“Ow. Ow, ow, ow.”
Pain sliced through Sara Donovan’s foot—her first clue she wasn’t in bed where she belonged. Goosebumps prickled as wind whipped her thin pajama pants around her legs. A dusty road stretched ahead and disappeared into dark hills.
“What the…” Where was her warm bed? Where were Kris and Audrey?
She’d somehow ended up in the middle of nowhere—even more nowhere than her tiny town of Cedar City. She recognized the place. Salt Lick Road. Some of her friends from school had driven out to the swimming hole nearby on Senior Skip Day. A trickle of ice crept down her neck and seeped into her blood. If this was a dream, it was the realest dream she’d ever had.
Another step ground dirt into the fresh wound. Her breath caught, and ice turned to fire. Fuzzy edges snapped into focus. She couldn’t be dreaming. That kind of pain would have jolted her awake. Sara was somehow lost in the North Carolina wilderness.
A sharp tug pulled at her spine, and she lifted toward the heavens like a marionette without strings. Branches tangled in her hair and ripped at her skin as an unseen force jerked her forward through the trees.
Sweet Jesus, I’m flying.
The landscape below whizzed by as she was pulled through the air. Sara couldn’t get her bearings, had no idea where she was, except that Salt Lick Road was still just below. Her heart raced, pulse pounding in her ears.
What the ever loving—
The tie that held her released. She plummeted to the ground and landed in a heap. With a groan, she scrambled to her knees, but before she could register any pain, the invisible puppeteer forced her to stand. Her arms spread, palms to the sky, and the ground once more dropped away as she hovered and spun in the direction of a small, silent cabin.
Panic pitched and rolled in her chest. An unholy shriek ripped through the darkness.
But the bone-chilling voice ravaging Sara’s throat wasn’t hers.
“Did you sneak out last night?” Kristen’s groggy voice held notes of disbelief and… Was that grudging respect?
Sara, still shaken from the intense dream that had slammed through her a few hours before, didn’t know how to answer. Had she? Her throat throbbed once, the pain that came with strep or tonsillitis, but then subsided to a dull scratch. She sat up and threw back the white down comforter and stared. Ripped cotton revealed angry scratches on her skin.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Audrey climbed up from her makeshift bed on the floor and wrapped plump arms around Sara’s trembling shoulders.
With a bark that was meant to be laughter but sounded more like a choked sob, Sara tossed the covers back over her legs. “Just a bad dream, I think.”
“You’re going to be late, Sara!” Another unholy shriek, this time from her mother downstairs. “You promised your sleepover wouldn’t interfere with your job.”
Audrey squeezed in a half hug and sighed in unison with Sara. “Happy birthday.”
Kristen pulled herself up with the assistance of Sara’s vanity and staggered toward the bathroom. “If you did sneak out, piss on you for not taking us with you. I’d have gone, even if it was already after two in the morning. Where’d you go?”
Kris was always looking for an escape, something exciting that hinted at a life bigger than Cedar City.
Kristen’s mother had moved to the tiny mountain town with her twelve-year-old daughter in tow. On Kristen’s first day of school, she’d swept in like a queen at her coronation. With long, wavy blond hair and piercing blue eyes, she’d locked down the affections of every boy and the hatred of every girl within moments. Kristen was the consummate “mean girl,” granting favors for those who bowed and scraped while cruelly rebuffing those she found beneath her.
Sara has been sure her hatred was true enough to last a lifetime, until the evening her mother had brought home a scared, broken shell of the class mean girl. Kristen’s father had found them.
On that day, Sara had learned a little something about people who wore their anger and hurt like armor. Kristen’s mom had hoped to hide in Cedar City from her abusive husband. The guy had also like to beat on his daughter, too. Kristen’s chilly personality, a shield against anyone else who might harm her, had never really thawed.
Not for strangers, anyway.
She had learned to trust Sara during those weeks after her father returned, and Kristen loved Sara’s mom more than just about anyone on Earth, except maybe her own mother. Sara’s mom had been the lawyer who represented Kristen’s mother and helped finally end the nightmare.
The bottom of Sara’s foot started to throb. Scratches. The cut. Even her throat was sore. Not a nightmare, then.
“Don’t try to act like you didn’t. I got up once to use your bathroom and you were gone. I waited forever, thinking you’d beaten me to it, but you didn’t come back.” Kristen changed direction, the call of the toilet quieted by her need for answers. “Are you getting back with Nick?”
“No!” The word scratched along her raw throat and then exploded from her mouth.
