Chapter 1 (excerpt)

Driving at night on a deserted road ignited my imagination, and numerous unlikely scenarios played out in my head. None of them good. But braving dark and empty roads was better than staying at my parents’ house overnight. Loving them did not mean I enjoyed spending time with them. Mostly because of the bickering. Completely because of the bickering.

They argued constantly, and normally, I spent most of my visits clenching my teeth because of the stress. Almost every time, I left with a tension headache. Today hadn’t been as bad. There’d only been one heated discussion, but today was only one day out of many.

Now I was headed back home to my quiet life of singlehood.

Between their example and my broken engagement, it was an easy decision to stay single. Love was too big a risk. And, as I’d been told, I wasn’t very good at it.

Raindrops splattered on the windshield, and I shook my fist at the sky. “Just wait. I’ll be home in twenty minutes. Then you can rain. Let me get home first, and I’ll . . . um . . . plant a tree somewhere.” Negotiating with Mother Nature might not work, but there was no one here to say it wouldn’t. “And I’ll grow plants that butterflies like. Please.”

I switched on the wipers. Mother Nature wasn’t in a bargaining mood apparently. Or she didn’t like butterflies.

The wipers slapped back and forth as the rain came down in sheets, and I squinted to see the road.

Why had I let mom and dad talk me into staying for the movie? I’d shown up for Thanksgiving as promised, but now I’d likely be up past my bedtime. Granted it was only a few minutes after eight, but I’d be exhausted when I woke up at four to go make doughnuts. Everyone wanted doughnuts on the busiest shopping day of the year.

The rain let up a little but didn’t stop completely.

Keeping my eyes focused on the road, I felt around for my coffee and took a sip. That would help me stay alert.

Something small and fuzzy darted out into the road. I slammed on the brakes, landing coffee all over me. That stainless mug sure held in the heat. Ouch!

“You’re welcome, Mr. Raccoon.” I guessed at the raccoon part. That made the most sense. Whatever it was didn’t hop like a bunny or skitter like an opossum or armadillo.

I pulled off to the side of the road and yanked tissues out of the center console. What a mess. I wiped my face and chest.

Lightning streaked across the sky, making it seem like daytime for a split second. In the grass, just ahead, something moved. I stared out, scanning the area lit by my headlights.

An arm! And it had to be attached to a body because it was moving.

With my eyes squeezed closed, I grabbed the steering wheel and counted to ten. If the arm was some sort of hallucination, when I opened my eyes, it would be gone. And I’d never trust Mom to make coffee again.

Prying my eyes open one at a time, I leaned forward.

The arm moved again.

I wasn’t hallucinating. Bad coffee and too much turkey weren’t to blame. There was a body on the side of the road. This wasn’t even one of the scenarios I’d thought of, but this was scarier than all of those scenarios. This was what nightmares were made of.

I needed to call Eli. My cousin would know what to do. He’d been trained to know what to do. The first thing he’d tell me to do was stay in my car. This could be a trap. I scanned the area again. Was there some burly guy hiding out of sight, waiting to grab me as soon as I jumped out to investigate?

After a deep breath, I picked up my phone. Eli would want me to call 911. I’d call him second.

My hands shook as I tapped the screen, but nothing happened. All those stupid games I’d played during the movie had run my battery down. Of course, the one time I found a body on the side of the road, my phone was dead.

The last time I’d picked up a stranger off the side of the road, she’d thrown up in my car. Eli had lectured me until my ears hurt, and my car smelled horrid. I’d sworn never to risk doing that again. And I bought seat covers. Lesson learned.

But I couldn’t drive off and leave this poor person in the ditch. That would be heartless.

As I tried to figure out what to do, the arm kept moving back and forth.

Raindrops continued to pound on the car. And the person.

If I left whoever it was in the ditch, they could drown or freeze. It wasn’t below freezing, but it was cold. Did it have to be freezing for hypothermia to set in? I had to risk helping the person.

