A one-night stand between a silver fox single dad and a woman with wanderlust in her veins leads to a second chance adventure in L.B. Dunbar’s angsty new romance, and you can read the first chapter right here.
Playlist: “Girl On Fire” – Alicia Keys
There is something about the open road that soothes my soul.
And I’ve been on the road often in my forty-two years.
Maybe a bit of my absentee father resides in me. A need for escape lives inside me.
I can never decide if my admiration is the sound of eighteen wheels whirling on a highway, or just the swish of another speeding vehicle passing by me when my windows are down, and the wind tosses around my hair. Maybe it’s the fresh scent of wide-spread land, the dense fragrance of forests, or the tangy nose-burn of asphalt.
Whatever it is, the road is a balm.
And the newest stretch I drive isn’t a straight line, but a twisting, turning ribbon through thick trees with a sharp drop off to my right and boulders to my left as I climb the mountains of Tennessee and cross into North Carolina.
I’m on two missions.
My first goal is to master this road, famous for motorcyclists and high-speed enthusiasts. I’m not a cyclist, but my Jeep was made for this kind of terrain. Spring is in the air and the leaves in the surrounding forest are just starting to bud. The highway before me is an S-curve, slithering like a snake which makes its name almost appropriate—The Tail of the Dragon. Route 129 is twelve miles long with 318 curls before I hit Deal’s Gap, the official start or finish line for travelers on this elusive highway.
As for me, I’m clutching the steering wheel like it’s my last gin and tonic on a hot summer day, and strongly questioning my sanity.
The second purpose in taking this difficult strip of road is that it was the best route from point A to point B despite all the hairpin curves. A lodge in Robbinsville is my destination. Once owned by an aluminum company and the location is now a traveler’s delight near hiking, fishing, and white-water rafting in the Appalachian Mountains. I’m a bit of a hotel restoration expert. I don’t have a degree in interior design, though. I just sort of fell into the path of rehabbing and I love short-term stay locations. Homes converted into bed-and-breakfasts. Motels rescued from ruin. Historical landmark hotels returned to their glory. I love a secret hideaway tucked into the landscape or a small-town treasure. Whatever the case may be, the concept of never staying long in one place is who I am.
Only, I’m growing older, wiser and, frankly, a little weary of never having a place to call my own. As I travel often, anything of great value is at my mother’s home. I don’t visit often, and I prefer it that way. My mom can be domineering at times, complacent at others, although she’s the only parent I’ve ever had.
That’s a story for another day.
Today, the breeze ripples through my open window and I hold my breath around another slinky curve. Motorcyclists are slowed by my pace, and I wave my arm out the window, signaling them to pass. I’m not in a hurry. I’m only trying to prove something to myself. I can tackle anything, like bumps in a road, or in this case, the curling of one.
The Iron Dragon is a marker that coordinates with the beginning of the highway headed north. I’ll take a picture on my return trip. Tomorrow, I’ll be meeting my sisters at a cabin in the Tennessee Valley. This is a new thing for the Fox sisters. In an effort to reconnect, we’d decided to meet up once a year in a location none of us have ever visited. As this was Mae’s idea, we let her pick our first location.
For tonight, I’ll be staying at the Opatoc Hotel here in North Carolina.
When I pull into the parking lot of the lodge, a deep breath escapes me. My hands still clutch the steering wheel and my fingers ache as I peel them away. My arms are tense. My shoulders tight. The perilous drive was both exhilarating and exhausting, and yet a strange hum vibrates within me. I tackled the Tail. The loops and bends of this road deserve mad respect, and pride fills me that I can add this road to the long list of many I’ve traveled.
As I exit my Jeep, I inhale crisp, mountain air that’s ripe with sunshine. My legs are shaky. I need a Coke, or perhaps something stronger.
