Virgin River Book #18
August 30, 2016
A TIRE CHANGE YOUR LIFE?
Dylan Childress and his buddies are on the motorcycle trip of a lifetime. But the site of a woman in distress stops them in their tracks. And while the guys are checking out her car, she and Dylan are checking out one another.
In one brief moment, the world tilts on its axis and any previous plans Katie and Dylan might have had for their futures are left at the side of the road.
When Katie had escaped to Vermont in March, she had left behind her minivan with the license plate that could identify her. It was to be sold and Conner had arranged for a late model Lincoln Navigator SUV to be waiting for her — a mammoth vehicle that she could barely park. As any carpooling mother might, she had grieved her minivan — it was light and easy to handle and felt like an extension of her body. But she came to quickly love the big, gas guzzling SUV. She felt like queen of the road — so safe and invulnerable; she could see over everything and everyone. She loved to drive that car and looked forward to some time on the road for reflection, to consider her options. The act of seeing the miles vanish in the rear view mirror was a good way to leave the past behind and welcome a new beginning.
It didn’t take Katie long to get out of town. She had UPS pick up her boxes on Monday, phoned the school and arranged to have the boys’ kindergarten records scanned and emailed to her, invited the landlord over to check the condition of the house and asked her neighbor to come over and help herself to the perishables that would otherwise be thrown out. She arranged to have the Lincoln picked up in Orlando and moved to Sacramento while she and the boys did a little Disney. She packed not only clothes, but the cooler and picnic basket. Her tool belt, which was pink and had been given to her by her late husband, Charlie, went with her everywhere. Armed with portable DVD players and movies, iPads and rechargers, she loaded her monster SUV and headed south.
They got off to a great start, but after a few hours the boys started to wiggle and squabble and complain. She stopped for the bathroom for one when the other one didn’t have to go and fifteen minutes down the road, had to stop again for the second one. They picnicked at rest stops every few hours and she ran them around to tire them out, though the only one who seemed tired was Katie. She repaired a malfunctioning DVD player, set up some snacks and loaded them back up to hit the road again.
She couldn’t help but wonder how parents did this sort of thing ten, twenty, thirty years ago before portable movies and iPad games. How did they manage without fifth wheel sized cars with pull down consoles that served as tables to hold games and refreshments? Without cars that, like cruise ships, had individual heating and air conditioning thermostats? How did the pioneer mothers manage? Did they even have duct tape back then?
Most women, at times like this, would be reduced to self-pity because they were left with these high maintenance, energetic boys, but Katie just wasn’t that kind of woman. She hated self-pity. She did, however, wish Charlie could see them, experience them.
Katie met and married Charlie when she was twenty-six. They had a romantic, devoted, passion charged relationship, but it had been too short. He was a Green Beret — Army Special Forces. When she was pregnant with the boys, he deployed to Afghanistan where he was killed before they were born.
How she wished he knew them now. When they weren’t in trouble they were so funny. She imagined they were like their father had been as a child; they certainly resembled him physically. They were large for their ages, rambunctious, competitive, bright, a little short tempered and possessive. They both had a strong sentimental streak. They still needed mother-cuddling regularly and they loved all animals, even the tiniest ones. They tried to cover up their tears during Disney movies like Bambi. If one of them got scared, the other propped him up and reassured and vice versa. When they were forced together, like in the backseat of the car, they wanted space. When they were forced apart, they wanted to be together. She wondered if they’d ever take individual showers.
And for all her griping at Charlie for never closing the bathroom door, she now longed for a little solitary bathroom time. The boys had been in her bubble, no matter what she was doing, since they could crawl. She could barely have a bath without company in the last five years.
So her life wasn’t always easy. Was theirs? They didn’t seem to realize they didn’t have the average family life — they had a mom and no dad, but they had Uncle Conner. She showed them the pictures of their dad and told them, all the time, how excited he had been to see them. But then he’d gone to the angels…. He was a hero who’d gone to the angels…
So Disney World was a good idea. They’d all earned it.
Katie intended for the boys to have fun at Disney, a reward for being the brave little troupers they didn’t even realize they were. She also hoped a couple days with Mickey and friends would tire them out, but the Mouse didn’t wear the boys down quite enough. Three days and nights at Disney World seemed to energize them. They squirmed the whole way to Sacramento on the plane and because they’d been confined, they ran like around the hotel room like a couple of nutballs.