With my umbrella open, I stepped out, watching for the burly guy as I walked toward the body. The umbrella could double as a weapon if anyone jumped out of the darkness. With my coat pulled tight around me, I shivered as I tiptoed toward the figure. The headlights made the body easy to spot.

I leaned over the man, blocking the rain from hitting his face with my umbrella. “Hello, are you okay?”

What a stupid question! How many people napped on the side of the road in the dark and in the rain?

He grabbed my ankle.

The scream that echoed through the night was mine. But the biggest shocker was that I stayed upright and didn’t land on my butt. “Okay, so maybe warn me before you do that. Please.”

He let go. His eyes were nearly swollen closed. Blood dribbled out of his mouth and was caked to spots on his cheeks. The rain hadn’t washed it all away.

“I need to get you to the hospital.” I glanced back at my car. “I’m going to pull up closer, but I promise not to run over you.”

His head moved back and forth. And his mouth moved.

“What?” I dropped to my knees.

This was a bad idea.

He gripped my wrist and tugged me closer. And to my credit, I squelched my scream before making the man go deaf. He tried speaking again, but I couldn’t understand him. One thing was clear—he was in a lot of pain.

I wiped at one of the spots of blood the rain hadn’t washed away. “I’d never forgive myself if I left you here, and I don’t even know you. But you can’t tell anyone. If Eli—he’s my cousin and a deputy—if he finds out I picked up a stranger again, he will never stop lecturing me.” I shoved the handle of the umbrella into his hand. “Hold this, and that will make it easier not to hit you. Be right back.” I slipped in the mud as I tried to get up and nearly landed on top of him. That would’ve been awkward. And painful for him.

When I found my footing, I ran back to my car. Good thing I had seat covers because my backside was covered in mud. Clutching the wheel, I wanted to do breathing exercises to calm down, but this guy was in bad shape. There wasn’t time for slow breathing and counting to twenty.

I shifted into drive and focused on the umbrella. Inching forward with my car, I pulled as close as I dared.

After opening the passenger door, I scanned the area again checking once more for a delayed burly-guy attack. There was no one hiding in the shadows and no one to help me get the injured man into my car. I’d have to figure out a way to do it alone.

“Okay, so now is the fun part. I have to get you into my car.” I dropped down to my knees and pressed a finger to his neck.

He was so still, I wanted to feel that blood was still pumping through his veins. But he was still holding the umbrella, so likely he wasn’t dead. Yet.

I needed to hurry. “Before we do this, I feel like I should introduce myself. I’m Tessa. And normally I don’t put my hands all over strangers.”

He was probably rolling his eyes at me, but they were closed, so I couldn’t confirm that.

After tossing the umbrella aside—I could grab it after he was in the car—I pulled his arm around my shoulders. He responded with a moan. When I reached over and grabbed his other hand, the moan changed to a scream.

I fell backward. “I’m so sorry. Now I know not to touch that arm.”

He reached out with his one good arm, and I grabbed his hand.

“I’ll make this work. I won’t leave you here.” I moved close to his head. “I’m going to see if I can get your head up and then drag you to my car.” Squatting, I lifted his head and shoulders until I managed to get my arms around him.

His reaction was what I’d expect from someone suffering agonizing pain.

Yanking on him and sliding in the mud, I let go after only a few inches. “That’s not working. I need a different plan.” I knelt beside him, and he hooked his arm around my shoulders. “Okay, good. You hold onto me, and I’m going to wrap my arms around your middle. If you need me to let go, just scream.” I accepted his nod as an agreement to my plan.

But it wasn’t a very good plan.

I slid my hands under him and hoped with everything in me that the reason his shirt was wet was because of the rain and not because he was severely wounded and blood had been pooling beneath him. If I loaded him into my car and he died on the way to the hospital, I’d have a lot of explaining to do.

With my hands clasped together behind him, I tried to stand, lifting with my legs. But my legs weren’t prepared for this. I ended up on my back with the bloody stranger on top of me. This was bad. One thing wasn’t so bad—we were closer to the car.

