The wail that came from the back seat was at a pitch Geo had never heard before in his life. It was an ungodly sound somewhere between an ambulance siren and the call of peacocks.
Geo’s hands clenched on the steering wheel, and he took his foot off the accelerator, glancing in the rearview mirror. “What is it? What’s wrong, Lucy?”
Yeah, good luck being heard over the cacophony coming out of her mouth. Her little face was pinched up, eyes screwed shut, mouth gaping like a portal to hell.
Geo’s Honda Civic jerked and sputtered, as if it, too, was reacting to the sound.
“Jayden?” Geo asked, trying to sound calm. “Can you see what’s wrong with Lucy?” Geo scanned the side of the road for a place to pull over. They were on the last stretch of their drive, and the two-lane mountain road up to Big Bear was winding and narrow with no shoulder to speak of.
“I dunno.” Jayden gave the kind of bored shrug only a twelve-year-old boy could master. “What’s wrong with you, Lucy?”
Unsurprisingly, this had no effect on Lucy. She continued to wail.
It was several minutes of eardrum-bursting torment before a dirt pull-off appeared to the right. By then, the car’s engine was making little hiccupping noises, which Geo refused to acknowledge. One crisis at a time.
He put on his flashers and pulled over. For a moment he just clutched the wheel, heart racing. Then he undid his seatbelt and turned in his seat.
“Lucy? Honey? What’s wrong?”
She waved her arms in the air, both fists clutching her dolls.
“Is the seatbelt pinching you? Is your tummy upset? What’s the matter, sweetie?”
Geo steadily did not look at Jayden. He was pretty sure Jayden wouldn’t have done anything to hurt Lucy. From what he’d seen in the rearview mirror, the boy had been ignoring her. And Geo. And the car they rode in on, for that matter. He wasn’t exactly excited about this trip. Showing any suspicion of Jayden, even in a glance, would be death at this stage of their relationship. Geo knew that.
“I think she lost one of her dolls,” Jayden pronounced.
Geo blinked. He looked at the dolls being waved in Lucy’s clenched little fingers. There was Dad doll—an old Ken with molded blond hair, black pants, and a blue knit sweater. Mom doll was there—a brunette Barbie in a yellow dress. In Lucy’s other fist was the pre-pubescent girl doll—Cindy or Candy or Corny or something like that, with her straight blond bangs, flat chest, and sailor dress. And he thought he saw Baby doll too, an inch-long nugget in a pink flannel blanket.
“No, they’re all there.” Geo reached between the seats and patted Lucy’s leg, trying to soothe her. “Honey. It’s okay.”
“Not the dog,” Jayden said challengingly.
Shit. The dog.
“Did it fall on the floor?” Geo asked, feeling a tendril of panic.
“Could you please look?” Geo forced himself to ask nicely.
With a sigh, Jayden undid his seat belt and leaned forward to look. Lucy continued to wail.
Shit, shit, shit. Please, God, don’t let the dog doll be lost.
So far the day had been a can of crap served steaming hot with a sauce of fuck-my-life. Jayden and Lucy had both been crabby getting up early this morning for their trip, no matter how much excitement and enthusiasm Geo had laced into the conversation.
We’re going to Family Camp! It’s going to be so much fun!
The drive from Fresno to Big Bear Lake and Camp Evermore was a long five hours. It had been made longer and infinitely more stressful when Lucy went missing at a rest stop two hours ago. They’d searched and searched, Geo going repeatedly into the women’s restroom to look, too worried to even care about the glares he got.
Images of Lucy, only five years old, getting picked up by some random pedophile, sex trafficker, or serial killer, stuffed into another car, and driven off, made him physically ill. He had the entire staff at the rest stop helping him.
She doesn’t really talk. And she might hide. I just turned around for a moment to get Jayden a juice from the machine.
Yeah. Parent of the Year Award right there.
He’d been about to call the police and beg for an Amber Alert when Lucy had been found—sitting behind the counter of a closed information booth, quietly playing with her dolls and lost in her own little world, as usual. She seemed oblivious to what she’d put him through.
That had been two hours ago. If she’d left the dog doll behind at the rest stop, there was no way he could drive all the way back and get it. It wasn’t even about money, or about the wear and tear on the Civic, or his own patience. He didn’t think either Jayden or Lucy would tolerate being in the car for an additional four hours today.
So maybe this hadn’t been the greatest idea he’d ever had—driving five hours to Family Camp when he’d only had the kids for six weeks. But he’d been so determined to give them the perfect summer, built up all these rosy plans and bucolic visions. He’d tried too much too fast.
