surely kick in after a block or two at which point she’d ask him to bring her back to the church. Or to Jeremy’s house where we’d lived together for the past two years, after sharing apartments for five before that, to get some things. Somewhere that made sense.
They were looking for that person. The Micah Roman who had put away her spontaneous fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants ways, along with her tendencies to ditch and run when things got too tough. The bar waitress-slash-sometimes artist-slash-whatever-made-money that had stepped out of those unstable shoes into business ownership with her brother, channeling her spirited creativity into the flower farming instead. The woman who packed up her beloved funky hats and shoes to finally adorn herself like a responsible businesswoman and worthy future wife to the heir of the Blankenship Resale empire.
Empire, my ass.
They ruled over Cherrydale Trade Days, mostly, which was several square miles of booth space for people to buy and sell their damn junk. That by itself was awesome. It’s where I’d met Jeremy, while I was digging through a box of old retro hats and jewelry. The Trade Days was still relatively new at the time, since his family had relocated from farther south four years earlier. It was still growing, and the family roamed the grounds, interacting with customers. He’d stopped and teased me, and I’d found him deliciously adorable in that way a guy is when he’s cutely making fun of your passion and you instantly think of fifteen ways you’ll change him and you’ll be picking out antique mosaic cabinet knobs together. Wearing matching plaid berets.
From that to now. In a ridiculous dress that was meant to say I do in, speeding down a highway with a nameless man to get as far away from Jeremy as I could—as quickly as possible.
So, it was just me and Harley-guy and speed. It was insane. I was insane! I could just hear my brothers now. Well, not Jackson. Jackson knew me. He knew my soul, my heart, my endless need for rebellion and nonconformity. He was my first shoplifting buddy when I went rebellious after our dad died, when I taught him how to pocket bubblegum from the corner store. He was the one who raised an eyebrow when I moved out of the house at eighteen into a friend’s garage when I just couldn’t live under my mother’s roof anymore. And again when I put all my cherished old record albums and crazy prints into our mom’s attic to move in with Jeremy and started wearing just one watch instead of four. Jackson got me. He probably saw this coming like a smoking volcano. He’d just give me a look and a hug and tell me he had my back. Thatcher—oh, man. He was going to get all puffed up, probably pace, and ask me, “What woman in her right mind did this?”
And he was right. I didn’t know this dude I had my arms around. He could be twenty-one kinds of psycho, but oddly enough I felt nothing but safe with him. It vibrated off him, along with a primal intensity that was impossible not to feel. Okay, maybe that was the Harley’s motor thrumming under my ass, but it felt like more than that.
Shit, yes, I was certifiable.
But the speed. It was awesome. It was like being out in the fields and the greenhouses with my hands in the dirt, textures and colors and aromas surrounding me, filling my senses. I loved being out there with the flowers, free, dirty, and reaching for the sun. This was close. When I closed my eyes, it was like flying, free and unchained. Unshackled from expectations and the limitations of boxes. Boring, cream-colored Blankenship boxes that had been trying to enclose me for almost a decade. I felt like something freeze-dried that had been dropped into water, or one of those vacuum-sealed packages that explode to three times their size when introduced to air. I wanted to cry from the joy of it, but I wasn’t about to add hysterical female to what this guy probably already thought.
The exit for Charmed appeared, touting a big sign with bees and flowers on it saying Welcome to Charmed. Home of the World Famous Honey Festival. We slowed into the curve of the exit, and I was surprised as disappointment washed over me, a new anxiety prickling my skin.
Exploding from my vacuum seal was great, but the adventure was ending. My fantasy was easy while adulting was put on hold and no words were exchanged, but shit was about to get real.
Another sign loomed before the turn, advertising a theme park called the Lucky Charm. I’d heard about it and the Honey Festival, but Jeremy never wanted to check them out, thinking it silly to drive an hour to buy bad food and ride a ride. Well, I’d done it now. Go me.
Rolling through Charmed, I was suddenly very aware of my attire. I felt every eye on us. Granted, I probably wouldn’t have to be wearing a giant wedding dress for that. If Charmed was anything like Cherrydale, we’d get that same stare just for being out-of-towners.