They set off for Virgin River right after breakfast, but as for the scenic drive to Virgin River, it was dark, gloomy and rainy. She was completely disappointed — she wanted to take in the beauty Conner had described — the mountains, redwoods, sheer cliffs and lush valleys. Well, ever the optimist, she hoped the gray skies would help the boys nod off.
But not right away, apparently.
“Andy has Avatar! It’s my turn to have Avatar!”
“Christ almighty, why didn’t I buy two of those,” she mumbled.
“Someone wants soap in her mouth,” Mitch The Enforcer muttered from the backseat.
It was hard to imagine what she’d be up against if Charlie were still with them. He had no patience and the filthiest language. Marines blushed when he opened his mouth. For that matter, Katie wanted to shout into the backseat I took you to goddamn Disney World! Share the goddamn movie! “If I have to stop this car to deal with your bickering, it will be a very long time before we get to Uncle Conner’s house! And then it will be straight to time out!”
They made a noble effort, but it involved a great deal of grunting, shoving and squirming.
As soon as she got off Highway 5 and headed for the narrow, winding road that skirted Clear Lake the driving became more challenging. Sometimes it was harrowing. She passed what appeared to be a small dock house or shed that had broken apart in the lake, right off the road, but as she slowed she saw that it was an RV that had slipped off the road and crashed into the water. She slowed but couldn’t stop; there was no place to pull over and behind her were the sirens of first responders.
Once they got to Humboldt County, she turned off the freeway right at the coastal town of Fortuna and headed east on Highway 36, up into the mountains. This was a good, two-lane highway and as she rose into the mountains, the views took her breath away. Huge trees on the mountainsides reached into the clouds, lush farms, ranches and vineyards spread through the valleys below. She couldn’t indulge the views — there were no guardrails, nor were there wide shoulders. And before she’d gone very far up the mountain she found herself buried in the forest on a winding road that broke left, then right, then up, then down. The trees were so large, blocking what little light there was, and her headlights in the rain were a minor help.
Then it happened. She felt a bump, then heard a pop. The big car swerved, then listed to the left and went kathump, kathump, kathump. She pulled over as far as possible, but was on a very short straightaway between two curves, so still stuck out into the road a bit. Here’s where having the super-sized SUV wasn’t so convenient.
“Stay in the car, in your seats,” she told the boys. And she cautiously exited the car, watching for traffic coming around the curves in either direction. The rain was coming down in a steady sheet, although it was filtered by the boughs of huge pines and sequoias. Those pine needles didn’t do much to keep her dry, however. She shivered in the cold rain and wondered, This is June? It had been so warm in Sacramento, she hadn’t taken jackets or sweatshirts out of their suitcases. She hadn’t accounted for the temperature drop in the mountains.
She crouched, sitting on the heel of her right Uggs, and glared at the traitorous tire in disgust. Flat as a pancake, rubber torn away. What a mess. It wasn’t going anywhere, that was for sure.
Katie knew how to change a tire, but just the same, she got back in the car and took out her phone. On a vehicle this size, it could be a challenge. Maybe they were close enough to Virgin River for Conner to help.
No bars. No service. No help.
Well, that certainly diminished her options. She looked into the backseat. “Mommy’s going to change the tire and I need you to stay in the car and sit very, very still. No moving around, all right?”
“Because I have to jack up the car where the flat tire is and if you wiggle around it could fall and maybe hurt me. Can you sit still? Very still?”
They nodded gravely. She couldn’t have them out of the car, running wild in the forest or along this narrow highway. She shut off the SUV and went to the rear, lifting the hatch. She had to pull out a couple of suitcases and move the picnic basket to open the wheel well cover and floorboard. She pulled out the lug wrench and jack.
The first thing to do was actually the hardest for a woman her size — loosening the lug nuts before jacking up the car. She put her whole body into it, but she couldn’t budge a single one. Not even the slightest bit. This was when it didn’t pay off to be five-foot-four and a lightweight. She used a foot and two hands. Nothing. She stood up, pulled a rubber tie out of the pocket of her jeans and wound her long hair into a ponytail. She wiped her hands down her jeans and gave it another try, grunting with the effort. Still nothing. She was going to have to wait for someone to…
She heard a rumble that grew closer. And because today wasn’t turning out to be one of her luckier days, it couldn’t be some old rancher. Nope. It had to be a motorcycle gang. “Crap,” she said. “Well, beggers can’t be choosers.” And she waved them down. Four of them pulled up right behind the SUV while the one in front got off his bike and removed his helmet as he approached her while the others stayed balanced on their rumbling bikes.
