I gripped the steering wheel, trying to see through the snow to the road ahead. “No, Mom, I don’t mind driving four hours to go see if you left the stove on. I have nothing else going on anyway. Stop crying. I’m on my way. No problem.”
I ended the call and tossed the cell phone onto the passenger seat, not through the passenger window like my current mood called for.
My poor Honda sedan. I could never sell the car. If it ever developed the power of speech, all my secrets would be out. It knew all my troubles, and this latest drive to the Catskill Mountains on a Sunday afternoon was no exception. I’d ranted about my mother and her issues all the way from the Philadelphia suburbs to the New York State Thruway.
The clouds hung as heavily as my mood. At thirty, I’d involuntarily been cast in the role of the maiden aunt. There was always one in every family. Why it had to be me, I’d never know. I wasn’t exactly a lingerie model, but I was pretty enough. Well, when I wasn’t dressed in coveralls for work. When my hair wasn’t yanked back in a braid. No one wanted to get their hair caught in the cylinders of a V-6 engine or in the machine when they were balancing tires.
Really, if the world were a fair place, I should’ve had my pick of dates. The ratio of men to women in the automotive repair industry was something like ninety-five to one. But the world wasn’t a fair place, and the hot guys in Jaguars looked down on the brunette who rotated their tires. The mediocre guys in oversize parachute pants thought I was a catch. I had better taste than that, even after three years in involuntary chastity. I had enough batteries and Aaron Elias movies on DVD to keep me occupied.
If I even for a moment gave a moment’s consideration to a friends-with-benefits partnership with Randy who manned the counter at the parts supply shop, I feared my standards were starting to slip. And I had thought about it. He wasn’t what I wanted for life, but I was starting to crave something for now. Something that didn’t require batteries and a remote control. These were the kinds of things that cross your mind when you fear you’ve forgotten how to kiss.
I sang along with the raspy old radio. Sure, my trusty steed Rosinante didn’t require a computer tech to keep her going, but she had almost two hundred thousand steady miles under her belts with no signs of quitting yet. With a little TLC, Rosie was the one thing in my life I could trust not to abandon me in my time of need, which was a good thing considering the lightly falling snow blocked out the late-afternoon sun. Her tires were in good shape, her wipers did a great job on the windshield, and her headlamps were clear. We made the perfect team. Too bad I couldn’t date her.
At least Mom had had the courtesy to call me so I had time to get there before sunset. The snow was something of a surprise to all of us, but these were the mountains, and anything was possible.
Ahead on the side of the road sat a Volvo sedan with its shiny black hood in the locked and upright position. White smoke streamed from the engine compartment.
“Swedish craftsmanship, my ass,” I muttered as I pulled over ahead of the sedan. The driver sat in the car, talking on his cell phone and looking pretty pissed. I saw his hand waving and his face curled in frustration. The way he looked, I wasn’t sure he’d be too happy to see me either, but I hadn’t seen any tow trucks along the road since I got off the Thruway. Somebody was going to have to help the poor guy out before he froze to death. The house could wait.
I walked over and stood beside the bumper. “Need a hand?” I waved away snowflakes.
Midrant, he looked at me through the windshield and froze. Like, actual deer-in-the-headlights froze.
As did I. Aaron Elias sat behind the wheel, looking back at me. Phenomenally talented movie star, award-nominated, and some waiting-room magazine’s Hottest Man Alive
three years ago. And he was gaping at me.
“Oh shit,” I said. Sure, he didn’t look like the drug-addled writer he’d played in Odds and Ends
. He didn’t look like the trainer-turned-gigolo in All or Nothing
. And he sure didn’t look like the cheating boyfriend of a cancer patient, a role that got him noticed by the awards committee, but I knew in an instant it was him. Hot white light bounced from my toes to my heart to my lower regions. Good Lord, the man was even better looking in person than when he was ten feet tall on a silver screen.
He said something into the phone, touched the screen, and climbed out of the car.
I backed up in a hurry, murmuring, “Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.” Though I wasn’t sure why
I was backing up. I mean, not every girl gets the chance to face the hottest guy in Hollywood. It’d be nice if I were better dressed with my hair done. I looked like a giant tomboy who could easily be mistaken for a long-haired redneck guy. Oh, hell. Maybe that was
what he thought he saw. A redneck guy who’d pulled over to try to fix the Volvo’s engine. Which, as it happened, I could do.
“Are you the repair guy?” he said.
I almost melted. Good God, he had an amazing voice. Deep and rich and resonant, which was part of why he was such an amazing actor, because listening to him mesmerized me. I could watch his movies with my eyes closed. Sometimes I did. Sometimes with one hand free. Not the whole movie. Just a scene or even a line could get my motor going. Yeah, I probably needed a life.
He waved, looking at me sideways. “Hello?” I could’ve slapped myself. My chance to be all cool and blasé, and I’d wasted it by acting like a starstruck teenager. Smooth move, Grace
. He sighed, his broad shoulders shifting with resignation. “Yes, I’m Aaron Elias.”
I swallowed though my throat was bone-dry. “Yeah, I noticed. So. When did the water pump go on you?”
It was his turn to blink. “You’re a girl.”
I took off my Phillies cap. My braid fell forward. “Last time I looked.”
He got out of the car. “You’re not from AAA, are you?”
“No. I was driving by. You looked like you’re in trouble.”
