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Copyright © 2014 Jayne Rylon

Flashing amber lights crested the hill, followed by a monstrous tow truck decked out in chrome and metallic onyx paint. Enormous fireball graphics exploded over the hood, as if the vehicle plowed through an inferno. Its driver seemed proportionally huge behind the wheel. Either that or the company had a grizzly bear for a mascot and allowed the thing to respond to emergencies.

Darn. Please don’t let this guy be sketchy too, she prayed.

A lifetime of etiquette instruction took control and Kaelyn attempted to groom her disheveled hair, fix her suit, haul her shoe from the muck and school her face into a calm mask of indifference all at once. Illusions were the only source of power she had left.

Instead she only managed to turn in circles, put some color in her cheeks and propel her heart rate from elevated to a ridiculous, extra-nervous thumping that pulsed in her fingertips while she began to perspire.

Kaelyn deflated, admitting to herself that her great escape had more in common with a fledgling tumbling out of a nest than a majestic eagle learning to spread its wings and soar. She stared at the long, broad shadow her unlikely savior cast as he rounded the hood of his behemoth machine. Please, let him be decent.

Did such people exist? She wouldn’t bet on it anymore.

The clomp of his boots on the tar and gravel of the road was sure and steady as he ate up the distance between them with the immense length of his strides. Laying her shaky, sweaty palms against her thighs, she forced herself to lift her chin.

Kaelyn prepared to do something she rarely did. Okay, never had done before.

Ask for help.

Beg for charity from a stranger no less. Humbling.

Usually she was the one organizing benefits for those less fortunate.

Except, when she scanned from his leather boots to his ripped jeans, which hugged his tree-trunk thighs, to a grease-stained T-shirt that showcased his impressive chest and broad shoulders, everything she’d rehearsed—about how she’d work off her debt, or leave an IOU behind—stuck in her throat.

Or maybe that lump was her heart.

Heaven knew that worthless thing had stopped cold.

Because her savior seemed awfully familiar. He was what her best friend might have looked like if she’d seen the kid grow into an unapologetically sexy man. Instead, his rebellious teenaged urges had led him to a life roaming Europe as some reclusive rich playboy, who’d forgotten about the girl next door by the time his father’s private jet touched down across the pond. She glanced at her inherited Maserati and swallowed around the pain that still lanced her when she indulged in memories of Bryce Ellington IV.

If he hadn’t abandoned her, maybe everything could have been different.

Wishful thinking, she knew from endless experience, didn’t change what had happened. But it could ease the pain for a moment. She thought of him—drawing on the strength he’d embodied before he’d gone completely selfish—to get her through this, like other rough times.

It must be a sign that this man was Bryce’s spitting image. Part of her relaxed.

Unfortunately, she must have whispered his name.

And that’s when the world went insane.

“Yeah, Kae. It’s me.” The grim set of his mouth didn’t make him seem happy to see her. “I thought maybe you wouldn’t recognize me. It’s been so long. And I’m…a hell of a lot different. But, I’m not going to lie. Part of me is glad you haven’t forgotten.”

It was the twinkle in his steely eyes that proved the impossible things spilling from this not-stranger’s wicked mouth. Surely, his rough and rugged exterior had nothing in common with the groomed adolescent she’d known. Still, something unmistakable reached out and grabbed her.

Bryce?” she croaked again. Louder this time. It felt rusty rolling off her tongue. Confusion had her lids fluttering as she struggled to believe what she saw. Completely overwhelmed, she blinked up at him. Squinted. Scrubbed her eyes.

The vision remained.

This was no rich, idle son. No, he was a blue-collar sex god right here in the US of freaking A. Forget another continent, she’d found him less than two states away. What happened to the stories his father had told her of Bryce’s escapades with an endless stream of gorgeous foreign women, with whom she could never compare?

Was nothing she believed the truth?

“Hi.” He reached toward her when the periphery of the world turned black, though he paused as if to admire her, unaware of the way things melted into a Dali-scape in her vision. “Damn. You grew up fine, didn’t you?”

She might have offered some witty remark if her entire mouth hadn’t gone numb along with the rest of her body. It wasn’t every day she saw the ghost of BFFs past.

“Crap!” He jogged, closing the gap between them with a couple giant strides, his arms outstretched to brace her.

Kaelyn retreated, afraid to let him touch her. This couldn’t be happening.

“But you’re gone!” she shrieked as she stumbled backward.

