“Not to misquote Monty Python or anything, but that is an ex-tire.” Mina Harper stared at the back of her Jeep and fought the urge to kick the offending wheel. No point making it any flatter. It was already doing an annoyingly good imitation of a squished and melted doughnut as it was.
From the rear seat, her yellow Lab, Stewie, whined, nose pressed against the window. Mina looked up and then straightened, gripping her flashlight tighter in her left hand. Stewie wasn’t happy about still being inside the car while she was outside. She wasn’t happy about being outside in the freezing weather.
She pulled the collar of her coat tighter around her neck as a gust of wind flattened her bangs against her face with an icy touch. She’d only been out of the car a couple of minutes and she was already chilled. And getting damp. Raindrops were hitting the ground around her with increasing frequency, the sound of them pinging on the roof of the Jeep just audible over the wind. “You’re better off in there, dopey dog,” she said, pressing her hand briefly against the window to reassure Stewie.
As if in agreement, thunder rumbled in the distance, setting Stewie off into a flurry of barking. Great. That was all she needed.
She stared up at the sky, trying to gauge the weather. It was nearly midnight and the sky was a mess of gray, black, and stormy blue clouds, no stars to be seen. Not a sky she’d want to paint. The kind that made it hard to judge the distance of a storm.
And not the kind of sky that Lansing Island usually got in early November. Sure it was fall, but the island was off the coast of California. Winters were cool, not freezing.
The icy wind stinging her eyes was apparently unaware it was behaving unseasonally. Really, she should have known things weren’t not going to go smoothly tonight when she’d turned on the car radio to discover that Lansing’s local station had decided to start with the Christmas music already. “Santa Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was going to be stuck in her head for days now. She’d turned the radio off when they’d started playing “This Time of Year,” an old Blacklight song. The holidays were hard enough without hearing her dead father sing about them.
“This was meant to be an easy night, Stewie,” she muttered as she waited, eyes peeled for any signs of lightning. If she was going to be kneeling on wet ground next to a big metal thing and holding a tire iron, she really didn’t want to do it in a lightning storm.
Flash-fried Mina was not going to be on the menu. If the storm got worse, she’d suck it up and call Nicolai who ran Cloud Bay’s biggest garage and operated the island’s only tow truck. He’d be cranky if she called him out to change a tire at midnight, but she’d rather deal with cranky Nicolai than massive bolts of electricity dropping from the sky onto her head.
But she didn’t see any ashes, so after another watchful minute, breathing icy sea-scented air, she made her way around to the back of the Jeep and opened the rear door to dig out her jack. She knew how to change a tire. And she could do it in less time than it would take Nicolai to get to her. It was just going to be a thoroughly cold, wet, and annoying experience.
She stretched briefly, trying to ease her shoulders—sore from a long day of painting—dragged out the tarp she carried for emergencies and dumped it onto the ground behind her, and then found the set of hazard lights she also kept stashed in the back.
Her half-frozen fingers fumbled as she tried to extract the jack, but eventually she got it. Her back protested a little as she heaved the spare tire free, but she managed. Stewie whuffled nervously at her the entire time, straining his harness to look over the back seat to where she stood. “You stay in the warm, buddy,” she said. She didn’t want to have to wrangle an overly eager Labrador on top of everything else. Not to mention that she didn’t want to have to give Stewie the bath that would be inevitable if she let him out to splash around in the puddles rapidly forming around her feet. Stewie had never met a body of water—no matter how tiny—he didn’t like.
She set the lights at the front and rear of the car, then carried the last one back to set by the flat tire. Lansing Island didn’t exactly have much traffic at midnight, but better safe than sorry.
Right. She still had thirty minutes before she had to report for her shift. So she could do this. Would do this. She spread the tarp, which would at least keep her clothes clean if not dry, but as she twisted and leaned down to switch on the hazards, her foot slipped and she fell, flashlight flying out of her hand. “Fuck,” was about all she had time to think before her head hit the side of the car.
Will Fraser frowned out the window of the office above the Salt Devil Distillery, trying to see through the rain starting to pour down. He’d seen a car pull up, leaving the headlights on, and then what he assumed was a flashlight bobbing around, and had been wondering if he should call Nicolai and tell him someone might be broken down half a mile down the road. But just now, the flashlight had moved weirdly. And now he could swear it was lying on the ground some distance from the car.