Something dawned in his eyes that I liked. I might’ve believed it was respect, but I didn’t dare hope. I didn’t see respect in men’s eyes often, even when I was diagnosing their failing serpentine belts before
they destroyed their engines.
“And you know what’s wrong with my car?”
I nodded, turning to the steaming engine. The change of view made me comfortable because looking at him gave me goose bumps that had nothing to do with the weather. “Your water pump’s gone. The hose is eaten up too. I don’t know where you started from or what got under your hood, but you’re out of commission till you get that repaired.”
He looked up the road. “How far can I get if I don’t?”
“Depends. How far can you walk?”
He turned to me like he was waiting for the punchline. I didn’t have one to give him. “You’re serious.”
“Do the words ‘dead as a doornail’ ring a bell?”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “Do you ever answer a question without another question?”
He licked his fingertip and then drew a line in the air. My chest seized at the sight of his tongue, as if my peripheral vision ended right there. My heart thumped hard, craving the chance to know more and get closer.
“Okay, so where does one get a new water pump out here?”
“No idea, I’m afraid. I’m not from around here.”
He shook his head, his eyes sparkling with amusement I wish I felt, given the circumstances. “Some guardian angel you turned out to be.” He hadn’t finished the sentence before the wind picked up, and the snow briefly obscured my view. I shivered again, though not for pleasant reasons.
“Yeah, well, you won’t be the first person I’ve disappointed. My parents’ summer house is about a mile up the road. We can go there to get out of the snow for now.” My brain heard the words my mouth had let loose, and I froze. What had possessed me to offer him a place to stay? It was
Aaron Elias, but he was a stranger. I hadn’t heard anything about him being a dick in real life. I didn’t hear much of anything about him as a person in general. He didn’t seem to be one of those celebrities that went through limelight withdrawal if their names weren’t in the headlines once a week. It was cold and snowing. His car was DOA, and I was sucker enough to drive four hours so my mom could sleep in peace. (And also stop calling me.) “I’ll call to get your car towed off the shoulder. With any luck, they’ll take it someplace they can fix it. It probably won’t be today, though. You weren’t in a hurry to get somewhere, were you?”
He turned away to look up into the falling snow. “Not really. You’re sure you don’t mind?”
I shrugged. “No, it’s fine, but if we don’t get out of this soon, we’re going to turn into snowmen. Do you need anything in the car?”
“Yeah.” He hurried to the backseat and pulled out a designer carry-on and a cardboard box. That got my eyebrows up, but I wasn’t going to say anything. He was entitled to his business. I walked back to Rosinanta and dropped into the driver’s seat, shaking the flakes and wetness off my head.
He opened the passenger-side door, sat down, and looked at me. “Thank you,” he said, sounding tired. “I haven’t seen anyone drive by for the last fifteen minutes.”
Holy moly. Had it been so long since someone else rode in my car that I’d forgotten how small it could be, or did he fill the space by being there?
Jeez, girl, get your head back on. He’s a guy. You’re doing him a favor. No big deal. He’d probably spend the whole time on his phone, talking to someone in Hollywood. You’ll be just another servant.
I nodded toward the windshield. “Yeah. The area’s kind of remote, and it’s snowing.”
He looked ahead. “Pretty heavy. You come up here a lot?”
I turned the key in the ignition. Rosie purred to life. “Not in the winter. My parents are snowbirds. My dad has bad arthritis, so come November, they ship out to their place in Florida.”
“Wish I was there now.” He rubbed his hands together, cupping them in front of his face before blowing into them.
Could I be imagining that his breath smelled like cookies? And when did I last eat? “Me too.”
I reached for the gear shift, but his right hand was in my way. “Hi. Aaron Elias. You are?”
The sound of his voice made my nipples stand tight. Thank goodness he couldn’t see it under the parka, but it was making it hard to concentrate. Gloves still on, I shook his hand. Something told me I’d need a few degrees of separation.
“Grace Bennett.” Jeez, my name sounded so plain and so flat. I let go as soon as possible, nearly to the point of leaving him holding the glove, and put the car in drive.
“Bennett. Like Elizabeth.”
I heard the smile in his voice. “You’ve never read Pride and Prejudice
“My reading usually leans toward nonfiction.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
It’d been a while since I had time to pick up a book. “The last book I finished was a biography of Steve Prefontaine.”
I couldn’t take my hand off the gearshift long enough to slap myself in the face. I said a mental prayer that the nearest repair shop had a water pump in stock so he could get back on the road. My illusions were shattered. I sat beside a drop-dead gorgeous famous actor, and we had nothing to talk about. At least I hadn’t wasted my time dating anybody. Maybe I really was a social anomaly. Solitude suited me. I was like a Carpenters’ song come to life.
“You’re smiling. What did I say?”
I flipped on the turn signal. “Nothing. Just thinking.”
I debated telling him. It didn’t matter if I did or didn’t. So I didn’t. “Nothing.”
He sat back in the seat. “Ah. Mystery lady. I get it. So if your parents are in Florida, what’re you doing in the Catskills?”
I ground my teeth. “My mother has OCD. They left yesterday, and she called this morning, asking me to come up and check the stove. She thinks she left a burner on after breakfast.”
He paused. “Seriously? Did she know it would snow today?”
“Yes, but apparently the house not burning down was more important than my immediate safety.”
He nodded. “Well, when you put it that way, it makes perfect sense.”