“Okay, so that didn’t go like I planned. But I learned two things. I need a different plan, and you are built like a brick.” I didn’t have the muscle for this.

He clearly did but was in no shape to be of much help.

“How am I going to do this?”

He shifted as his feet moved.

“Are you trying to stand up?”

His head bobbed slightly.

“Okay. New plan number whatever. Who’s counting? I’m going to help you stand up, and then you can walk to my car. Maybe.” I pressed on his chest. “Oh wow, you’ve got some muscle. I’m going to need you to help get your big muscles off me at least enough for me to move.”

He was probably nice to look at without a shirt, but that thought wasn’t going to get us any closer to the car.

With his good arm, he pushed up, giving me just enough room to maneuver. Thinking about how much muscle was in that one arm was just another bunny trail I didn’t need to follow. But I kept thinking about how the man would look without a shirt, which was a major distraction.

“I’m going to flip over and try lifting you up enough so that you can get your feet underneath you.” I rolled to my stomach. “Hang on as best as you can.”

Sloshing in mud, I pushed up to my hands and knees. He had one arm wrapped around me, and I inched up higher.

He shifted and wiggled, and I hoped he’d get his footing.

Thunder clapped as lightning flashed, and we both landed in the mud, me on my stomach and the man on his back not far from me.

He covered his face with his good arm. Seeing his torment made it hard—impossible, rather—not to sob. But sobbing made it hard to communicate. After a deep breath, I squashed the sobs. Mostly.

Sniffling, I tried to act brave. “I think we almost had it. Let’s give it another go.”

He lifted his arm, and I suspected he was looking at me.

I crawled through the mud and stopped beside him. “So, Mr. Chiseled Brick, we’re going to do that all over again. And I’m sorry for acting like we’re mud wrestling. I know it’s hurting you.” If I kept talking, I’d start sobbing again.

Somehow, with his arm strength and my stubbornness, we ended up with him on top of me. Again. This time when I used my back to get him partially upright, he didn’t slip.

“Whoa! You can stand.” I scrambled to my feet. “Now I know you’re a tall, chiseled brick.” I pointed at my car as I walked. “Don’t worry about the mud. I have seat covers.”

He didn’t move. Well, he sort of wobbled in place, and I rushed to his side before we had to start the whole process over again.

I tucked an arm around him. “Hang onto me.”

After draping an arm around my shoulders, he slumped against me. He could walk, but he needed my help. This was easier than dragging him.

Every step drew out another moan, and when he dropped into the passenger seat, the rain stopped—probably because Mother Nature hated me—and I was crying. Again.

I made my living feeding people doughnuts. Causing pain was the opposite of that, and I hated it.

“I am so sorry.” I reached around him and buckled the seat belt.

He brushed at a tear on my face.

The overhead light let me really see him for the first time, and I noticed the tears in his eyes. I could barely see his eyes because of how swollen they were, but sparkling in the little slits were tears. Or maybe that was rain. I could pretend it was rain. But those were tears.

“I don’t mean to cry, but I can’t help it. I’ve always been a sympathy crier. And you were moaning.” I needed to shut up and get the man to the hospital. “Please forgive me for hurting you.”

He cupped a hand to my cheek, and there was a pull of familiarity about him. But I didn’t have time to figure that out right now.

Instead of jerking away, I leaned into his hand a second. “I hope that means you forgive me.”

He tapped once with his thumb.

“One for yes. Two for no?”

Another tap seemed like an answer.

“Good. That will help us.” I ran around and climbed into the driver’s seat. “There’s a county hospital not too far from here. We’ll go there.” It meant backtracking, but at least I knew where I was headed. “So if you are up to it, let’s play a little game. I don’t think you should go to sleep because—just don’t, okay?”

Buy Enchanted by Joji on Apple Books
Buy Helped by Ava on Amazon
Buy Enchanted by Joji at Barnes & Noble