Cutter’s Creek 22 miles.
Even the highway signs were counting down until the moment of her unwanted return. Twenty-two miles until she had to defend her choice to live in the city. Twenty-two minutes until she had to convince her family that her fake boyfriend Richard, who was currently back in the city and too busy to leave for the week, was real and serious. There was no possible way she could move back to Cutter’s Creek.
Tessa Cutter would rather drink green smoothies every day for the rest of her life than move back to the town that barely let her leave in the first place. A place with people she couldn’t trust to keep her best interests at heart when her wishes contradicted theirs.
Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, the place had more charm than most small towns. And it wasn’t that small really. Cutter’s Creek was actually on the larger side of the small town scale with a few thousand year-round residents as well as another couple thousand seasonal ones. In the summer they got the fishermen and hunters, and in the winter they got the skiers.
Yet, even with the fluctuating population helping to bring in people from around the world, the place still felt stagnant. Tessa had always wanted more. She wanted to see somewhere other than her little town, experience other places, and paint them all on canvas. But that wasn’t the only reason she had to leave. During her college years away, she’d had a serious long-distance relationship with her high school boyfriend. Well, she’d been serious. Zack had seemed serious and a touch controlling. He liked to tell her about all the great things she could do in town if she’d stop “playing” with her paints at college. He’d even gone so far as to get her a job when she came home over the summer, hoping to entice her into staying with a fine career in greeting card retail.
Working for Sue-Ellen had been terrible, but not as bad as learning from the local greeting card patrons that Zack had been cheating on her the whole time. Seemed the whole town knew and no one wanted to tell her. Why would they when it would only make her want to leave more?
She’d made a vow to leave Cutter’s Creek as soon as possible so that she’d finally have her independence. She’d done the only thing she could do—she’d moved to New York City and hoped to make it big enough that she could support herself and live anywhere she wanted. After a year, it still hadn’t happened. She barely had enough to pay her rent each month, and she was sharing a place with three roommates. Not exactly her ideal living situation.
When she became a famous artist, her paintings would hang in galleries around the world. She’d finally have a legitimate excuse for why she couldn’t move back home to Nowheresville and become a housewife and baby maker, like her family wanted. Until then, she had to stay strong and stand her ground.
And create a fake boyfriend to shut up her family.
Squealing tires and red brake lights up ahead interrupted her thoughts. The car in front of her slammed on their brakes so suddenly that it fishtailed between the colored lines. She thumped on her own brakes, barely hanging on to control of the vehicle, but she was too close to the other car and would smash into the back bumper in another millisecond if she didn’t swerve around it fast. Without thinking about the possible repercussions, she twisted the steering wheel sharply to the right, running onto the shoulder far faster than she was comfortable with.
Gravel clinked against the undercarriage while the tires skidded like a skipping stone on a calm lake. Her brakes jolted and shuddered as they tried to find purchase on the loose ground. A second later, the front right corner of the bumper made contact with the metal guardrail. The sound of metal crumpling echoed through the mountains as her car came to rest dangerously close to the edge of the cliff.
A trembling began in her fingertips and worked its way through her arms, down her torso, and all the way to her toes, which were still pressed against the pedal. She forced one hand from the steering wheel and slowly pushed the shifter into park then turned the key in the ignition to off. Not that her car could go anywhere anyway. By the amount of steam currently seeping out from under the hood, it would be a miracle if the thing moved again without the assistance of a tow truck. She wasn’t about to try. Good thing it was a rental and would hopefully be covered by insurance.
She stumbled out of the car to examine the damage. It was bad, but thankfully hadn’t been hard enough or fast enough to do any permanent, unfixable damage to the car or her. The airbags hadn’t even deployed.
“Are you okay?”
The man who came up beside her was tall and fairly light haired, dirty blond. He had bright blue eyes that almost sparkled in the late-afternoon sunshine and a sprinkle of stubble dusted his jaw, giving him an even more concerned expression than he would have had with only his lips pressed into a tight line.
He squeezed her shoulders with his large, strong hands. “Are you hurt? Do you know what day it is?”
A mystery man had come to rescue her as if she were starring in a princess movie. She shook her head, clearly not thinking straight. She didn’t believe in fairytale endings from the corny movies she watched as a kid. Sure, those kinds of things happened in real life; that wasn’t the issue. She just didn’t think her life required a man to have a happily ever after.
Nope. She only needed her sketchbook, a few pencils, and a ticket to somewhere new and amazing. Not a man who would tie her down and keep her in one place forever. The only person she could trust with her happiness in life was herself. However, that didn’t mean she couldn’t appreciate the hunky guy in front of her currently offering his assistance.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I didn’t hit my head or anything.”
“Good. You’re okay.” He let go of her shoulders and ran his hands through his hair, turning toward her rental car and giving it the once over. He exhaled with a whistle. “That doesn’t look good. What happened?”
“I was driving and suddenly the car in front of me slammed on their brakes for no reason.” She pointed up the road, seeing the moment replay in her mind. “Then I had to slam on mine too and aim for the shoulder so I wouldn’t hit them. What kind of idiot hits the brakes like that on the highway?”
