This wasn't the best place in the world to have a breakdown, either in one's car or one's life.
Summer Maxwell was having both, however.
Wanting to say words her grandmother wouldn't appreciate, Summer kicked the front right tire of her late-model sportscar, then let out a frustrated groan as she looked up and down the lonely Texas back road.
A sign a few feet from her car stated Athens, 9 Miles.
So close, yet still so far away.
"I just had to drive all the way home from New York, didn't I?" she shouted to the hot, humid wind.
"And I just had to do it in this pitiful excuse for an automobile."
Summer eyed the faded red of the twenty-year-old Jaguar, wondering why she'd never bothered to buy a new car. Maybe because this one had belonged to her father at one time, and maybe because that was a connection she wasn't ready to give up, even if it wasn't always pleasant.
James Maxwell had given his only daughter the car when she'd graduated from high school, his silky, charming words making the deal all the more sweet since he'd missed the graduation ceremony. "Daddy wants you to have this one, honey. I'm getting me a brand-new Porsche. And your mama, she doesn't want this one. Guess that means I'll be buying her a Cadillac soon."
"Yeah, you sure did buy Mama a new set of wheels," Summer muttered as the gloaming of another hot Texas day brought a cool wisp of breeze floating over her. And James Maxwell hadn't even bothered to wish his daughter well as she headed off to college with her cousins, April and Autumn. No, her father hadn't bothered with much at all regarding his daughter. Maybe because he'd wanted a son so badly, to carry on the glory days of his rodeo career.
"Sorry, Daddy," Summer said now and wondered why she always felt it necessary to apologize for everything.
Her parents were globe-trotters, too tied up in each other and her father's rodeo and oil-industry endorsements to worry about their rebellious daughter.
So they'd dumped her on her mother's parents for most of her life, while they enjoyed the good life that came with being oil- and cattle-rich Maxwells.
"I'm almost there, Memaw," Summer said as she lifted the hot hood of the car, then backed away as a damp mist of smoke poured over her. "Must be the radiator again."
Wishing she hadn't been so stubborn about not flying, or about not taking her cousin Autumn's sensible sedan, Summer looked up and down the long road. She could call her grandfather on her cell, get him to come and pick her up. That is, if her cell would even work in these isolated piney woods.
"Or I could walk," she reasoned. "Maybe physical activity would keep me from having that breakdown I so richly deserve."
Grabbing her aged baseball-glove-leather tote bag from the passenger's seat of the convertible, Summer tried her cell. Low power and even lower battery. No surprise there.
"Okay, I guess I get to walk nine miles along this bug-infested highway. Nice, Summer, real nice."
She was about to put up the worn black top of the car and lock it, when she heard a truck rumbling along the highway.
"Oh, great. Let's hope you are a kind soul," she said into the wind. "'I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers'", she quoted from Tennessee Williams.
And let's pray you aren't some psycho out on the loose. Not that she couldn't handle herself. She was armed with pepper spray and a whole arsenal of self defense courses. She'd learned all about how to protect herself, working as a counselor to battered women at a New York City YWCA for the past five years.
She'd also learned all about the dark, evil side of life working there, too. Which was why she was now stranded on this road. Everyone she knew in New York, including her cousins and her immediate supervisor, had agreed it was time for Summer to take a vacation.
Burned out. Stressed out. Angry. Bitter.
Those were the words they'd used to describe her.
And that didn't even begin to touch the surface.
Summer took a long breath, tried to imagine a peaceful scene somewhere in the tired recesses of her mind, while she waited for the old truck to pull up beside her. But somehow, she didn't believe deep breathing would get her through this acute, aching depression.
And neither would God, she decided.
Then she looked up and saw her rescuer.
He was young, probably only a few years older than Summer's twenty-seven years. He was pretty in a rugged, rough-cut way. He had vivid gray-blue eyes that flashed like heat lightning. And he had crisp, curly light-brown hair that seemed to be rebelling against the humidity.
Warning flares went off in Summer's weary mind like fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Putting the rickety old truck into Park, he said, "Need some help?"
Summer decided that was an understatement, but she hid that behind what she hoped was a serene smile. "Kinda looks that way, doesn't it?"
"Want me to look under the hood?"
"No need," she said, ignoring the homesick delight his Texas drawl caused along her skin. "It's the radiator. Probably finally busted for good."
He got out and walked to the raised hood anyway. Since he was a man, Summer figured he didn't trust her word on car maintenance. Had to see it for himself. Probably thought just because she was a blonde, that she didn't have any brain cells. Never mind that she had been a double major in college. No need for this handsome interloper to know that just yet.
He turned and wiped his hands down the sides of his worn jeans. "Yep, looks like you're right. It's too hot to even touch right now."
Summer noted his solid build and laid-back swagger. "I told you so," she said with a hint of sarcasm to hide the hint of interest she had in him.
He ignored the sarcasm, his gaze filled with his own interest. "Where you headed?"
