She peered through the snow-spattered windshield at the neon sign and hoped like hell there was room at the inn. Pressing harder on the gas, her Prius fishtailed on the slippery road, and the much smaller “no vacancy” sign hanging between the looped garlands of holiday tinsel became visible in the glow of her headlights.
“Why am I not surprised? It’s been that kind of day.” Isabel Bright glanced over at her traveling companion who had his nose pressed against the side window. “Who’s kidding whom? It’s been that kind of month.”
Gritting her teeth as her tires slid again, she wondered why she hadn’t had the foresight to buy chains before embarking on this insane trek. Maybe because I didn’t exactly plan ahead. The last-minute decision to drive cross-country to Amanda’s bachelorette party instead of flying had been sheer idiocy considering the weather, but she’d wanted to use the time alone to clear her head. Make a few decisions about her future.
“How’s that working out for you?” Her voice rang with sarcasm as the flashing neon sign above the sketchy-looking motel disappeared behind her in a swirl of snow on the lonely stretch of road. Why stop now when she could put a couple hundred more miles between her and her jerk of an ex-boyfriend. Even if the weather was better suited to a sleigh than her pint-sized car.
Beside her, Lucky panted, fogging the windshield. Isabel turned up the fan on the defroster, which was fighting a losing battle against the Irish Wolfhound’s heavy breathing.
“If we keep driving, maybe we’ll outrun the storm. Who knew it snowed in Arizona?”
She’d expected cactus, sagebrush, and balmy temperatures for this segment of her trip, not pine trees and a blizzard. The northern part of the state and the southern half might as well have been on different planets.
Lucky turned to look at her and whined, then scratched the door.
“Seriously? You have to go now? We’ll both turn into popsicles.”
He whined again and added a low woof for good measure.
“Oh, for crying out loud.” Isabel slowed to a stop in the middle of the empty road. Deserted because she was the only one stupid enough to be driving in a snowstorm. If she pulled to the edge, she’d probably wind up in a ditch. “Fine, you can get out to pee.”
When she opened the door and stepped into ankle-deep snow, a blast of arctic air hit her in the face and penetrated her faux-fur jacket, which would be plenty warm for spending Christmas in Las Vegas—if she ever made it there. Obviously, it wasn’t designed to withstand real winter weather.
“Come on. I’m not walking around the car to let you out.”
Lucky squeezed his way over the center console and landed beside her with a thump. He gave his massive head a shake and sniffed his way down the road in the direction they’d come. Wagging happily, he was obviously thrilled with the situation.
At least one of us is enjoying this.
“We aren’t here to play. Do your business, and let’s go!” Her shouted words whirled away on the unrelenting wind.
A rumble sounded in the distance, growing louder as lights appeared around the bend. Isabel shielded her eyes against the glare and breathed a sigh of relief when the oversized pickup stopped before running over her dog. Not that anyone could miss seeing him since he was as big as a small pony.
“Lucky, move!” She shuffled forward in leather boots with slick soles, struggling to stay upright. Swearing beneath her breath, she finally reached the driver’s side door of the truck where her dog stood with his front paws planted against the window. “Oh, my God! Get down!”
When Lucky ignored her completely and whined, the driver lowered the glass a couple of inches. “He probably smells the ribs. I was in the mood for decent barbecue and brought a rack home with me for my Christmas Eve dinner.” The deep voice held a hint of amusement.
“I’m so sorry.” Grabbing Lucky’s collar, Isabel pulled with all her strength. When he backed away without warning, her foot slipped out from beneath her. She landed on the icy pavement, sprawled on her backside. “Ouch!”
“Are you okay?” The door opened with a creak, and a big male in a puffy jacket bent over her, his face a blur in the darkness.
Lucky sniffed him and licked the side of his neck.
“I think so. Move it, you moron!”
Hastily, the man backed away. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Not you, my dog.” Isabel could feel her face heating with embarrassment as she tried to scramble to her feet.
He put a hand beneath her elbow and lifted her effortlessly before steadying her at her waist. “Careful.”
“Thank you.” She let out a puff of breath in the frigid air as she slapped snow off her backside. “I apologize for Lucky and for stopping in the middle of the road. I’ll go move my car out of the way so you can get past me.”
“Your dog doesn’t look like he fits in that thing.”
“Just barely.” When Lucky lifted his leg to pee on his truck tire, she cringed.