Arriving at reception, I learn my room isn’t ready which is fine with me. I don’t want to be indoors. The day is a comfortable sixty-something degrees and in my sweater, booties, and jeans, I’m sweaty from the taxing drive. The receptionist mentions there is a patio located beyond the gift shop, and I head in that direction.
Once outside, I descend a set of stairs that leads to a stone patio. My legs continue to wobble as I step downward, and I breathe deeply to calm myself, willing the damp mountain scent to settle into my lungs. In the early spring, no flowers are in bloom, but swatches of freshly turned soil suggest plants will soon blossom along a brick wall bordering the patio. Before me, a river of crystal-clear water gently rushes over a picture-perfect display of river rocks in varying tones of brown and gray. Beyond the river, the forest stretches skyward, trees are laden with springtime buds.
The spot should feel serene but I’m too keyed up to relax.
Wrought iron tables are clustered near the base of the staircase. A few patio heaters are interspersed among the tables and there are people seated nearby. However, I veer to the right where a series of plastic Adirondack chairs sit with their backs to a rock wall. Each seat faces the river, and a man sits in the farthest one.
His long legs are stretched out before him and casually crossed at the ankle. Thick boots cover his feet. His pants are a Carhartt-brown color, and he wears a thick sweater with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. His hair is a dusty mix of light brown and gray. His jaw is covered in the same combination. When his eyes momentarily meet mine, I’m struck by their smooth whiskey-color.
“Mind if I sit?”
“Suit yourself, sugar.” His voice is as thick as his thighs and sends a ripple up my spine that rivals the river before us.
I drop onto a chair three away from him and tip back my head. The sun is behind me, but the warmth still covers my cheeks. I sigh once. I exhale slowly. While I will myself to sit still, my body won’t settle. Everywhere feels tight, like a rubber band wound and ready to snap.
A waitress approaches. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“I’d love a soda.” I don’t know why I drag out the word or even call it such a thing. My sisters are both Midwesterners and call the carbonated drink pop. I typically follow their lead. As the youngest of four, and the last sister of three, I’ve been in their shadows most of my life. Maybe that’s another part of my need to keep moving. Outrunning their successes. Trying to create my own.
The man beside me chuckles and I turn in his direction, taking another glance at his profile. The wave of his hair. The thickness of his beard. The long length of his body, relaxed and slouched in a plastic chair. A chunky gold ring circles his left ring finger.
Quickly, I turn away, glancing at my naked fingers. Vacant like the promises once given to me.
“Have you ever done something completely out of character?” I blurt, not directing my gaze at the man but staring at the simple river as it tumbles over rocks, like a rushing melody.
I turn toward him, noting how he leans his arm on one rest, elbow bent. His beard-covered chin tilts in my direction.
I shift, facing him better. “Out of character? Something extreme. Something no one would expect of you.” Staring at him, hopeful he knows what I mean, I surmise almost instantly he’s done more than I’ve ever dreamed. His size. His casually confident posture. His heavy boots. At a glance, he’s a man who has more experience than me in everything.
His thumb pushes at the hefty ring on his finger. The gold glints in the afternoon sunlight. “Sure,” he mutters.
Twisting back in my seat, I face the river again, uncertain why I’ve asked him. Unclear what I expected in his answer.
He clears his throat. “Have you?”
Have I? Have I ever done anything beyond what my family has come to expect of me? There was that blip in the past, but I don’t talk about it all these years later. From then, I’ve buried myself in work, desperate to prove myself. Eager to outrun my decisions.
I don’t answer the stranger, only offer a shrug, narrowing my eyes at the river. Without looking at him, I feel his gaze on the side of my face.
Silence fills the seats between us, but the race of the river grows louder. Or maybe my heart is finally settling, the rush no longer pulses in my ears, allowing other noises to intrude.
Like the rustle as his body shifts, even though he is several feet away from me.
The scrape of his heels on the cement beneath his feet.
The creak of the chair under his weight.