Still, as we pulled to a stop in front of an old diner with a funky retro sign that said Blue Banana Grille, all I could think about was getting this thing off. This place looked like white bread, bologna, and apple pie, like crazy didn’t land here much, and I had crazy radiating off me. I could feel it. I needed normal, and I had a feeling that anything resembling it was back there with my cell phone and keys. And—
“Oh, shit,” I said, waiting while he grounded us.
“What?” he asked, his voice sounding preoccupied.
He pulled off his helmet, raking a hand back through short dark hair, while those dark eyes I’d seen earlier focused in hard on the diner door. I had the feeling the novelty of me had played out, and my new friend was ready to move on with his day.
“Nothing,” I said, pulling my helmet off as well and hooking it back behind me, the reality of my situation rushing in on me from every direction.
I took a deep breath, smiling at a lady riding by on a giant tricycle, who waved and didn’t miss a beat. Then again, maybe I could blend.
He held a hand out, supposedly for me, and when I paused, he blew out a breath.
“Well, I don’t want to kick you in the face, so you need to get off first,” he said, shoving the hand toward me again.
I gave the back of his head a look, resisting the urge to thump it. It was a good head, as heads go, but the part running his mouth was kind of a douche. Although what did I expect from my Harley-riding savior? For him to hold me while I had a good cry? Hell no. I’d pluck my head bald first.
“You should write Hallmark cards,” I muttered.
Huffing a little, I tugged my dress up to almost my waist—at least high enough to catch sight of the blue glittery garter ribbon on my left thigh. So did he, I noticed, as the good head tilted downward. I grabbed his hand, expecting it to be for balance, but found myself nearly vaulted off the seat within a microsecond. I even forgot to let go of my dress, standing there with my girlie goods just about on display.
“You good?” he asked, letting go of me, swinging his leg over.
“S—sure,” I managed, getting my balance and my first real look at him.
From the worn jeans to the black T-shirt to the really good arms rippling as he tucked his helmet under his arm. A little scruff peppered the hard lines of his face and balanced the sexiest full lips I’d ever seen on a man. Not to mention those soft, dark, haunted-looking eyes I’d already seen. Dear God, if I had to completely muck up my life today, at least it ended in this visual. This guy was jaw-dropping.
His gaze was dropping, too, sliding right down my bare legs.
“You might want to let go of that,” he said, with a jut of his chin.
I dropped the fabric like it burned my fingers, cursing under my breath. Shit, get it together, Micah.
“Okay, so thank you,” I said, pressing my hands to my hot cheeks. “I’d pay you, but—”
I pointed at the bike. “For the ride? For the gas?”
“I was coming here already,” he said. “You looked like you needed help. At least in those shoes.”
I nodded as I glanced down at the spikes attached to my feet. “Something like that. But I don’t have my wallet anyway, so…”
“Didn’t think that through very well, did you?” he said.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Thanks for clarifying that.”
“Do you have a plan?” he asked.
“Didn’t you just establish that I didn’t?” I said, rubbing my temples and wishing for an entire bottle of extra-strength something to dive into.
He blew out a breath and focused back on the door again, as if his attempt at polite small talk with the crazy lady had just run its course.
“I mean going forward,” he said. “Obviously, you probably didn’t start this day thinking this is where you’d end up, but I felt your mind spinning the whole way here. Do you know what you’re going to do?”
I chuckled in spite of the barbs jabbing behind my skull. “That was survival prep you felt.”
One eyebrow lifted in response. “Survival prep?”
“In case you were planning to chop me up and turn me into fertilizer, I had some defense going,” I said.
Which wasn’t total bullshit. I had thought of that for probably two minutes, before turning to the What the hell do I do now? channel.
The dark eyes narrowed with amusement, and it warmed his whole face. Like—serious Push me backward and hold on to my ovaries kind of warmth.
“Oh?” he said, taking a step closer.