Whew, wasn’t he a big, scary looking dude. Huge and leather clad with lots of hair, both facial and a long pony tail. He also jingled a little while he walked — there were chains around his boot heels, hanging from his belt and adorning his jacket. With his helmet cradled in the crook of his arm, he looked down at her. “Whatcha got?”
“Flat,” she said, and shivered. “I can handle it if you’ll just help me with the lugs. I’m in good shape, but I’m no match for the air compressor torque that tightened ‘em down.”
He cocked his head and lifted one brow, probably surprised that a woman would know about the torque. He went over to the tire and squatted. “Dang,” he said. “Doesn’t get much flatter than that. I hope you have a spare.”
“In the undercarriage. Really, I can…”
He stood up and cut her off. “Let’s just get ‘er done. That way the lugs on the spare will be as tight as these.”
“Thanks, but I hate to hold you up. If you’ll just—”
He completely ignored her, walking back to his bike and stowing his helmet. He pulled a few flat road warning triangles out of his side pocket and handed a couple to riders. “Stu, take these warning markers up the road to that curve. Lang, go back down to that last curve and put these out. Dylan, you can help change the tire. Let’s do it.”
And then he was walking back to where she stood, still holding the lug wrench. Now, Conner was a big man and this guy was yet bigger. As she stood dripping in the rain, she felt about half his size. As two bikers rode away with their road markers, the fourth, Dylan, propped up his bike, removed his helmet and came toward them. And her eyes almost popped out. Warning! Major hottie! His black hair was a little on the long side, his face about a couple of days unshaven, his body long and lean with a tear in each knee of his jeans and what might just be a gym sock shoved in his snug jeans. He walked with a slight swagger, pulling off his gloves and stuffing them in the back pockets of his jeans, though they were so tight there shouldn’t be much room for anything. She lifted her eyes back to his face. He should probably be on a billboard.
“Let’s make this easy,” Number One was saying to Dylan. “How about you lighten the load a little bit.” And then he applied the lug wrench and with a simple, light jerk, spun the first lug nut, then a second, then a third. Piece of cake. For him.
Dylan approached her and she noticed his camel-colored pointy toed cowboy boots, tan leather jacket, great big cowboy sized belt buckle and amazing blue eyes. He completely ignored her and began to pull things out of the back of the SUV — first a large, heavy suitcase, a smaller one, then the cooler. Meanwhile, the SUV was lifting, apparently already on the jack.
Dylan paused, cooler in his hands, looking down at her. He looked up, she looked down. Swell. Her white T-shirt was soaked, plastered to her skin, her pretty little lace bra was now transparent, her nipples were tan bullets pointed right at him. He frowned. He put down the cooler, stripped off his leather jacket and draped it around her shoulders, pulling it closed.
Nice, she thought. Wet T-shirt display on the deserted road for a biker gang. Great. There she stood in a thin, transparent-when-wet shirt, her jeans as tight as his and her Uggs up to her knees over her jeans. “Thank you,” she mumbled. And she backed away so he could empty the back and get the tire from the under carriage.
“Must’ve hit a pothole or something,” the first biker was saying. “That tire is done for.”
She hugged the warm leather jacket around her and his scent rose, his very pleasant musk combined with rain and forest. It was toasty warm inside the jacket, dripping on the outside. Okay, maybe they weren’t Hell’s Angels. Just a bunch of nutballs out for a ride in the rain?
When Dylan took the spare around the SUV to his buddy, Katie got into the suitcase on top and pulled out a dark cowl-neck sweatshirt. She put the leather jacket in the back of the car and pulled the sweatshirt over her wet T-shirt. She looked down. Better.
Not long after her clothing adjustment, Dylan came around the back of the car carrying a destroyed, useless tire, his long sleeved shirt soaked and glued against a totally cut, sculptured, muscled chest. His shoulders and biceps bulged with the strain of carrying the heavy tire and he was having that little nipple problem himself. But God, what a body. He probably shouldn’t be out riding in the rain — he should be modeling or working with the Chippendales.
Stop, she told herself. Great to look at, but I’m sworn off. I’m concentrating on my future and my family. But wow.
After he stowed the tire, she picked up the jacket and held it toward him. “Here you go,” she said. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure. Hard to believe it’s June.”
“I was just thinking that.”
And then he did the most unexpected thing. He put the jacket down in the back of the SUV and stripped off his soaked shirt; he put the jacket on over skin. Her mouth stood open slightly, her eyes riveted to his body until he snapped the jacket closed. Then she slowly looked up and he smiled and winked. He walked back to his bike, shoved the wet shirt in a side pocket and returned to the back of the SUV just as it was lowering onto a new tire.