Please, God. Please, Geo prayed, his heart sinking. Just one little break today. That’s all I ask. I’ll give up the jelly beans in my desk forever.
He waited until a car passed on the busy mountain road before getting out and going around to the back passenger door. He opened it.
Lucy looked up at him, still wailing. Her eyes were big and dark, her face red with fury. Her black hair was so thick and straight it refused to hold the barrettes Geo had bought for her. Her expression was miserable and accusatory, and it made his heart ache. She looked like the worst fate in the world had befallen her, and it was all Geo’s fault.
“Aw baby, hush. Just let me look, all right? Your doggie must be around here somewhere.”
Her wailing changed in pitch, downgrading to a lower, steady cry, as if this was going to be a marathon not a sprint. Great. Geo opened the door wide and patted around the floor by her feet. The rubber mats were still relatively clean from when he’d detailed the car in preparation for the foster care inspection a few months ago. The dog doll was not there.
He heard the other back door open. He looked up to see Jayden getting out.
“Jayden, please stay in the car,” Geo said sharply.
“I ain’t stayin’ in there. Gonna fuckin’ bust my eardrums,” Jayden muttered, getting out and slamming the car door behind him.
Geo clenched his teeth. “Jay, it’s a busy road. Please. I don’t want you to get hit. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use that word.”
“Eardrums?” Jayden smirked.
“No, ‘ain’t.’ At least come over to this side of the car.”
“I ain’t gettin’ on the road. I ain’t stupid. What’re those?” He wandered closer, pointing to the base of the tall pine trees at the side of the road.
Geo brightened. “Those are pine cones.”
“Pine cones? That big?”
“Yup. Different kinds of trees have different sized pine cones. They’re basically big seeds. The trees drop them and some of them will end up getting buried in dirt and debris and will become a new tree. Cool, huh?”
Okay, so all that was hardly relevant at the moment. But Geo’s inner teacher popped up at the least provocation.
Jayden walked over to the trees and picked up a pine cone, studying it curiously.
Telling himself Jayden was fine, Geo bent to look in the car again where Lucy was still wailing.
“You’re not sitting on the doggie, are you? Are you sitting on the doggie?” He used a silly voice and widened his eyes, hoping she would respond to humor. She didn’t.
He patted around the soft knit aqua shorts and aqua-and-white T-shirt that said PRINCESS he’d bought her last week. He checked behind her back and along the bench car seat.
The dog doll, like her other dolls, had come with Lucy from the foster care system, so he didn’t know its origin. But he knew it was only a few inches long. It looked like a brown Scottish terrier with flocked fur. He checked the floor on Jayden’s side too. The dog wasn’t there.
Those dolls meant everything to Lucy. There wasn’t a minute of the day they weren’t in her hands or spread out on the floor as she played with them. When she shut out the world, which was often, her dolls were her happy place.
Geo had tried to wash Mom doll’s hair once, because it was gunked with glue or oatmeal or something more nefarious. But any mention of touching the dolls, much less doing it, sent Lucy into a DEFCON-1 wide-mouthed grimace, preparing for total hysteria. He’d put his hands up in surrender. Back. Away. From. The dolls. So losing one was, in a word, apocalyptic.
Geo gave up looking and wiped his face in frustration. He bent over Lucy’s car seat. “Lucy, honey, look at me.”
She did, still crying. Her face was blotched red and wet from tears.
“Oh, sweetie.” He grabbed a napkin from the front seat and wiped her face. “When we get to the hotel, I’ll call the rest stop and see if they found your doggie. They can send it to us at the camp. Okay?”
Nope. It wasn’t okay. She went back to full-on shrieking.
Jayden appeared at his shoulder. “You’re gonna have to drive back and get it,” Jayden said, with a taunt in his voice. “So let’s do it. Ain’t like we don’t have to be in the car for another fifty billion years anyway.”
Geo swallowed and took out his phone. “Actually, we were almost to Big Bear. And we can’t turn around now. There’s nothing for miles back the way we came.”
“So? We got water bottles. And you bought all those stupid snacks and stuff.”
Stupid snacks. Forty bucks’ worth. Thank you, Jayden.
“Because we, uh, we need gas.” He searched Google maps for nearby gas stations. The closest was ten miles ahead in Big Bear.
His heart sank further and he felt a little sick. Ten miles. The way the car had sputtered it wouldn’t even make one. Please God. Just one break today. I’ll give up my subscription to Muscle & Fitness, I swear.