No. I refused to take a step back. He was either being intimidating or flirty and I had no room in my brain for either. I couldn’t help that I looked like an idiot doing what I’d done today. It happened. I didn’t need this guy to scare me into some sort of lesson about stranger danger. No matter how hot he was. Because if he was just being flirty—well, my body might react to that because he was clearly carved from electricity and testosterone, but my heart said I’d just left one mostly-decent-basically-sort-of-nice guy at an altar, and my head said I didn’t need any more alpha males. Period. I tugged at my dress to cover my boobs better, but it wasn’t budging, so I crossed my arms. Which only drew his gaze to exactly there.
“And what was this defense plan of yours?”
His voice slid over my skin like butter. My body needed its ass kicked.
“I—I’d tell you but—”
He held up a hand. “Yeah, I know how that one goes, but just so you know—”
He glanced past me as the door opened and an elderly man walked out, carrying with him the sounds of clinking silverware and chatter before the door closed behind him. Harley-guy’s expression disappeared on me again, all caught up in that building.
“Hey, don’t let me keep you,” I said. “If you have to get to work or something—”
His gaze snapped back to me. “What?”
I widened mine. “You said you were coming here for work? And you can’t get enough of the view of this diner, so—if you need to go in there, go ahead. I’ll—figure out what I’m doing in a minute.”
“Don’t you want to go clean up?” he said.
Just kick me in the face, already.
I smiled and averted my focus down the street. To—more of the same. Another little town pretty much like mine, where everyone knows everyone and nothing is private or personal. I swiped under my eyes, mentally groaning at the black on my fingers.
“Sure,” I said.
“And call someone?” he added.
I slid my raccoon eyes up to meet his. “No phone.”
He sighed, rubbing at his neck. “Of course not,” he muttered.
“I’m not asking to use yours,” I said.
“And I’m not offering it,” he quipped. “Again—I have my own shit to deal with, lady. I don’t need a pissed-off, jilted lover tracking me down making me have to hurt somebody.”
I shook my head. Men.
“Let’s just do this,” I said, turning toward the door and then pivoting back. I held out a hand. “Thank you again if I don’t see you when I come out of the bathroom.”
Harley-guy looked down at my hand and took it in his. It was warm and protective and gave me all the good feelings I needed to run from.
“You gonna be okay?”
I took a deep breath and licked my dry lips. My ex-therapist would be proud. He’d always told me I played things too safe lately. I fired him last month, and now look at me. All fucking dangerous.
“I’ll land on my feet.”
“Do you have a name I can put with this story one day?” he asked, letting go of my hand to cross his arms over his chest. “Or do I just call you Miss Runaway?”
“Roman—” I began, automatically going into business mode, too late thinking I needed to not tell anyone I was Micah Roman. As in the Romans who owned and operated Cherrydale Flower Farm.
Then again, we weren’t in Cherrydale anymore, Toto.
“—off,” I added.
His eyes narrowed slightly. “Roman-off? As in Romanov?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it, going with a nod.
“First name Anastasia, I assume?” he asked.
No, not cute. Nothing was cute.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, Anastasia,” he said. “In case I don’t see you again, the next time you’re plotting a defense, here’s a tip. Start with what’s on you.”
“On me,” I echoed.
“You have heels on those shoes that can put an eye out, and five hundred pins holding up your hair. With enough force, any one of those pins can puncture an eardrum and bring a man to his knees.”
“Wow,” I said as my eyebrows probably moved up there with the bobby pins. The skin on the back of my neck prickled with recognition. Arrogance or confidence? My spidey sense twitched. “That’s—a lot of observation.”
He didn’t blink. “That boulder on your finger?”
I glanced down at Jeremy’s ring. Funny how I always thought of it that way. Jeremy’s ring. Never mine.
“That thing could open a jugular,” he said softly toward my ear, brushing against me as he headed toward the door.
“Okay,” I said, turning with him, almost magnetically. As if being plastered to him for the last hour had bonded us and now there was this arc of electricity pulling at me. Ugh. Spray me down with something. “And you, Mr. Scowling-Harley-guy? Do you have a name?”
“Leo,” he said as he kept walking. “Leo McKane.”