After ten years of searching for something better, Frankie Novak returns to her hometown pregnant and alone. She is quickly overwhelmed by her overbearing father, her oafish brother and his exotic fiance, who Frankie suspects is a mail-order bride. When she is reunited with her first love, the darkly sexy Harlan Dixon, things begin to look up -
As it turned out, the tires from Eddie’s bike weren’t in such good shape after all. Frankie only made it half-way to work the following morning before the front one blew out on her. Cursing, she pulled the bike onto the shoulder of the road and dismounted to have a look at it.
It was flat alright. The question was, what did one do in a situation like this?
She could call her father.
“If I knew you wanted to ride it to work I wouldn’t have spent the evening working on it!” she could hear Ed Novak Sr. saying. “Serves you right. If you want to be reliable, don’t rely on unreliable transportation!”
Growing up, Eddie and Frankie had called this oft spoken advice of their father’s Ed-stein’s Theory of Unreliability. So she wouldn’t call her father.
She thought about Eddie and how he drove Rosa to work in the mornings. Perhaps they hadn’t left the house yet. She began to push the bike down the shoulder of the wooded country road, hoping she wouldn’t have to walk far before her brother happened by and stopped to give her a ride.
Inside her belly, the faintest stirring—more like a cramp than movement—reminded her of the life she carried within her.
“No worries,” she said softly. “The doctor said exercise is good for us.”
Wait a minute. Did she just say us?! Where had that come from?
Frankie breathed out a long sigh of frustration. Perhaps staying detached from this baby until she made up her mind wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d hoped. Already it seemed they were forming a bond—even if she hadn’t noticed until just now.
She heard an engine on the road behind her looked over her shoulder. The shiny red sports car was not Eddie’s. Understanding there would be nowhere aboard such a vehicle to store her bike, she didn’t even bother trying to hitch a ride. Maybe the next one.
Rounding a bend on the windy road, Frankie came up on a small building on the right. It was so small, in fact, that she almost didn’t recognize it for the house that it was. With its earthy brown walls and dilapidated screened-in porch it looked more like a summer cottage than a permanent residence. Only the pick-up truck idling in the driveway suggested someone lived there—someone who was likely heading to work at this hour of the morning.
A thought occurred to her. Did she dare? Her bike would definitely fit in the bed of the oversized, gas-guzzling monster of a truck. Who needed a truck that size? And why? But this wasn’t any time to pass judgment. Frankie needed a ride.
Turning into the stone driveway, she walked up to the truck and leaned her bike against the bed—careful not to scratch the immaculate gold paint job. Then she smoothed her hair with her fingers and walked to the door. She discovered it was open with the exception of a flimsy screen door. She leaned forward and peered into a rustic kitchen.
“Hello?” she called. “Anybody home?”
No one answered.
“My bike blew a tire,” she tried again. “Any chance I could get a ride?”
—in your nice, big, environmentally oblivious pick-up truck?
Nothing. But Frankie wasn’t done yet.
Curious, she opened the screen door and poked her head inside. The smell of coffee filled her nostrils and caused a lurching revolt in her stomach. She let the door close with a bang and gulped the fresh, woodsy air outside. Of all the dumb, rotten luck! She had always loved coffee—she took after her father in that regard—and since she’d been pregnant it was the single most potent trigger to her morning sickness.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. It wasn’t right for her to impose on whoever lived in this house—a person clearly getting ready to leave. She should go. It couldn’t be much farther to Shady Acres. Another mile, perhaps. The added exercise would do them—her—good.
Turning around, she started back toward her bike when a male voice behind her asked,
“Can I help you?”
Something about that voice sent a ripple of—something—through her body.
She turned back to see a man’s silhouette behind the screen door, and a lovely silhouette at that. He was tall with broad shoulders and well-muscled arms and thighs. He wore his hair just the way she liked it on a man—long enough to get her fingers through, but not so long that he couldn’t clean up nice for an evening on the town.
“I was just leaving—” she began, then reconsidered. “My bike blew a tire. I was hoping for a ride.”