"Athens." She didn't feel the need to give him any more information.
"I live there," he said. Then he extended his hand.
"Summer Maxwell," she said, taking his hand and enjoying the strength of his touch a little too much.
He pulled his hand away with a quick tug, making her wonder if he'd felt that little bit of awareness, too. "Summer?"
"Yes," she said, thinking she saw recognition in his beautiful eyes.
"Pretty name." He hesitated, then said, "And just who are you visiting in Athens?"
"My grandparents," she replied, mystified by his suddenly odd behavior. "I wanted to surprise them."
"Oh, I reckon they'll be surprised, all right," he said as he shut the car's hood. "Who are your grandparents? I might know them."
"Jesse and Martha Creswell," Summer said, thinking he probably did know them. Everybody knew just about everybody else in the small town of Athens, Texas.
He stepped back, gave her a look that shouted confusion and surprise. "Well, how 'bout that."
"You know them?" she asked, echoing her thoughts.
"I sure do," he replied. "Good people. C'mon, I'll give you a ride into town, then we'll send a tow truck to get your car."
"I'd appreciate that," Summer said, sending up a prayer that he wasn't dangerous. She knew better then to get in a car with a complete stranger, but he seemed normal, and he knew her grandparents. But just to test that theory, she put her hands on her hips and asked, "Will I be safe with you?"
He laughed, shook his head. "I'm not on any Top Ten Most Wanted List, if that's what you mean."
Oh, but he could be on a Top Ten Hunk list, Summer decided. His smile was criminal in its beauty.
"Okay," she retorted as she started locking up the car. "I just had to be sure. 'Cause my granddaddy, he shoots first and asks questions later."
"I hear that," he said, helping her to latch the convertible top. "I do believe Jesse would have my hide if I let anything happen to you."
"So how well do you know my grandparents?"
"I met them when I first moved here."
Why did she get the feeling he was being evasive? Maybe because he wouldn't look her in the eyes. And maybe because she'd learned not to trust people on first impressions.
"Am I missing something here?" she asked, determination causing her to dig in her heels.
"Do you have suitcases?" he asked back, misunderstanding the question, maybe on purpose.
"Oh, yes, I do." She unlocked the trunk.
He laughed as he looked down at the beat-up brown leather duffel bag. "How'd you ever get that in this poor excuse for a trunk?"
"You'd be surprised just how much this trunk can hold."
He nodded, grabbed the considerably heavy bag without even a huff of breath, then tossed it in the back of his truck. "Well, I guess that's it then."
"I guess so," she said as she rounded the truck to get in. Once he was all settled behind the wheel, Summer stood at her open door, glaring at him. "Ex- cept the part you're leaving out."
He lifted his brow. "Excuse me?"
"You're not telling me the whole story here, are you, Mr. Riley? And I'm not going anywhere with you until you do."
"Call me Mack," he replied, a look of resolve coloring his eyes. He cranked the truck, motioned toward the seat. "And I don't understand what you're talking about."
Summer had learned all about deceit on the streets of New York, from working with women who lived through the worst kind of deception and deprivation. She could smell it a mile away. "I think you know more about my grandparents than you're telling me. And I want to hear the truth, all of it."
He let out a long sigh, as if he didn't know how to handle such a direct statement. "I said I know them. Can't that be enough for now?"
"Nope," Summer replied, smiling sweetly. "You might not be dangerous or a wanted man, but you're being mighty quiet about my grandparents. And I want to know why."
He looked up and down the long road, then nodded. "I guess you deserve an explanation. Get in and I'll give you one, I promise."
Mack Riley stared over at the assertive, no-nonsense woman sitting in his truck. She was a looker, no doubt about that. He'd heard enough about Summer Maxwell to know, though, that all that long blond hair and those bright-blue eyes couldn't hide the fact that she was also very intelligent and sharp.
Too sharp. And right now, not too trusting, either.
What was he supposed to tell the woman? That he knew her grandparents on a first-name basis. That he also knew her rich, jet-setting parents, through conversations with Jesse and Martha, and through having met them on the rare occasions they decided to drop in and check on Summer's grandparents.
That he recognized her now, from the many pictures of her growing up that Martha had displayed in her living room. And that he knew enough about Summer herself to fill a book and his own needy imagination.
Mack wasn't ready to open up and have a heart-to-heart with this intriguing woman. Not yet. So he did what he'd always been so very good at doing. He tried to avoid the issue.
"I'm waiting," Summer said, causing him to glance over at her.
He tried to deflect that in-your-face-look. "Honestly, I don't know what to say, or where to begin. Okay, I do know your folks—real well. Is that a crime?"
"Oh, no," she said, folding her arms as she stared at him. "The crime would be in you withholding information from me. And I think you are. You said you'd explain things. So start talking. Just tell me—is one of them sick? Has something happened, something terrible, that I don't know about?"
Mack made a turn onto yet another long highway.
"They're both just fine," he said. "But...a lot has