Dylan began to reload the SUV and for a second she was just mesmerized, but then she shook herself and began to help, every once in a while meeting his eyes. Oh God, he had Conner’s eyes — crystal blue and twinkling beneath thick, dark lashes. She also had blue eyes but they were merely ordinary blue eyes while Conner’s (and Dylan’s!) were more periwinkle and almost startling in their depth. Paul Newman eyes, her mother used to say. And this guy had them, too! Her parents must have had a love child they left on the church steps or something.
No. Wait. She knew him — the eyes, the name. Not personally. It had been a long, long time ago, but she’d seen him before. Not in person, but on TV. On magazine covers. But then, surely it wasn’t… Yes, the Hollywood bad boy from years ago. What had become of him since way back then?
“You can get back in if you want to,” Dylan said. “Turn the heat up. I hope you don’t have far to go.”
“I’m almost there,” she said.
Dylan put the cooler in, then the heaviest suitcase. Then he took a handkerchief out of his back pocket, wiped down his rain-slicked face and then began to wipe off his dirty hands. “You have a couple of stowaways,” he said, glancing into the car.
She peeked into the SUV. A couple of identical sets of brown eyes peered over the backseat. “My boys,” she said.
“You don’t look old enough to have boys.”
“I’m at least fifty,” she said. “Ever been on a road trip with five-year-old twins?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
Of course he hadn’t, because he was some gorgeous god-like hunk of hoodlum who was free as a bird and out either terrorizing or rescuing maidens in the forest. Wow.
“You’re all set, miss,” the big biker said as he came around the SUV, pulling on his leather gloves. Jeez, he had chains on those, too.
“Thanks for your help. The lugs get me every time.”
“I’d never leave a lady in distress by the side of the road, my mother would kill me. And that’s nothing to what my wife would say!”
“You have a wife?” she asked. And before she could stop herself, she added, “And a mother?”
Dylan burst out with a short laugh. He clapped a hand on the big guy’s back and said, “There’s a lot more to Walt than meets the eye, Miss… I didn’t get a name…”
She put out an icy hand. “Katie Malone.”
“I’m Dylan,” he said, taking the hand. How in the world he had managed warm hands after changing a tire in the freezing rain, she would long wonder. “And of course, this is Walt, roadside good Samaritan.” Then he addressed Walt. “I’ll ride back and get Lang. We’ll scoop up Stu on the way up the road.”
“You should be just fine, Katie,” Walt said. “Jump in, tell the little guys to buckle up, crank up the heater and watch the road.”
“Right. Yes. Listen, can I pay you for your trouble? I’m sure it would’ve cost me at least a hundred bucks to have that tire changed.”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said, startling her with his choice of words. It just didn’t seem like the vocabulary that would fit a big, scary biker dude. “You’d do the same for me if you could. Just be sure to replace that tire right away so you always have a spare.”
“You always go out for a ride in the rain?” she asked.
“We were on the road already. But there are better days for it, that’s for sure. If it had been coming down much harder, we’d have had to hole up under a tree or something. Don’t want to slide off a mountain. Take care.” Then he turned and tromped back to his hog with the high handlebars.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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Katie Malone—Thirty-two-year-old widowed mother of twin boys. Now that the threat to their safety is over, Katie is reuniting with her brother, Conner, planning to spend the summer in Virgin River.
Dylan Childress—A former child actor, 35-year-old Dylan, now a pilot and rancher of sorts, is the owner of a charter air service in Payne, Montana. Dylan and his buddies are on their annual motorcycle road trip, this year through California, when they run into Katie, who is sidelined by a flat tire.
Andy & Mitch—Katie’s five-year-old identical twins. After a family trip to Disney World, Katie is taking her bright, rambunctious boys to Virgin River to spend time with their Uncle Conner.
Adele Childress—Dylan’s grandmother. Adele, a famous actress in her own right, she removed troubled teenager Dylan from the Hollywood scene, taking him to the ranch in Montana where she raised him.
Lang—Best friends since college, Lang and Dylan are business partners. Lang and his wife, Sue Ann, have five children.
Blaine—Dylan’s 40-year-old stepsister.
Bryce—Age 30, Bryce is Dylan’s half brother.
Cherise Fontaine—Dylan’s mother. Cherise is an actress and, like Blaine and Bryce, has used Dylan’s notoriety for personal gain.
Jay Romney—A well-known Hollywood producer, who is looking forward to having Dylan star in another movie.