He clears his throat again. Then he stands and the plastic legs of his chair drag over the stone patio.
Sound surrounds me.
And something inside me doesn’t want him to walk away. A man I don’t know, and isn’t offering conversation, is someone I wish wouldn’t leave me alone with my rambling thoughts.
The waitress returns as the hunky stranger passes before me without a word. I reach for the tall glass of Coke on her tray while my gaze follows his retreat. He’s tall as I suspected. My eyes trail down his solid back, hook on the thickness of his leather belt, and then fall to his backside.
“Want to run a tab?” The waitress’s question pulls me back to my seat.
I shake my head.
“I’ll be back, then.” She leaves to retrieve my receipt and I stare out at the water again, feeling a weird hollowness from the absence of an intriguing stranger and the emptiness of the space he left behind.
Within minutes, another man arrives and takes the chair beside me despite three other vacant ones. I hardly glance up at him.
“Beautiful day, eh?” His voice isn’t nearly as appealing as the man who just walked away.
With a dismissive nod, I sip at my drink and hum a response. The space to my left is populated with people lingering at patio tables. The waitress will be back momentarily. I’m not under any immediate threat, but I’m strangely uncomfortable with this man sitting a little too close to me and I don’t want to talk to him.
Call it female intuition.
“Come here often?”
Turning in his direction, I take in his red-rimmed eyes and thick jowls. His lips are moist in an unappealing way. I hold still despite the shiver trickling down my spine.
I shake my head and reach for my phone which I’d set face down on the armrest. Maybe my room is finally ready. Still, I hate feeling like I need to walk away when I was here first. I don’t want to hide in my room because this man is too close. I don’t want to give up the desire to relax and a will to chill.
Not that I was chilling. Seconds ago, I’d been a chatterbox asking questions I hadn’t expected to be answered by a different stranger.
Had I just driven off the other man? Had I disturbed his peaceful moment? Did he think I was hitting on him?
The truth smacks me in the forehead.
I stare at my phone, feeling bad for having chased him away, or potentially making him uncomfortable.
The man beside me now leans over his armrest, upper body shifting toward me and the fine hairs on my neck lift. I arch away from him, digging my side into the corner of my seat and hoping he’ll take the hint. My eyes remain lowered, unfocused on the open screen of texts from my sisters.
“Let me buy you a drink.”
I turn toward him, attempting to be polite, and lift my glass. “Thanks, but I’m good.”
His eyes roam my face and lower toward my chest. Quickly, I turn away. My breasts are large for my small frame. A curse or a blessing is debatable at times. The force of his stare has me shifting in my seat, adjusting my sweater which doesn’t expose any skin, but still, I tug at the material as if it will disguise my physique.
In my peripheral vision, a presence draws near, and I glance up to see the original stranger returning. His eyes catch on mine, and I hold that whiskey gaze. He walks with determination, boots thudding on the cement pavement. His attention doesn’t leave my face. I should look away and yet I can’t seem to pull my gaze from his.
He reaches my chair. “Sweet thing.” With his eyes focused on mine, speaking a language I can’t read, he lowers before me, knees creaking as he balances on his haunches. With my phone still in my hand, as if it’s a shield to protect me from the stranger sitting too close to me, this man reaches for my other wrist. He gazes at me as he lifts my arm and twists it the slightest bit. The lazy sweep of his thumb over the tender skin of my inner wrist settles the quake I hadn’t known was present. Then his mouth presses there. His lips linger. His eyes hold. A new vibration develops, one rippling up my arm and into my chest, like the rapid flapping of dragonfly wings, hovering in mid-air. The buzz is a pleasantly welcome effect of his kiss.
Heat rushes over my face.
I don’t understand what exactly is happening here until the man on my right grunts and hefts his body out of the chair beside me. He stalks past my sudden savior, who is still watching me, holding my eyes like I’m a prisoner to his will.
And suddenly, I want to go anywhere he’ll take me.