“Uh, not to question your judgement, but you should put on chains.” The chatty stranger gestured toward the rear of her Prius, illuminated by his headlights. “The road conditions are only going to get worse as you climb.”
“Climb?” Her voice squeaked. “We’re still going up?”
“I’m afraid so, and the road crews won’t be out to plow anytime soon since this isn’t a major highway.”
“There was a pile-up on the freeway. I was lucky to get off when I did, and my GPS showed this road connecting to I40 in another thirty miles or so.”
“Thirty miles of winding road that climbs over a thousand feet. Maybe you should go back into town to wait out the storm.”
“There’s no room at the inn. Motorists who got off the freeway ahead of me must have filled the place.” She wrapped her arms across her chest and tried not to shiver as snowflakes dampened her hair. “I don’t have chains. I wasn’t planning to drive through a blizzard.”
“You travelled all the way from Virginia without carrying chains?”
She scrunched her brow. “How did you—oh, my license plate.”
“That’s quite a road trip.” When Lucky nudged his hand, the man patted his head. “Where’re you headed?”
“Las Vegas. Bachelorette party for one of my oldest friends right after Christmas.” Her teeth chattered, and she clamped them together. “I planned to get there a couple of days early. Sorry. I’m still blocking the road. I’ll move my car so you can go home and eat your dinner. Come on, Lucky. You aren’t getting those ribs.”
“I wouldn’t mind sharing. I certainly can’t eat the whole rack by myself, and I don’t like the idea of leaving you on the road without chains. The snow is really coming down hard, and you won’t get much traction with street tires. Chances are, you’ll wind up in a ditch.” He reached out to touch her arm, and she instinctively backed up a step.
“I’ll be fine.” At least I hope so. What kind of idiot was she, hanging out alone on a deserted road with a strange man. With her recent luck, he was probably a serial killer.
Seemingly reading her mind, he held up both hands. “Hey, I’m harmless. I promise.”
“I’m sure you are, but—”
“Do I look like a crazed killer? I’ve been told I have a baby face.”
“I can’t see your face in the dark. Anyway, what does a serial killer look like? I doubt they all wear creepy white masks à la Michael Myers.”
“I expect you’re right. Most probably look like normal guys—” He broke off. “I’ll shut up now. I’m sure this conversation isn’t reassuring you. If you take it slow and stay in the middle if the road, you should be fine. It’s not like there’s any traffic tonight.”
“True. We seem to be the only morons out driving.”
He grinned. “I’ll follow behind you until I get to my turnoff in another mile.”
“Okay. Thank you, uh . . .”
“Joe. Good luck with the rest of your drive, and have fun at the bachelorette party.”
She summoned a smiled. “I’m Isabel, by the way. I’ll do my best. Have a merry Christmas, Joe.”
Amazingly, Lucky deserted the truck and the ribs to follow her when she headed back to her car. Even more surprisingly, she didn’t fall on her butt getting there. Maybe things were looking up, after all. A minute later, both she and her dog were inside the car. She shifted into gear and gave the engine some gas. Her wheels spun but finally caught, and the car lurched forward.
With her wipers slapping the fat flakes pelting her windshield, she leaned forward and peered at the stretch of pristine white emptiness in front of her. No tire tracks to lead the way, but if she didn’t stray from the center of the road, she should survive the next thirty miles.
Behind her, the glow of Joe’s headlights was comforting. Until, with a double tap on his horn, he turned right and disappeared.
Her heart thumped in her chest as she let her foot off the gas. Who was she kidding? No way was she driving miles and miles through a blizzard when it had taken her five minutes to go a measly one. And if by some miracle she made it to the freeway, it would probably be closed when she got there.
Turning, she stared at her dog. “What do you think? Should we go back to the inn with the no vacancy sign and beg for a place to spend the night, even if it’s only a shed out back? Or do we throw ourselves on the mercy of Joe—who hopefully isn’t a serial killer—and help eat his ribs while we figure out what to do?”
Lucky let out a low woof.
Isabel put the car in reverse. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”
* * * *
Is Joe a serial killer? Does Lucky get those ribs? To find out what happens next, come back tomorrow for part two. Don't forget, my latest book, HIDDEN SECRETS, is available in digital and print. Pick up a copy at your local Barnes & Noble or download it HERE. Happy reading!