The window fogged with his breath and he rubbed a patch clear with his flannel shirtsleeve, straining to peer through the rain and darkness. The flashlight wasn’t moving. Not a good sign.
Looked like he’d be going out into the rain himself. Awesome. He’d thought that sitting down to do some paperwork for the bar had been the pits on a Saturday night. Now he was going to get soaked into the bargain.
He moved quickly as he pulled on a coat and grabbed a beanie off the rack that stood near the office door.
Lansing Island had a pretty mild climate—it was California after all—but so far the fall had been cooler than usual. Add in the rain, and the weather tonight was definitely not what you wanted to be out in for long.
Five minutes later he pulled up facing the Jeep on the side of the road, his headlights illuminating Mina Harper lying beside it, not moving.
“Fuck,” he breathed, heart suddenly hammering. Then he bolted out of his car, not caring about rain or wind or anything other than getting to Mina.
He reached her side and dropped to his knees, ignoring the furious barks of her dog who was still inside the Jeep.
His fingers found the pulse on the side of her neck. The steady beat made him feel suddenly weak with relief.
Okay. Alive was good. In fact it was fantastic. And she hadn’t been lying there long, assuming she’d fallen when he’d seen the flashlight go flying. Less than ten minutes.
His headlights gave him enough light to see by as he carefully felt his way down the arm she wasn’t lying on and then did the same with her legs. He and his brother Stefan kept their first aid training up to date in case anything ever happened in the bar attached to the distillery. This was the first time he’d ever had to put that training into action for anything more serious than a burn or a cut finger. He focused on breathing and continued his assessment. Nothing obviously broken.
Just a limp, unconscious girl. Not good. Her rear tire was at as a pancake and there was a tire iron on the tarp near it. Clearly she’d been about to change the flat. Might have been smarter to wait for help in this weather, but he could hardly go back in time and argue with her about that particular decision.
Nope, he had to work out what to do right now.
Maybe she’d slipped and banged her head. It seemed the most likely scenario as he thought about the small arc of light flying through the air that had caught his attention. A slip, then her letting go of the flashlight as she stumbled and hit her head. That would explain how she might have passed out. In an ideal world he’d stabilize her neck, but he didn’t have anything to do that with and, as lightning suddenly flashed in the not-really-so-distant distance, he decided he didn’t want to wait for the paramedics to arrive.
If she’d just slipped, it was doubtful she could have hurt her neck in a major way. A lightning strike would do more damage to both of them than him moving her could.
Okay. So that was the plan. Move her. Take her to the clinic in Cloud Bay. He climbed to his feet, jogged to his car, and opened the passenger door. Then he went back for Mina.
He had no doubt he could lift her. Mina was all ne lines and big eyes. Tallish but slender. Too slender lately. She’d gained back a bit of the weight she’d lost after her husband had died, but she was still thinner than she should be. He doubted she weighed more than an empty whiskey barrel, and he spent enough time lugging those around. Plus, she was a lot easier to get his arms around than a barrel. He knelt again, maneuvered his arms around her gently. She groaned, a small muffled noise, as he lifted her awkwardly and rose to his feet.
Sound was a good sign, right? Meant she was coming around. But her eyes were still closed and now that he could see all her face, he could also see that there was quite a bit of blood on it. He clamped down on the urge to do something about it. Head wounds always bled like stuck pigs. Better to get her to the doc than fuss too much with the blood. He had a small first aid kit in the car; he could find some gauze once she was safely out of the weather.
By the time he reached his car, Mina’s eyelids were uttering. He slid her into position in the passenger seat and strapped the seat belt around her. As he straightened, her eyes flew open and she started to turn her head.
“What—” She stopped, put a cautious hand to her head. “Owwww.”
“It’s okay. Stay still,” he said.
“Will?” She sounded confused, tugged at the strap of the seat belt. “What?”
“I think you fell. I found you lying on the road. You were out cold. I’m taking you to the doc.”
She blinked. Her eyes—dark in this light but a storm-tossed shade of green gray she shared with her half brother and half sister by day—looked huge in her face. She was too pale beneath the blood stains. Then she shivered.