Now that she looked at the other stopped car, the one the hunky stranger got out of, it looked sort of familiar. Of course, how different did one set of taillights look from another?
“The kind of driver who is paying attention and wants to avoid killing the deer that jumped into the road. I heard squealing tires, but I thought they were mine. Then when I heard the crunch of metal, I knew it was someone else.”
“That was you? You’re the one who almost got me killed?” Her voice came out shriller than she intended, but she couldn’t stop her tone anymore than she could stop the anger rising inside of her.
“You were the one tailgating and obviously not paying attention. What were you doing? Checking your makeup in the mirror? Texting your bestie?”
“Did you just say bestie?” Surely he hadn’t. “Real men do not use words like bestie.”
“Are you avoiding the question?” He arched an eyebrow.
She tucked a few loose strands of hair behind her ear before hiking up her jeans—they always managed to wiggle down her hips lower than she wanted, giving her that unappealing droopy-ass syndrome—then smoothed the hem of her tailored button-up blouse back into place. “Just because I want to be put together does not mean I’m superficial enough to be more concerned about my makeup than the cars around me. And I don’t believe in texting while driving. I can barely text and walk at the same time. I’m not stupid enough to try it while behind the wheel.”
She folded her arms across her chest, challenging him to accuse her of something else ridiculous. “Maybe you’re the one who wasn’t paying attention and therefore only narrowly avoided killing Bambi. Don’t blame your bad driving skills on me.” The last word came out so forcefully her chest heaved as she breathed in.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t even have to stop to make sure you were okay, but I did, because I’m a nice guy.” He crossed his arms to mirror hers. His once concerned expression had been replaced by one of complete and total pissed-off-ness.
“Well, thank you much for your kindness, but I’m fine, so you can go.” She turned around and forced her annoyance into the background. Being pissed off wouldn’t help her get her rental car moving again. Instead, she climbed behind the wheel and twisted the key in the ignition. Nothing happened. It didn’t even click.
“Great,” she muttered. Maybe if she gave it a little gas and then tried again.
“I don’t think you should do that,” the guy said, tapping on her driver’s side window.
She glared at him and opened her door since she couldn’t roll down her window without power. What did he know about anything? “And why not?”
“There’s a puddle of liquid pooling beneath your car, and it might be important. What if your engine is damaged and it sparks when you try to get it running again? What if that liquid is flammable?”
Good point. She didn’t feel like becoming a toasted marshmallow today, but did she want to admit Mr. Accident Causer was right? Nope. “I have to get it started somehow. I can’t leave it here. Got any better ideas?”
“We could call a tow truck and have it taken to town. Cutter’s Creek isn’t too far from here.” He pointed down the road in the direction they’d both been heading.
She didn’t need reminding of how close she was to home. She knew. It was like her body was finely tuned to the area. She knew every landmark, outcropping of rocks, and overlook. She wasn’t happy to be back, but at least her brother was nearby and he could fix her car. Cheap auto repair was one good thing about being home, possibly the only good thing. The other side of the coin was that by morning the whole town would know she was home and had almost driven herself off a mountain. She could already hear the comments about how the city had changed her.
Just another thing she disliked about coming home—constant rumors and gossip.
Good thing she was headed directly to meet her family at the campground and not into town. With any luck, she’d be able to avoid seeing anyone but family for the entire week before she left again.
Admitting he was right, she pulled out her phone only to find it didn’t have a signal. Shit. The dead zone. She’d forgotten how these mountains always cut off her signal at random points along this stretch of road. It was another one of the annoying things about being out in the middle of nowhere. How would she get an email response from the galleries she still had outstanding applications with if she couldn’t get a signal to check her messages? The week kept getting worse.
“I don’t have a signal here. Can you check your phone?”
He did and shook his head. “Me either. Must be these mountains getting in the way of the cell towers. Grab whatever you need to take with you and hop in with me.” He motioned for her to follow him back to his car.
“I’m not going anywhere with you. You could be a murderer.”
He laughed. “Really? First you accuse me of being a bad driver trying to take down Bambi, and subsequently you, and now I’m a murderer. You think highly of well-meaning strangers who are trying to help you; though why I’m still trying is beyond me.”
“Well, you could be,” she said weakly, feeling her cheeks warm with embarrassment. She should’ve kept that murderer comment to herself. “I don’t know you. You could be some psycho waiting to have your way with me.” The heat in her cheeks deepened. Somehow that came out sounding a lot more sexual than she intended.
He chuckled again. “I assure you, if I wanted you dead, you would’ve been by now. And if I wanted to have my way with you, I’d save that for a time when you’d appreciate it, not when we’re stuck on the side of the road. Now, you’re free to stay here and wait for your signal to come back, or you can ride with me and I’ll drop you off wherever you want so you can get your car fixed. Choice is yours, but I’m late getting where I need to go as it is, so I’m leaving, with or without you.” He stalked off to his car without a backward glance.
