“Siri, where the hell are we?” Laurel’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, a white-knuckled grip of pure frustration.
Her phone didn’t answer her.
Laure resisted the urge to yell at it. What good would it do? But she glanced at the screen again — the map app still showing nothing but a white expanse with light grid lines — and then quickly back to the road before her.
It was not what she’d expected. Florida was supposed to be all palm trees, white sand, and sunshine. This forest that she’d found herself driving through was all wrong. It was pine trees, tall and skinny, with rough bark and tangled undergrowth.
To add insult to injury, it was raining.
What was the point of running away to Florida if she was running straight into lousy weather?
Maybe, just maybe, she should have checked the weather report before stuffing the summer clothes she hadn’t worn in months into a suitcase and heading south. Unfortunately, it hadn’t even occurred to her.
Maybe she should have gotten her car a tune-up before deciding to go for a drive of a thousand miles or so, too. Somewhere around the Florida-Georgia border, after the last time she’d gotten gas, a mysterious orange icon had appeared on the dash. She didn’t know what it meant, so she was trying to pretend she didn’t see it. But the longer it sat there, the more it felt like it was glaring at her.
She took a hand off the steering wheel and patted the car’s dashboard. “Hang in there, Sadie. We’ll get there. Somewhere. Someday.”
An hour ago, getting off the highway seemed like a sensible decision. Florida drivers obviously didn’t give a damn about the then torrential downpour — they’d been zipping by at 75 or 80 miles per hour. Breaking down would have been terrifying.
On the other hand, there were worse places to break down. Like right here for example.
She was in the middle of nowhere.
She knew it was the middle of nowhere, because there was no cell service. Not a single bar. She might as well be on the moon.
No cell service meant no calling a tow truck if her car died.
Also no using her GPS to figure out how her little local street detour had turned into this expedition into the wilderness.
Worst of all, no cell service meant no more music. She’d been streaming road trip playlists since leaving Kentucky, everything from the classics — Johnny Cash singing “Wide Open Road”, Springsteen with “Born to Run”, the Eagles, Steve Miller, America — to cheerful modern pop and country — the Lumineers, Sam Hunt, Katy Perry. But only fun, lively, happy music. The kind of music she needed to distract her.
Without it, the silence left much too much room for her own thoughts to cycle through the same dreary material. She should be happy. She should be ecstatic. But her brain kept getting in the way.
She pushed the power button on the radio. Static. She hit scan and the radio started cycling through stations. Static, static, static-y country music, static-y Spanish, more static, and finally voices. She pushed the button to stop the search.
They were talking about baseball. Spring training, pre-season for the Marlins, names she didn’t recognize. Once upon a time, she would have known them, but that was a long time ago.
She listened for a couple of minutes, but when the scenery outside the car windows didn’t change and the conversation didn’t get more interesting, she hit scan again. The radio cycled through the same static-y stations, passed over the sports guys, kept going, returned, and kept going again. She let it go, over and over, until finally she gave up and paused it. Even baseball was better than silence or static.
But the talk radio guys had moved on.
“First thing on my list, a Lamborghini,” the one guy said.
“Four hundred million after taxes. That wouldn’t even make a dent.” The second guy laughed. “Yep, the massive MegaBall’s got a single winner, folks—“
Laurel jabbed a finger into the power button before he even finished his sentence. Okay, there were worse things than silence.
But the trees were giving way to signs of civilization. With a sigh of relief, Laurel obediently slowed the car to the dictates of a 20 MPH speed limit sign.
The rain was finally stopping, too.
Maybe her luck was looking up.
She gave a snort of half-bitter laughter at the thought.
Her luck wasn’t in doubt.
Her luck was never in doubt.
The town was small, but she pulled over at the sight of a gas station. Taking her phone out of the holder, she checked her signal again.
How was that even possible? Whoever made the commercials for cell phone companies had obviously never visited this area of Florida.