Cold. Right. He needed to get her out of here.
“Stay still,” he repeated, and came around the car to turn the heater up. Then he shut the door and went to the trunk to find his first aid kit. The blast of warm air when he got back to the passenger door was welcome. His face and hands were starting to feel numb in the wind, and despite his coat and hat, the cold was seeping into his bones.
Mina’s eyes were closed again.
“You still with me, Mina?” he asked and she opened them, a little slower than he liked. Concussion, maybe. That meant he was supposed to keep her awake. He took a gauze pad out of the kit, unpeeled it from its wrapping, and pressed it gently to her forehead.
“Hold that in place.” Giving her something to focus on should help keep her awake. “The doc will clean you up but that will help stop the bleeding. Don’t nod,” he added. “I’m guessing your head feels like crap. Just hold that gauze there and I’ll have you at the clinic in no time at all.”
Despite his warning, she shook her head. Carefully, but definitely. “Stewie,” she said.
That damn dog. He’d forgotten all about him. A glance at the Jeep revealed Stewie had twisted around in the back seat and was glaring through the rear windscreen, barking wildly. Not happy about being parted from his mistress.
Will had never seen Stewie look anything but good natured before. Mina hardly ever went anywhere without the big yellow Lab, and he seemed to be one of those dogs who loved everybody. Hopefully he didn’t think that Will was hurting Mina and decide to show a more protective side. Because Mina was right. It wasn’t fair—or safe—to leave the dog in her Jeep alone.
“Is the car unlocked or do you have the keys?”
“Pocket,” she managed. “Jacket.” He hoped she meant an outer pocket. Because, God help him, he really didn’t want to put his hands under her clothes and pat her down to find the keys. But as luck would have it, the keys were in the first pocket he tried. He pulled them out, shaking them in front of her face to get her attention. “Okay. Stay awake, I’ll get your beast,” he said. The rain was pounding now and he had a fleeting image of what wet and dirty Labrador feet were going to do to the leather of his back seat. But he’d restored his Mustang once. He could do it again if he had to.
Stewie was still barking his head off as Will opened the front door of the Jeep. He’d rolled up the tarp, the tire iron, and the jack into a bundle and stuffed it onto the floor in front of the passenger seat. The flashlight he’d stuck into his jacket pocket.
“Calm down, dog,” Will grumbled at Stewie, keeping his voice friendly, hoping Stewie would relax a little. The barks subsided so maybe he’d found the right tone.
Mina’s purse was on the passenger seat so he grabbed that and turned off the headlights before he moved to the back to get Stewie. The dog was so pleased to see him, wriggling and dancing in place on the seat, it took longer than it should have to get him free of his harness and out of the car. Mina had left his lead attached which made things a little easier, but Stewie still leapt and barked and tried to lick Will’s face off as Will locked the Jeep.
By the time they got back to his car and Will had harnessed Stewie in the back seat, he was worried that Mina had fallen asleep.
But as Stewie barked at her, she opened her eyes and said “Quiet” in a voice that wasn’t much more than a whisper.
To Will’s surprise, Stewie obeyed, settling back down to lie on the seat though he kept his head turned toward Mina, a soft whine escaping him.
Will settled into the driver’s seat and started the car. He pulled out his phone and called the clinic to let Callie, the doc there, know they were coming, and then pulled out on to the road. Mina’s eyes were drifting closed again.
He needed to keep her talking. “Where were you going at this time of night in the rain?” he asked because it was the first thing he could think of.
“Work. Had a shift at search and rescue,” Mina said. Her voice was still too soft, and he pushed the Mustang a little, going as fast as he dared on the wet road as they head toward Cloud Bay, the island’s only town.
“Midnight shift? What are you, a glutton for punishment?” Working marine search and rescue was a weird enough thing to want to do in Will’s book—he’d never liked boats or the ocean much—but working the midnight shift seemed even worse. Particularly when you considered that Mina’s dad had been Grey Harper, lead singer of Blacklight—one of the biggest bands in the world in their time. He was fairly certain Mina Harper never needed to work a day in her life if she didn’t want to. He liked that she chose to work anyway. It was one of the many things he liked about her.
“I don’t mind. Night owl,” she said.