But the news that she’d been missing during the night made her pause. Could she really have gone walking in her sleep? How the hell would she get past the house alarm? The whole downstairs was monitored my motion detectors. She couldn’t even get a drink of water from the kitchen during the night without summoning Cedar City’s finest.
Sara couldn’t even imagine the hell she’d have to pay if her mother caught her sneaking out of the house. As mayor of Cedar City, Michelle Donovan demanded perfection, both in public and in private.
She glanced toward the window, wondering if her dumb brain had told her to go outside that way in her sleep. It was open just a crack—definitely not something she’d have done on a sticky June night.
There was nothing between her window and the ground two stories below, though. Surely a fall from that height would have awakened her. And injured her more than the simple scratches and cuts.
“Sara, get down here right this second.” A banging on the wall at the foot of the stairs punctuated her mother’s anger and drove the questions from Sara’s mind.
When had her mother changed from the sweet, comforting mom that brought a frightened stranger home and hugged away the fear? Sara knew the answer to that: the election. God, how she missed the mom who’d just been a busy lawyer.
“Your father is waiting for you. Don’t you dare leave him to open the diner on his own.”
“We can talk about it after you get done with work. We have the whole drive to Asheville to grill you.” Audrey nudged Sara out of bed.
For a moment, she had forgotten about the ripped pajamas. They hung in tatters around her scratched ankles. Would Kristen demand more answers?
Of course not. Her tall, blonde friend slipped into the bathroom and locked the door, leaving Sara on the other side to wait another five minutes before she could shower. When she emerged, fresh and ready for work, scratches stinging under a generous coating of lotion and tight denim, her friends had already fallen asleep again, huddled together in the middle of Sara’s bed.
Sara sped through the winding streets of town, five minutes away from the diner but already five minutes late. Cedar City’s favorite daughter, working the day after her eighteenth birthday party. Oh, if the town only knew how spoiled she was, she thought as she squealed into the parking lot and into a space on the side of the building.
The little diner did a booming breakfast business but quieted during the middle of the day. Most would clamor for a spot by the picture windows at the back of the restaurant, where they could gaze out over the wide mountain stream as they enjoyed her dad’s famous biscuits and gravy.
Lunchtime brought a bit of business, and then sometime after dinner, the little restaurant thrummed to life again, especially in the summer. Kids didn’t have many places to go in Sara’s tiny town in North Carolina. Without shopping malls, coffee shops, or nightclubs, teens and college students made do with the ice cream sundaes and milkshakes.
When Sara yanked open the door and hustled into the diner, her father looked up with a knowing smile and set her to work rolling silverware and brewing coffee. Of course he didn’t mind that she was late. Dad had long been the laid-back voice of reason in her parents’ marriage.
In fact, if not for the early morning rush from the road construction workers, he probably would have made do without her, at least on the morning after her birthday. No one else bothered to get breakfast before eight o’clock.
She didn’t mind the opening duties, but she hated closing. That involved dragging garbage out to the dumpster in the back and scrubbing grease from the floors. To avoid such disgustingness, she happily woke at six in most mornings during summer vacation. Even after crazy dreams and apparent sleepwalking.
“Ready to go, Sara?” Her father turned the sign on, letting all of Cedar City know Donovan’s was open for business.
She waved a coffee pot in his direction to tell him she had things under control. When his back was turned, she flipped on the radio and tuned it to her favorite station. It didn’t take long for the music to erase the lingering unease her night terror—or whatever it had been—caused. Her father glared over his shoulder but grinned when he saw her dancing along.
“You’re a good girl, Sara. Not many kids would put up with working in a greasy spoon after their birthday, but you never complained once. I’m gonna miss you when you go to college.”
“Awww, Daddy. You’ll just miss the cheap labor,” she teased, swiping a rag over the low counter as she danced.
The cloth slipped from her fingers and hit the tile with a wet thwap. She ducked to grab it as the bell over the door rang, signaling the arrival of the day’s first customers. The air in the small restaurant changed, pulsing, thrumming with energy only one person could cause.
The kind of guy who inspired mommas to lock up their daughters and daddies to invest in ammunition. The motorcycle, tattoos, and reputation weren’t the only things that made him Public Enemy Number One in Cedar City, North Carolina—and probably every other town within a fifty-mile radius. Ridley’s biggest problem was his angelic face. He was prettier than anyone had a right to be. Atop torn jeans, a tight T-shirt, and an ancient leather jacket, the combination was absolutely lethal.