Since she couldn’t look up the mysterious icon online, she rummaged in her glove compartment. Her car might be ten years old, with 150,000 miles on it, but the manual ought to be exactly where it had always been, and it was. Skipping to the index, Laurel skimmed down the entries, looking for icons, then flipped back to read.
Apparently the mysterious symbol was supposed to be an engine; the message was to check the engine; and it might be important or it might not be.
Laurel did not feel enlightened.
She slid the manual back into the glove compartment.
“What now, Sadie?” Laurel patted the car’s dash again, feeling a twinge of guilt. Sadie had been a good, loyal, reliable car. But her days were probably coming to an end, and maybe very soon.
Laurel wasn’t ready to think about that, though. Instead, she opened the door and headed to the convenience store attached to the gas station.
A bell rang when she stepped inside.
A comfortable-looking older woman behind the cash register smiled in her direction. “Afternoon, hun.”
Friendly. That was a little unexpected. In Laurel’s experience, convenience store clerks tended toward the sullen. But she stepped forward with a smile of her own. “Good afternoon. I’m just passing through, but my car’s got a light showing up on the dash. I was wondering if there was a mechanic around who might be able to take a quick look.”
The woman’s brows lifted. “A light?”
“The check engine light. The manual says I should take it in and have someone look at it.”
“You need a code reader, hun.”
Laurel blinked. She must have looked about as confused as she felt — Bletchley Park? World War 2? Benedict Cumberbatch? What did they have to do with her car? — because the woman chuckled.
“Let me call Dave for you.” She bent and rose again, holding the receiver of an old-fashioned phone in her hand. She turned to the wall behind her and ran her finger down a posted paper list. “Let’s see…” She punched the numbers into the phone.
Laurel glanced around while she waited. She didn’t need gas yet, but she was getting hungry. The store had the usual run of quick snacks — chips of all sorts, candy, beef jerky — but also refrigerator cases with milk, juice, eggs, sandwich meat, frozen pizza, even a limited supply of fruit and vegetables.
But the woman was talking, so Laurel listened in, hoping for good news.
After the first explanation, the conversation included a lot of “ohs?” and “yeahs,” and “uh-huhs,” until finally the woman returned the phone to its cradle.
“Good news and bad. Dave’s got a code reader, of course, but he’s at the airport, just about to fly out for a quick trip to North Carolina.”
Laurel blinked. How was that good news? It sounded pure bad to her.
“He ought to be back within three hours,” the woman continued. “He’ll be happy to take a look for you when he gets home.”
“Three hours? From North Carolina?” Laurel asked. How did that math work? In her experience, it took two hours at an airport to just get on the plane, much less actually go somewhere.
“Oh, he’s just flying up and back. Running some errand, most like. Or dropping someone off. Those GD folks fly about like hummingbirds, I swear.” The clerk tsk-ed, then added, “You’d think they’d never heard of climate change. But I suppose Dave would be out of a job if they stopped flying so much, so prob’ly best not to mention it to them.”
She paused expectantly.
Laurel understood her cue to participate in the conversation — any southern woman would — but she had no idea what to do with it.
“And Dave’s a — mechanic?” she finally ventured.
“Well, not for money. But he’s got the tools and the talent. He’ll be able to tell you what’s wrong and what you should do about it.”
“I see. That’s very kind of him. And you.” But Laurel paused, chewing on her lower lip uncertainly. Did she want to wait three hours for some random guy to come look at her car or did she want to keep driving and hope the light was nothing serious? It wasn’t like she was in a rush to get anywhere: her great escape had been entirely spur of the moment. She had no reservations, no real plans, just a destination in mind.
The woman glanced at a clock on the wall. “If you want to wait, Maggie’s Place is a couple blocks down the road and she’ll be open for dinner by now. There’ll be a line, there always is this time of day, but you might find a counter seat open. And no rush, after all.”
“A line?” Laurel glanced at the clock, too. She was hungry, but it was barely 5PM.