Tessa chewed the inside of her cheek, debating. Risk her safety but get to town where she could deal with her car? Or wait by the side of the road for someone she knew to come along? Of course, they’d been out here a while already and not a single car had passed. She could be here for hours without someone she knew finding her. Better to risk it with the stranger.
“Fine. Wait up,” she called before he got into his car. There wasn’t much she needed to take with her, just her handbag and small suitcase. As she settled herself into the passenger seat, the pit of uneasiness in her stomach blossomed. On second thought, hanging out on the side of the road might be better than dealing with her family and their persistent questions and not so subtle hints about moving home.
“I’m Logan, by the way. Logan Ridley. You know, so I’m not a stranger anymore. And you are?”
“Tessa.” Whenever people around here heard her full name, they instantly associated her with the rest of the family. Not that her family was bad. They were great people actually—kind, warm, and friendly. Along with being meddling, busy-bodied know-it-alls who all thought they knew what she needed in her life to be happy better than she knew herself. She loved her family deeply, but damn it they could be annoying as hell.
“Just Tessa?” he asked with a quick glance toward her.
“Eyes on the road. One close call is enough for the day, thanks. And yeah, just Tessa.”
One of the things she liked the most about living in New York City was being anonymous. She didn’t miss living in a town where everyone knew her and what she was doing every day. In the city if she wanted to grab coffee from the corner café in her jammies, no one batted an eyelash. Try that in town and it would make the front page of the Cutter’s Creek Gazette.
This guy didn’t look like anyone she remembered from town, so there was a good chance he was passing through. Although if he had half a brain, he’d still put her name together with the town.
“Okay then. Where can I drop you off?” he asked.
“Miller’s campground, just outside of Cutter’s Creek, if that’s not out of your way,” she added, hoping to sound a little less grouchy. She did appreciate him driving her to her family instead of leaving her on the side of the road like he could’ve easily done, but that didn’t mean she excused him for being the root of the situation to begin with.
“I’m headed there myself. How strange.”
“And convenient.” Murderer? Psychopath? Stop it. Just another camper like you. Relax.
“No, just coincidence. I was in Stony Brook for the morning taking care of some business before meeting friends out at the campsite. Guess you’ll have to share the campground with a murderous, bad-driving lunatic, huh?” He chuckled. She didn’t.
“I don’t think that’s funny, but it’s a good thing you’ll be nearby in case the rental place wants to talk to the guy who ruined my car. They might need a statement or something to verify the facts once I call to tell them what happened.”
“I’ll give them my side of the story if you insist, but I’m not taking the blame for your shitty driving.”
“You think you’re blameless in this situation?” How could he be so ignorant?
“You think you’re blameless?” he echoed.
“It was your fault,” she said.
“You were the one driving your car. Not me. Therefore, I can’t be held accountable for your actions.” His voice rose as he took the corner into Miller’s Campground a little too fast, gravel spinning out from under the tires.
She gripped the dashboard and the side of her seat. “You’re really proving your point about being a good driver.”
“And you’re doing a good job of proving how irritating you can be. What site can I drop you at?”
He skidded to a stop by a sign that read Cabins 12-17 and leaned back his head onto the headrest, belly laughing. He wiped his watering eyes and shook his head. “This is great. Amazing.”
“I’ll get out here. Thanks for the lift.” She went to grab the door handle but stopped as the car inched forward again, then turned up the gravel road leading toward the cabins.
“I’m going this way anyway. I’ll drive you.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll walk the rest of the way so you can get where you’re going. I’ll find you if I need you for the rental car insurance.”
“You won’t have to look far,” he said, pulling into a parking spot next to her parents’ vehicle.
“What do you mean? What cabin are you staying in?” Hopefully it wasn’t too close by. She wanted him near enough so she could have him report about the accident, but not so close she’d have to see him around. He might be cute, but he’d also rubbed her the wrong way basically every second since they’d met.
“I’m not sure exactly. I was told to meet everyone here.”
“Here as in Miller’s Campground?” Surely he didn’t mean what she thought he meant.
He faced her, an expression of sheer disbelief on his face. “Here as in cabin fifteen where I’m meeting my friend Travis.”
“As in Travis Baker my brother-in-law?” Was Logan the friend of the family they’d mentioned inviting? What were the odds of that?
“And you must be the wild and free-spirited Tessa Cutter I’ve heard so much about. This is not how I imagined meeting you.”
“Shut the hell up,” she whispered almost speechless. How could she possibly have luck this bad?
“Looks like we’ll be spending the week together. Good thing we got off to such a great start. First impressions and all that. Should make the week lots of fun.”
He laughed and got out of the car, grabbed his bag from the trunk, and threw it over his shoulder. “What are you waiting for? I’m sure your family would love to hear all about our little adventure today.”
There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that they would. Hopefully, they’d get it out of their system quickly then Logan could go hang out with Travis on the lake fishing for the entire week, if there was any justice in the universe, and she could find somewhere on dry land to be—as far away from Logan as possible.
Find out more information here: ENTANGLED PUBLISHING
The Hometown Hoax
by Heather Thurmeier
Copyright © 2015 by Heather Thurmeier. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.