He was three years older, but age was only a number. Her sheltered existence put her light years behind someone like Ridley in experience and, well, confidence. His swagger was recognizable from across town, in the dead of night, in the middle of a snowstorm. Everyone knew him. All the women—and probably some men—lusted after him. And every single parent hated even the mention of his name.
Of course, Sara’s father put his hatred aside when Ridley chose to eat at Donovan’s. The moment that blond ponytail walked through the door, her dad’s scowl turned into a bright smile, and then coffee and Ridley’s customary French toast would magically appear. Sara watched it happen every single day when she worked her shift before school. Ridley never failed to show up at seven, sometimes in a beaten-up truck and sometimes on his rumbly old Honda motorcycle. He usually had friends with him, the guys who worked in the same construction crews, but sometimes he was alone.
They all came in that day, complaining and joking about their road construction job on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It sounded grueling and something close to torture, making Sara happy she could enjoy the air-conditioned heaven of the diner, even if she did leave with a sheen of cooking oil on her skin every day.
As she approached, they straightened up and pasted on innocent expressions, as if Sara hadn’t heard some pretty salty words floating around just moments before.
“Morning, guys.” She greeted them all while studiously avoiding Ridley’s piercing gaze.
He didn’t mean to pierce. He couldn’t help his eyes were that particular shade of blue—light and crisp like ice, fringed in eyelashes a supermodel would kill for.
Ugh. She had two choices: stutter, stumble, and embarrass herself so fully that she’d never be able to show her face in her own father’s restaurant again, or relax, tease, throw the food at them, and then hide in the bathroom until they got done eating. If she could pull off the teasing, the rest of the summer could be bearable.
“Let’s see. If I don’t know by now, I’ll never know, will I?” Sara narrowed her eyes, pointed at each man, and listed off their usual orders.
“Steak and eggs, medium and over medium. Biscuits and gravy with extra bacon. Two sausage biscuits, two eggs, grits, and toast. Sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and ketchup over all of it.” She deepened her voice and puffed out her chest. “And French toast with powdered sugar and syrup on the side for the man’s man. Did I miss anything?”
The guys all busted into laughter, ribbing and shoving Ridley until he almost fell out of the booth. He glared up at Sara, and a cold sweat broke over her upper lip. Still, she’d teased without stuttering. Victory!
When his scowl turned into a smile, straight white teeth and crinkled eyes and all, her heart flipped over and dropped into her stomach. Time to abort the mission and fetch the coffee and water, because there was still plenty of time to make a spectacular fool of herself.
Fingers trembling, she gathered the mugs and spoons. Before grabbing the steaming carafe, she pulled in a deep breath and held it. Get a grip.Before she could lose her nerve, she set the coffee on the table, checked to make sure they had enough cream and sugar, and then turned around to grab the tray of ice water glasses.
Reaching across the table, she set down glasses in front of five of the six, saving Ridley’s for last. Her fingers wrapped around the sweating glass, and she clenched them tight to keep them from shaking.
The tightened muscles were a bad idea. As she grasped the glass, the condensation on the outside slipped over her skin, and the ice water shot from her grip as though she’d thrown it.
Rather than falling directly in Ridley’s lap, or better, to the floor, the glass hit the edge of the table and flipped to shower Ridley with ice a frigid water.
He yelped and tried to scoot back, but the booth was bolted to the floor. His boots slipped over the wet floor and kicked the construction worked across the table right in the shins. That man squawked in pain and slammed a fist into his plate of biscuits and gravy.
“Oh, my God. I’m so sorry,” Sara whispered.
Her nerves had settled but turned immediately into mortification. Ridley looked up at her, face slack with disbelief, as water dripped from his impossible lashes.
She could do this. All she had to do was get the mess cleaned up and somehow get Ridley’s clothes dry, and then should find a hole to die in. Easy enough.
Sara took a deep breath and nodded. “Right. Sorry about that. Let’s get this cleaned up.”
Her dad appeared at her side with a stack of dry towels. She set to work drying the table, scooping the ice back into the empty glass. Ridley stood without a word so that she could swipe the cloth over his seat.
She handed another clean towel to the man with gravy on his hand and then turned an appraising eye on Ridley.
“There’s a washer and dryer in the back. If you want, we can toss those jeans in for a few minutes to dry them so no one will ask if you peed yourself.”
Ridley’s head jerked up and that rare smile spread across his face again. “Yeah, that’s all right. The shirt will dry soon enough.”