“I’m not. I never really left the country.” He winced as she wondered if he could be some kind of imposter. “Who else would know about the times we snuck over to your tree house and camped out, spending the summer nights looking at the stars and telling each other about our dreams? Or the stray cat we made our pet out there? Remember the time you snuck Mr. Whiskers that fancy salmon from your dad’s Christmas party?”

“Bryce? Is this some sick trick my father is playing?” Anything made more sense than what this impersonator spouted.

“No, Kae.” He swallowed hard. “It’s really me.”

“I see.” She’d never punched a person in her life. Yet her fingers bunched before she could stop them. Next thing she knew, she had risen onto her tiptoes and decked him in his handsome, though no longer clean-shaven, jaw. The bristle of his whiskers chafed her skin as his face and her fist collided.

He clutched the spot her hand had bounced off of, injuring her knuckles in the process. “What was that for?”

“If you’re here, you’re a big fat liar.” Steam had built within her in a flash. Now vented, she sagged under the relieved pressure. “I don’t understand. Why? I cried buckets when your dad told me you’d gone to enjoy your freedom. That you’d left without bothering to say goodbye. That you didn’t plan to come home because there was nothing important for you there. That you were enjoying the high life, the parties, the women. And here you are, six hours from Windsor…driving a tow truck? This is crazy. The whole world is flipping nuts.”

Whether it was because of dehydration, the shock or the devastation at discovering her supposed best friend’s ultimate betrayal—or maybe all of those factors together—Kaelyn felt as though she were watching herself from a distance.

“Hey. I’m actually a mechanic. The truck is…” Bryce trailed off, probably spotting her glazed eyes. He lunged for her again, attempting to steady her as she listed to the left. “Are you okay? You look like you’re going to pass—”

His concern became garbled as her eyelids grew heavy. Her knees buckled. At least the grass would make a soft landing pad, again, she thought.

Yet when she blinked against the bright sun swimming above, it didn’t seem like much time had passed and she definitely wasn’t sprawled on the ground. No, those were muscled arms cradling her against a very hard chest. One that had nothing in common with gentlemen she’d held at an appropriate distance while waltzing during her father’s social functions. Or even the handful she’d invited to share her bed.

She attempted to protest, to keep herself separate from the guy she would have wanted—far too much—to come to her rescue if given a single wish. Though she’d figured it impossible. Maybe she’d hit her head when her tire had blown. Maybe this was some sick trick of her mind, recalling the one person who’d always had her back when she needed him most. Except transformed into the kind of man who wouldn’t place leisurely pursuits above hard work, dedication and loyalty.

That had to be it. He was a figment of her imagination.

Kaelyn reached way up and pinched his thick neck. Hard.

“Ouch! What the hell?” He glared at her.

A combination whimper and chuckle left her parched throat. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Both seemed imminent. The chaos in her mind had her yearning to black out again. So she surrendered. Kaelyn allowed herself to be weak and lean on Bryce as she’d longed to do so many times in his decade-long absence. “Making sure you’re real.”

“Come on, your majesty. Let me hoist your chariot onto the flatbed and we’ll get the hell out of here. I’m taking you home.”

“No! You can’t make me go back.” Despite the futility, she attempted to thrash and squirm from his unrelenting grip. “Please.”

“Hush. What has you so scared, Kae? I don’t mean your father’s house. I’m taking you to my place. Where you’ll be safe. I swear. We can work out the rest later.” Bryce didn’t really give her a choice in the matter. He made it easy to surrender, though she hated letting him take care of her. Right when she’d vowed to gain control of her life, her choices, her future. “Whatever has you freaked out, I’ll take care of it. I promise I’ll fix it. I’ll—”

“Stop talking.” Here she was, in the arms of another bastard who’d lied to her.

For her own good.

She must have growled against his neck—which smelled amazing, damn him.

When he chuckled, rumbling against her ear, she balled her fists and thumped them against his chest. A waste of effort. The ineffective blows rained over him without denting his resilient muscles. “Okay. Whatever it takes. Settle down.”

She tried, but her newly honed survival instincts screamed at her to run.

He held her tighter. “I get that you’re pissed. I didn’t mean to laugh. But you always were adorable when you got mad. Some things never change, I guess.”

Before she could lash out again, he shocked her by dropping a light kiss on her forehead.

“I missed you, Kae,” he murmured. “Every day.”