He was silent for a moment. She began to think she’d been right not to impose. Clearly she’d put him in an ethical dilemma—go about his business or rescue a woman incapable of successfully completing a three mile bike ride without mishap.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I don’t have much farther to go, and my brother will probably be by in a couple minutes—”
He knew her name—something she hadn’t expected. Equally unexpected was the second sweep of—something—that flooded her from head to toe. She still wasn’t sure what that something was, but she was beginning to narrow it down. It was a good something. She liked the way it made her feel.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
She screen door swung open and he stepped into view. She watched as the light of morning illuminated him from his scuffed brown work boots to his brown hair and dark, soulful eyes. Those eyes! She would know them anywhere.
“Oh my God! Harlan?!” she shrieked.
She had always been spontaneous—even a bit flighty. But she raised her own bar when she found herself walking in his direction as though some undeniable force of nature was drawing them together. He seemed as surprised by her approach as she was, but he didn’t move a muscle. He stayed right where he was, even when she threw her arms around his neck and squeezed him tight.
“It’s good to see you,” she murmured, and squeezed even tighter.
Why was she doing this? Why had she said that? It had been years since the thought of Harlan Dixon had entered her mind. They were hardly old friends. At best, they were acquaintances from days long past. At worst, he was her one and only one-night-stand. But despite all that, it really was good to see him.
“Frankie,” he said again, but softly this time. His arms left his sides and he wrapped them around her waist, drawing her closer. The embrace felt reluctant at first, then he sighed and suddenly it felt so, so right.
“I’m sorry,” Frankie said abruptly, pushing away from him.
Pull yourself together!
She didn’t even know this man and she’d practically thrown herself at him like—like she had that night at the drive-in. For once, Frankie wished she could blame her pregnancy hormones for her actions. But impulsiveness seemed par for the course where Harlan was concerned.
He was looking down at her with searching eyes. Haunted eyes. Eyes that almost hurt to look into. What had happened to him in the years that stretched between them? It hardly seemed fair that his life would turn out badly. His childhood had been difficult enough.
“I never thought I’d see you again,” he said eventually.
The accusation in those words wasn’t lost on Frankie.
“I’m back for the summer. I have—some things to take care of.”
He raised questioning eyebrows. Did he think she meant—? Oh, no! And the way she showed up at his house and threw herself into his arms!
“No! I didn’t mean us—you. It has nothing to do with you. Just—things. Things that have to do with someone else entirely.”
He said nothing. His expression of wonder did not change. Frankie covered her face with her hands and groaned. This was so not the way she’d expected her morning to go. Speaking of which, she had a new job to start and she was already guaranteed to be late.
“I have to go,” she said quickly, and dropped her hands long enough to flash him a feeble smile before retreating to her bike. “I have somewhere to be and—well, never mind. I’ve taken up enough of your time.”
Stupidly, she was about to climb onto the bike even though she knew very well in the functioning part of her brain that the tire was blown and she couldn’t ride it. But before she had a chance to embarrass herself any further, his hand fell on the handlebars and stopped her.
“I’ll drive you,” he said simply.
He tried to pull the bike away from her to load it in the truck bed, but Frankie held on tight.
“I couldn't impose."
“I said I’d drive you.”
He pulled again, but she refused to release the bike. What had gotten into her? Harlan remained calm. That was good, because one of them needed to.
“You don’t even know where I’m going,” she said hopelessly.
For the first time, the corner of his mouth twitched in a gesture that seemed to consider turning into a smile. It didn’t. Emphatically, he said it one more time.
“I’m driving you.”
At last, Frankie let go of the handlebars and allowed the bike to be pulled out of her grasp. She watched while he hoisted it into the bed of the pick-up truck and proceeded to fasten it with tie-down straps.
“Well, I appreciate it,” she said. “It seems like a lot to ask. You know, after my showing up here completely at random and almost walking into your house while coffee was brewing, which very likely could have made me hurl all over your kitchen—”
He met her gaze. His eyes were serious.
“You don’t have to talk,” he said.
Strangely, she was flooded with relief. She said, “Thank you.”