“Holy shit! We’re out of gas?” Jayden hooted. “Dude! How come you didn’t stop before? We only passed, like, a million gas stations!”
Because my gas gauge is broken, and I chose to spend every dime I’ve made for the past year on buying a little house and fixing it up so the foster care people would let me, maybe, finally, be a dad. And because I got distracted by Lucy going missing and possibly being dead and forgot to fill up an hour ago like I planned. But mostly? Because I fucked up.
“Get back in the car, Jay. I’ll take care of it.”
Jayden, still laughing at Geo, got into the car. “Oh my God, you suck at this whole ‘family trip’ thing, huh?”
Geo knew Jayden wasn’t trying to be cruel. Maybe he was even trying to be funny. But it stung. It stung hard. Geo leaned down again to pet Lucy’s hair and wipe her heated face. “Honey, I promise you we’ll get your doggie back. Okay? It may not be today, but we will get it back.”
She continued crying as he shut the door and plodded around the car to the driver’s side. He got in, his heart in his shoes.
He took a deep breath and turned the key in the ignition. Come on, car. Just ten miles. If you ever loved me….
But the earlier hiccupping of the engine had not been a fluke. The engine caught, sputtered, and died. The out-of-gas light still worked, despite the gauge being broken. It flashed red, giving him the bald truth: He was screwed.
“Synchronicity is all around us. When we open our minds and hearts, we begin to recognize the signposts everywhere. It’s that niggling voice that you choose to ignore. It’s that flash of thought: I wonder what’s down that road? Or: She looks like an interesting person. Or: Maybe that person needs my help. Learn to listen. Untrain your mind to ignore these thoughts.”
“Untrain my mind. Yup, I’m on it,” Travis said.
He sat up straighter in the driver’s seat and moved his head from side to side to stretch his neck. His sister Cindy had loaned him the audiobook for the drive, and it wasn’t bad. Except the man’s voice was a bit too soothing. It had been a long day, and Travis was getting tired. In the passenger seat his golden retriever, Max, was snoozing, snug in his doggie seat belt harness.
The audiobook went on. “When Ryan met Donna, he could have passed her by. Could have ignored the lone woman on a muddy hiking trail in Honolulu. After all, the rain was pouring down, and he was late—"
The console buzzed with an incoming call, pausing the audiobook. Travis glanced at the screen. It was his agent, Marcia. With a grimace he pressed a button on the steering wheel to answer the call. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Oh, Travis! Glad I caught you. Where are you?”
“I’m almost to Big Bear. What do you need?”
“I had a request today for you. It’s that Pros and Pitties calendar again.”
“Aw, hell.” Travis sighed.
Travis had donated to a pit bull rescue in L.A. a few years ago, thinking nothing of it. But the owner had been a San Diego Padres fan and recognized Travis’s name on the check. The next thing he knew, the guy was emailing him all the time. He was a nice guy and he did good work with dogs, so Travis didn’t mind chatting back and forth now and then. Until the guy started asking Travis to be in this damned beefcake calendar.
“It’s for a good cause,” Marcia wheedled. “Puppies. Pupperinos.”
“I’m happy to write him another check. But if I did a calendar like that, I’d never hear the end of it from the guys! They’d rag me to death.”
“Yeah, but last year you had me tell them ‘maybe next year.’ And it’s next year. So. How’s your six-pack looking, Travis?” Marcia sniggered.
Travis growled. Tell him I can’t do it, he wanted to say. But then he’d feel guilty. Best to just procrastinate.
“Look, I’m on break. This is my family time. I’ll deal with it when I get back. I thought we agreed you’d only call if something was urgent.”
“Yeah, but I figured you weren’t there yet. Anyway, the real reason I’m pushing this is because I think it will help with the Padres management. A beefcake calendar would be great PR for you. Brings the mommy crowd to the games.” Her voice turned sing-song. “It might buy you another year on the team…”
“Hanging up now, Marcia. We’ll talk about it when I get back.”
“Just think about it! And do sit-ups. Just kidding. But do the sit-ups anyway. Have a good time!”
Travis hung up.
Might buy you another year on the team. God. It still rankled that during the last contract negotiations, management had only been willing to commit to one more year. He’d been hoping for at least three. Fuck. He wasn’t that old.
But no, he wasn’t going to stress about that right now. He wasn’t going to think baseball or the Padres this week at all. It was All-Star Week, and he wasn’t on the roster, so he got to take the only break he’d have until the end of the season. Nothing was going to stop him from enjoying the hell out of it.