“But those jeans would chafe something awful,” Sara finished for him. “Come on.”
She led him through a set of swinging doors into the kitchen area where her father stood behind the grill.
“Dad, start some new French toast for Ridley, and another order of biscuits and gravy.”
Ridley followed as she marched through another door to a smaller room where the washer and dryer stood. She turned to see him unbuttoning his pants.
“Sweet Jesus,” she breathed.
A jolt of electricity sizzled through her before turning her heart and stomach over. He stood between her and the only escape route. What the hell should she do?
In less than a second, he’d kicked his boots off, and then stood before her in tight, black boxer briefs. He tugged his white tee down for modesty, but not before she’d managed to accidentally ogle the goods.
She sucked in a breath that caught in her throat. An apron. He needed something to cover up with or she’d spontaneously combust.
Sara snatched the jeans he offered and tossed them into the open dryer, then turned to her employee locker. As she rummaged for a moment for the clean apron she knew was in there, she took a deep breath to steady herself.
Sure, she’d imagined this moment before. Well, not this moment. She’d dared to daydream about Ridley undressing in front of her, but never in that fantasy had he taken his pants off because she’s dumped ice water on him.
Her fingers wrapped around the apron, and she turned and offered it to him with what she hoped was a smile.
“Here. You can cover up with this.”
He glanced at the stiff black cloth for a second and then shook his head. “I’m okay.”
Sara willed herself not to glance at the front of his shorts again. She should have turned away or left the room. Instead, her fight against one peek turned into a slow perusal of his body from shoulders all the way to ankles. Broad shoulders and tanned arms, narrow hips, flat stomach with the slightest hint of washboard, leading to thickly muscled legs, all courtesy of hard work under a hot sun.
God, she was such a perv. She even paused somewhere below his waist for a second, all the while berating herself for not having the strength to look away.
When she finally shifted her gaze back to the dryer, Ridley let out a small snort—so quiet that she barely heard it. But she did hear it, and her cheeks burst into flame.
“Uh, so if you don’t want the apron, I guess…”
“I can wait,” Ridley said, a wicked smirk pulling at the corner of his lips.
“And you don’t need me.” Sara didn’t bother to phrase it as a question.
She squeezed past him, desperate to avoid touching him in any way. How had she gone from victory to abject humiliation in less than ten minutes?
And all the rest of the road crew still waited for their breakfast. She just couldn’t face them yet. Instead, she crouched down on a plastic crate in the corner break area and buried her face in her hands.
After she’d been missing for a few minutes, her father opened the door a crack and peeked through. Sara reached up from her seat on the milk crate and grabbed blindly for something on the table. Her fingers wrapped around a soiled napkin, and she waved it feebly.
“Just cleaning up a little.”
He grinned. “Right. You just keep tidying up in here. I’ll take care of the guys.”
The dryer buzzed a few minutes later, but Sara didn’t move. Ridley was a big boy. Really. He could figure out how to get his jeans on without her.
She didn’t look up when she heard him open the door to the little laundry room. His boots came into view and paused. Then paused longer.
A warm hand landed on her shoulder, and she jumped. Tingles traveled down her arm and through her chest, amplifying the heat in her face once more. She couldn’t notlook now.
When she finally lifted her head, Ridley was smiling without a hint of the arrogance she’d seen in his earlier smirk.
“Hey, it’s all good. Really.”
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “For the spill and the…ogling.”
“Yeah.” He pulled his hand away and rubbed his chest. “Funny enough, the ogling part was okay, too.”
He didn’t wait for her response, which was nothing more than a squeak, before bursting through the swinging doors to go finish his breakfast.
Just before her shift was over at two, Audrey and Kristen came crashing through the front door, their arrival announced by the jangling bell. Sara’s dad looked up from the cash register and smiled when he saw them.
“Hey, girls. Finally wake up? Sara’s almost done. Have a seat and I’ll get you some pie.” He always doted on them and had since Audrey and Sara were six years old and starting first grade together. When Kristen had joined the little group, he’d included her as if she’d always been there.
Sara waved from her spot in the kitchen. She had a few more pans to scrub before she was free for the rest of the afternoon.
The bell to the door jangled, and Sara groaned. Another diner meant another round of dishes to load into the dishwasher. She peeked through the window and caught a glimpse of a police uniform.
“How’s it going, John?” Her dad set to work pouring coffee as the sheriff placed his hat on the bar beside his silverware.
“Weird. You know old Hank, lives in that little cabin on Salt Lick Road? He up and killed himself last night.”