“Great food, great prices.” The woman shrugged. “With the internet, the word got out. People drive a long way to come to Maggie’s. She’s real good for business.”
That sounded interesting. And Laurel was hungry, after all.
“Sounds good.” She nodded toward her car through the glass windows. “You think it’s okay to leave it there?”
“Sure thing,” the woman said. “No one’ll bother it and it’ll be here when you get back. Enjoy your dinner.”
Laurel wandered slowly down the street in the direction the woman had indicated. Now that the rain had stopped, the early evening was shaping up to be beautiful. The sky was still filled with clouds, but they were layered, fluffy, shadowed with deep gray and blue. The air held the freshness of a cool evening and the smell of warm rain on asphalt mixed with the green smell of early spring.
She took a deep breath. Okay, maybe running away wasn’t as stupid as it had seemed a couple hours ago.
It was still stupid.
At some point, she was going to have to face reality. The thought gave her a weird feeling in her stomach — some strange mix of terror and excitement, with terror definitely predominant.
The future was looming before her, an abyss in which the only certainty was change. Major, big, dramatic change. Terrifying change, if she was honest about it.
But she wasn’t ready to think about the future. It wasn’t going anywhere. She could think about it tomorrow. Or maybe the next day.
Because the thing about thinking about the future was that there was no way to do it without also thinking about the past. And Laurel really truly wasn’t ready to think about the past. Not yet. Not today.
Maggie’s Place was cute. Planters on either side of the door held pretty purple flowers and gold letters spelled out the name on the glass window. Small clumps of people were gathered around the entrance, chatting companionably. They made way for Laurel with friendly nods until an older man, standing next to the door, said, “Ah, there you are.”
He smiled at Laurel, eyes crinkling in apparent pleasure, and she smiled back at him, unable to resist. It was such a laughing smile, as if the two of them were sharing a delightful secret. He held the door open for her with a flourish. “We’re so glad you could join us.”
Was he a maitre d’? But his clothes were casual and the restaurant didn’t look like that kind of restaurant at all. It was a lot like an old-time diner, with a long counter running the length of the middle and an open kitchen galley behind it. Along one wall was a row of booths, and there were tables along the windows and evenly arranged along the floor, all with bright cloth tablecloths and napkins. It was packed with people, but the atmosphere felt friendly and welcoming. It didn’t feel formal enough to have a waiter opening the door and welcoming the guests, but maybe they’d had to hire someone because of the crowds.
Laurel stepped into the restaurant. She’d put her name on the waiting list or see if there was a seat at the counter for a single. But before she could, the man who had greeted her put his hand lightly on her back and gestured toward two tables pushed together, with several people seated at them. “We’re this way.”
“Excuse me? I think you might have mistaken me for—“ Laurel started.
Before she could finish, he’d waved to the people at the table. “Here she is.”
“Oh, no, I’m not — you’ve — I’m sorry,” Lauren stumbled over the words, letting the man guide her forward as her face flushed with color.
The most attractive man she’d ever seen in real life was standing up at the table.
It was totally disconcerting.
The rush of heat started at her top of her head and flowed straight down. She could practically feel it in her toes, curling inside her tennis shoes, although most of it lingered in her core.
Damn, it would have been nice if she’d thought about putting make-up on this morning. Or, you know, brushing her hair.
Her hand lifted involuntarily, but she forced it down before she touched the tousled brown waves. Yeah, her hair was a mess. She wasn’t going to worry about it. She’d been running away, she reminded herself. Runaways did not worry about how they looked.
She lifted her chin.
He was looking at her, his caramel eyes amused. He had amazing eyelashes, so dark and lush that if she’d seen them on a woman, she would have dismissed them as over-the-top fakes. Maybe they still were.
“Who’s this, Max?” he said.
“Your girlfriend?” The man behind her said, sounding surprised. “The one we’ve been waiting for?”
The guy at the table shook his head. “Not so.”