Her voice was a little soft but she was making sense, and that was a good sign.
“Do I need to call them for you? Let them know you’re not going to be in?”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Mina, you’ve banged your head up pretty good there. You were knocked out. There’s no way the doc is going to let you go to work tonight.”
Her expression turned mulish.
Okay, perhaps a different subject. Thing was, he didn’t really know what to talk about He knew who she was. All too well. But she seemed mostly oblivious to his existence. And they’d never exactly had a heart-to-heart. Their paths crossed occasionally but it was Mina’s older sister, Faith, who Will knew best of the three Harper siblings.
Faith at least came into Salt Devil occasionally, these days mostly with her guy, Caleb White in tow.
But Mina had never set foot in the bar since her husband had died. Not that she’d come often before then. Which was understandable. Grey Harper had been an alcoholic, even if he’d managed to be mostly sober in his later years.
Will could see why that might put you off drinking.
But he took it as a sign that the universe had a pretty evil sense of humor. Because he, Will Fraser—whiskey distiller, bar owner, and descendant of a whole bunch of hardheaded Scotsmen who’d never said no to a dram—had had a full-blown hopeless thing for Mina Harper since he’d first laid eyes on her, nearly six years ago.
Of course, the fact that he’d been smitten by Mina—who’d been only eighteen not to mention already engaged—when Will and Stefan had moved to Lansing was sign enough that the universe sucked.
“Why do you bring Stewie to work?” he asked, not wanting to think about his oh-so-dumb-crush. He’d spent six years trying not to think about it, so he had plenty of practice. And right now there were more important things to focus on. Like getting them both safely into town through the crazy weather.
“Mostly because I can,” Mina said. She shifted the position of the gauze on her head with a wince. Will risked a glance. The white cotton was stained red.
“Keep that where it is,” he ordered. Then, when Mina winced again as she pressed the gauze back in place, “I guess if I had a workplace where I could bring my dog, I would too.”
“Do you have a dog?” Mina said.
“No. Maybe one day. Not much room in my apartment for a pooch, and I work some crazy hours.” Starting up a distillery was a lot of work. Not to mention that he and his brother Stefan had opened a bar on the property as well to bring in some cash while their first batch of whiskey aged. Bars, it turned out, were a lot of work too. Stefan handled the kitchen and Will tended bar, and they had a couple of waitresses and waiters who helped out on weekends or during summer but it was still a lot of work. They opened at five and didn’t close until midnight unless things were dead. Add on prep time and clean-up and the work of the distillery and all the admin that went with running two businesses, and his work week tended to be long.
“Dogs are good,” Mina said, sounding a little out of it.
“Yes,” he agreed. “How’s your head feeling?” Dumb question, but he needed to keep her talking.
Mina grimaced. “Like I whacked it on something. And my shoulder hurts.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
“Not really. I was changing the tire. I guess I slipped. Then you were there.” She turned her head slowly. “Why were you there?”
“We can see that strip of road from the office upstairs at the bar,” he said. “I saw the car stop. Was going to call Nicolai to go check it out if it didn’t start again in a few minutes. Then I saw your flashlight go flying and thought I’d better come down and see if whoever it was needed help.” He gestured at the rain beating down on the windshield, coming almost faster than the wipers could deal with it. “Not a good night to be caught outdoors.”
“That was nice of you,” she said.
“That’s me. Will Fraser, doer of good deeds.” He tried to relax his hands where they were gripping the wheel too tightly.
They were nearly at the outer edge of Cloud Bay now. The town wasn’t very large. The cluster of stores and restaurants and businesses in its center took up a couple of streets, and then there was a mix of houses and the odd small apartment building and a few other businesses that needed more space than the main streets could offer. The clinic—which wasn’t big enough to be called a hospital but did offer an ER service—was a couple of streets behind Main Street.
As they pulled up in front of the clinic, the door opened and Callie Walsh, one of the two doctors in town, appeared holding a large umbrella. She dashed across to his car and knocked on the window. He wound it down.
“Can she walk? Do we need a wheelchair?” Callie asked.
“I can carry her,” Will said. “Faster than a chair.” “I can walk,” Mina muttered. “You don’t know that,” Will retorted. “Now stay still and let the doc take care of you.”