Sara dropped the heavy pot she’d been scrubbing, sending a wave of water down the front of her shirt. The warm suds seeped through the thin cotton and turned cold almost immediately.
“You okay?” The thud from the kitchen had distracted her father from the sheriff’s story.
Was she? She strained to hear more. How had they discovered the body? More importantly, why had she even been out there in the middle of the night?
“Far’s we can tell, it’s suicide. Can’t think of anyone that would want to hurt old Hank. Guess the lonesomeness got to him.”
“You almost done?” Kristen called.
Sara looked down at her shirt and sighed. “Yeah. We’ll have to run by my house so I can change. I just made a mess.”
“That’s okay.” Audrey waved her off. “The movie marathon doesn’t start until four. We’ll have time to get snacks and stuff from the store so we don’t have to pay the theater prices.”
“Well, you better hurry, girls. It’s an hour drive to Asheville, and I don’t want you speeding on these roads.” Dad gave her friends a stern look, but he couldn’t hold it for long. After all, how many dads needed to worry about their daughters getting into trouble at a classic film festival?
Sara gave her father a quick kiss and threw her apron into the laundry pile before following the girls out the door. Audrey’s aging convertible waited at the curb, looking like the vessel of freedom it was. Seeing it gave Sara a little twinge as she remembered her strange sleepwalking episode from the night before. When everyone was buckled in, she turned off the radio amidst her friends’ complaints.
“I love that song,” Kristen said with a pout.
“It’s on my iPod. We can listen to it all the way to Asheville if you want. I just wanted to tell you about my weird night before we get home, in case Momma’s there.”
“I knew you snuck out!” Kristen’s favorite song was forgotten in her triumph.
“Yeah, but listen.”
By the time she got to the part about passing out on the dirt road in the middle of nowhere, the car pulled into her driveway. She’d left out the part about recognizing Salt Lick Road. After hearing Dave’s story at the diner, that part was just too weird.
Sara dragged them both from their seats, through the front door, and up to her room. While she dug around for a new shirt that wasn’t waterlogged, they examined the floor at the base of the bed.
“It looks like blood.” Kristen scuffed at the mark with her toe.
“Yeah, because it is.” Sara paused and peeled back the bandage to show them the small cut from the stone that had awakened her.
“So you’re sleepwalking now?” Audrey looked worried and amused at the same time. “I mean, I guess it’s not a big stretch. You just went through major upheaval, what with graduation and everything. Some people deal with these stressors in strange ways.”
“Thanks, Doctor. Doesn’t explain how I ended up on Salt Lick Road. That’s a long way to walk in my sleep, isn’t it?” Sara grabbed another bandage from her bedside table.
Both girls turned to her with wide eyes. Oops. She’d let that little detail slip.
“So, you aren’t sleepwalking then. It had to be a dream. There’s no way you could get that far and back home in one night. Or maybe you were sleepwalking in your own backyard and cut your foot while you were dreaming about being out by the swimming hole.”
“That sounds plausible.” Kristen nodded quickly, probably eager to have the creepy stuff out of the way. “But it’s kinda weird you were dreaming about Salt Lick Road the same night some guy shot himself.”
“I don’t care if I was here or there.” Sara stopped and thought for a moment while pulling a purple T-shirt over her head. “Okay, so being there is weirder. Either way, sleepwalking is freaky. Do you think I walk with my arms out like a zombie?”
She stumbled around the room with palms facing forward. Kristen shrieked and lunged for the door.
“Argh.” Sara panted like the zombies on television, and groped Audrey’s butt before tripping out the door into the hallway.
“You’re such a geek.” Audrey followed Sara out with her oversized purse.
Sara stopped in the kitchen to switch everything from her little clutch to the big bag and then piled in contraband candy. Audrey would have carried in her own microwave popcorn if the fake butter smell wouldn’t give them away.
“Here.” Kristen thrust three cans of soda into the tote.
“We can’t take those. Someone will hear us open them.” Sara grabbed one of the drinks and pulled, but Kristen stopped her.
“We’ll just pretend to sneeze while we pop the tab. Easy as. Come on.”
“Sara, you behave yourself!” Mom shouted from her study.
Sara froze, wondering if she should go say hello or something.
“Remember, Asheville is not so far away that people don’t know who I am,” her mother finished.
Rolling her eyes, she yelled back, “No worries, Mom. I’ll be a paragon of virtue.”
Under her breath, she added, “Like I always am.”
Her friends shoved her out the door before a fight could break out.