“Are you sure?” The older man sounded doubtful.
“Not the kind of thing I’d make a mistake about.” The guy’s voice was dry, but he dipped his head toward Laurel and his lips — his really perfect, eminently kissable lips — widened into a smile. “Not that I wouldn’t be delighted if she were.”
Laurel wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he saying he would have been delighted if his girlfriend had walked in the door instead of her, or was he saying he’d be delighted to have her as a girlfriend?
The latter was obviously an over-the-top compliment. Not that she was insecure about her own looks. Give her half an hour — well, maybe an hour — with her make-up bag, her flat-iron, some styling gel, her Spanx and her best push-up bra, and she knew she could make heads turn. But after two days of driving and a rocky night in a cheap motel spent tossing and turning while she alternated between panic and excitement, she was not in this guy’s league.
His smile reached his eyes, though, and the words had been said lightly, as much self-deprecating humor as come-on. Either way, it felt like a compliment. She smiled back at him.
He lifted his phone, as if to display the screen to the older man. “As it happens, Sierra just texted me. She missed her plane, so she won’t be joining us for dinner after all.”
“In that case, we have an extra seat at the table.” The older man sounded more pleased than not. “Why don’t you join us, young lady?”
“Oh, I—“ Laurel started to demur, looking around the restaurant again, gaze skimming in a search for available seats. There were none. The only two unoccupied seats in the entire restaurant were the two at the table before her.
Before she could decide, one of the seated people — a man, who’d had his back toward her — stood and turned.
The words that Laurel had been looking for stopped in her throat.
Whoa. Who would have thought the universe could hold two guys with such extravagant eyelashes?
She was still blinking in surprise as the man behind her gently ushered her to the empty chair next to the first guy and seated her, before moving down the table to sit at the end.
“Twins?” She finally asked as the guys both sat back down.
She felt silly as soon as she’d said it. Talk about stating the obvious. Unless someone had invented cloning, the two men were clearly identical twins. Not so identical that she couldn’t see the differences between them — the twin across from her must spend more time outside, and maybe spent more time working out, too. He looked a little thinner, a little older, than the one she’d first seen.
“We’ve heard all the jokes already,” the twin across from her said, smiling.
She shook her head, amused at herself. “I’ve heard them, too. I’m a twin myself.”
“Two of you?” The twin next to her shot her a flirtatious look. “How enchanting.”
“My brother would be delighted to hear you say so,” Laurel replied, voice dry.
He slapped his hand over his heart. “Crushed. Fantasies shattered.”
“As you can tell, I’m the good twin, he’s the evil one,” the guy across the table from her said.
There was a pause.
A weird pause.
The guy across the table’s smile started to fade before the the guy next to her said, a little roughly, “So true, so true. Hard-core evil, that’s me.” He held his hand out to Laurel. “Niall Blake.”
What had that been about? She gave Niall a quick once-over. He did not look evil. He looked delicious, actually. But then they both did, and could you really tell whether someone was evil from their appearance? His eyes weren’t laughing anymore, but they were still warm.
She took his hand, meaning to shake it, but he didn’t let go immediately.
“And are you the evil twin or the good twin?” he asked lightly.
“Oh.” She half-laughed. Unexpected question, that. It sent a jolt of pain, a spark of misery, straight to her heart. But she forced a smile. “I guess that depends on who you ask. My brother would vote for me being the evil one, I’m sure.”
“Evil twins unite.” Niall gave her hand a gentle squeeze and released it. He gestured across the table, and started counting down. “My brother Noah, his girlfriend Grace, her brother Zane, his wife Akira, their baby…” He paused, then tilted his head and whispered. “I forget her name.”
She whispered back, “I bet she doesn’t mind.”
He continued naming names around the table, but Laurel didn’t try to catch them all. The man at the end of the table, the one who’d invited her to join them, was Max, the father of at least a few of the adults at the table. There was also an assorted collection of kids, including another set of identical twins, and a couple more adults. The adults all acknowledged the introductions with friendly smiles and nods, but the younger kids seemed to be in the middle of an argument about the relative merits of Space Mountain and the Tower of Terror and were oblivious.
“So what are you doing in Tassamara?” Niall asked her.
Laurel opened her mouth to respond.
‘Just passing through,’ was what she intended to say. The words were in her head.
But somewhere between her brain and her mouth, they turned into, “Running away.”
“From?” Niall asked the obvious follow-up.
Laurel wanted to kick herself. She was not going to share her story with total strangers. It was too complicated, too painful. Too immense. She barely wanted to think about it herself.
“Long story,” she replied with a sigh and promptly changed the subject. “And you? Do you live here?”
“Not me. I’m just visiting. And not for long. We’re on our way to a family Disney vacation. Seven days of theme park fun. We’ve got the t-shirts and everything.”
“Really?” Laurel laughed. “That’s where I’m headed, too.”
“Disney World? You’re running away to the Magic Kingdom?”
She nodded. “Yep.”
“Good for you. Awesome choice.”
“I’ve never been. It was a childhood fantasy, but…” She shrugged. “Never happened.”
“You’re gonna love it,” Niall predicted confidently. “We used to come every couple years.”
“We grew up in Maine,” Noah said. “Our mom always wanted to escape the winter and Disney was the great escape.”
The blonde woman, Grace, said, “When I was a kid, we had annual passes, but we never stayed at the parks. We just visited for the day.” She nudged Noah with her elbow. “Noah and I spent a weekend there a few months ago and had such a good time that I convinced everyone we should do a family trip. So we’re all going. This is supposed to be our planning meeting. We leave tomorrow.”
“Fun.” Laurel smiled, suppressing a twinge of jealousy. She was on her own adventure, and that was fine, but… well, she would have liked going to Disney with a big family and kids.
Of course, first she would have needed to have the big family and kids. And that would have been nice, too. But before she could start feeling sorry for herself, a voice called out from the other end of the table.
“You should come with us.”
Laurel’s eyes widened as she glanced at the man who’d welcomed her to the restaurant.
He was smiling at her. At her look, he gave her a firm nod. “Lucas and Sylvie can’t make it, so there’s an extra room in Grace’s villa.”
“Um…” Laurel had no idea how to respond.
Was it a little crazy to invite a total stranger to join you on a family vacation? Yes. Yes, it was.
In fact, it was a lot crazy. Maybe he had dementia or something, although he looked awfully young for that. Would one of his children intercede?
But the dark-haired woman on her side of the table — one whose name Laurel hadn’t bothered to remember — leaned forward and said, “Yes, you should join us.”
Noah and Niall and Grace all exchanged glances, and the man on the other side of Grace chuckled.
“Resistance is futile,” he intoned in a quiet voice.
The woman next to him rolled her eyes. “Way to freak out the visitors.” She smiled in Laurel’s direction. “Ignore him. All of them. But hey, if you’re headed to Disney anyway…”
The baby in the high chair next to her let out a high-pitched shriek and banged her tiny fists on the tray, and the woman turned her attention to scattering more Cheerios on its surface.
“We do have an extra room,” Grace said. “My brother and sister-in-law were supposed to be coming with us, but they had to fly up to North Carolina for a job.”
“Did a guy named Dave fly them there?” Laurel asked slowly.
This was weird, wasn’t it? She glanced at Niall. He was looking at his phone, a slight frown putting lines between his brows.
Yeah, this was really weird.
“Yes.” Grace sounded surprised. “Do you know him?”
“I only stopped here because my car’s check engine light went on. The woman at the gas station, she called him, and he said he’d come take a look after he got back from North Carolina.”
“Sounds like it’s your lucky day, then,” Niall said, sliding his phone back into his pocket.
Laurel fought the semi-hysterical laugh that wanted to escape. Lucky? Maybe.