He was about to turn the audiobook back on when he noticed a little car pulled off on the side of the road up ahead. The emergency lights were flashing.
Maybe they need help. The thought came to him, sounding vaguely familiar.
Oh, right. The audiobook had just said something like that. Listen to that little voice, etcetera.
The car’s emergency flashers were on, and he saw kids in the backseat, and, well, hell, what was the point of listening to a self-improvement audiobook and ignoring its advice not even five minutes later. That would be so fucking L.A. It wouldn’t hurt him to take two minutes to make sure those folks were okay.
With a sigh, he hit his turn signal, slowed down, and pulled off behind the car.
Cars whizzed past. The road up to Big Bear was always busy in the summers with everyone escaping the metro sprawl for the mountains. Travis set his parking brake and turned to Max. The dog was wide awake now and looking around eagerly.
“Stay here, Max. I’ll be right back”
Max let out an eager bark of disagreement, which Travis ignored, getting out of the SUV.
As he walked toward the Civic, the driver got out. A familiar nervous spark burst through Travis’s belly. The guy was attractive. He swiped a hand through short, sandy-brown hair in a nervous gesture and regarded Travis warily.
He was not what Travis expected from the driver of an older Honda Civic with kids. He was preppy-looking, wearing khaki shorts, leather loafers, and a white T-shirt under a blue, short-sleeved, button-down chambray shirt. He was in good shape, not muscle-bound, but lean and with veins on those tan arms. The hair on his nicely furry legs had bleached blond from the sun. He looked a bit sweaty and wilted, like he’d had a long day. Poindexter-style chunky black glasses set off his narrow face. He was, in a word, hot. Not the showy type that would draw your eye in a crowded club, but the quieter sort you might run across in a library or coffee shop and think—Oh, hello there!
Travis gave him a friendly smile. “Hey. You got a problem?”
The guy’s wary look remained. “Hey. Oh, nothing a million dollars and a magic wand couldn’t fix,” he said with a wry laugh.
Travis raised an eyebrow and bent down at the waist to look inside the car. He’d been hearing a wail, and it wasn’t hard to spot the banshee. A little girl, maybe four or five, was in a child seat on the opposite side of the car. She waved dolls around in both fists, mouth wide open.
“Yeah, I can see that. You’re totally fine,” Travis said dryly.
A self-deprecating smile broke over the guy’s face. “Well, ‘fine’ might be pushing it.”
“Seriously, man. How can I help? My name’s Travis, by the way.” He held out a hand. He half-expected the guy to recognize him, but there was no spark of knowing in those eyes.
“Geo.” The guy hesitated, then took Travis’s hand and shook it.
There was a zing at the contact and Travis’s eyebrows shot up of their own accord.
Geo dropped his hand quickly and crossed his arms over his chest. “We’re, um, having a meltdown over a missing doll. Annnd I’ve run out of gas. So two for two.”
“Shit. What god did you piss off today?”
Geo barked a laugh. “All of them apparently.”
The window behind the driver’s seat rolled down and a boy of about twelve with light mocha skin and a mass of curly black hair stuck his head out. “He lost her dog doll,” he said, pointing at Geo.
“Dog doll?” Travis asked.
“Yeah. She has this whole family, and there was a dog.” The boy shrugged. “Kinda dumb, but you know how kids are.”
“Jayden, don’t make fun of your sister’s toys,” Geo said in a patient tone. “Those dolls mean a lot to her.”
Jayden grimaced. “Like I care. She ain’t my sister. And you ain’t my dad. So whatevs.”
Geo blinked at the boy’s casual cruelty and visibly slumped. And as the little girl continued to scream, and the boy rolled up his window with attitude, Travis felt a wave of sympathy for the guy.
“Does the little girl like dogs, then? Real ones?”
Geo refocused on him. “Huh? Oh. Yeah. Yeah, Lucy is crazy about dogs.” He smiled wanly. “Maybe we’ll get one. Someday. Um… I think she left her dog doll at a rest stop. So I was just gonna…” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the driver’s seat. “Call Highway Patrol. My triple-A’s expired so—”
“I’ve got a gas can with me. I can give you five gallons. That ought to get you to Big Bear.”
Geo’s eyes went wide. “Really? Oh my God!”
The relief on his face was comical. The guy was rather comical. Anyone who could have a wisp of humor in a situation like this got a gold star in Travis’s book. “Yeah. Really. Do you mind if I talk to your little girl first, though? I think I might be able to help there too.”
Geo’s smile faded. “I just… I’m fostering them. In case you thought I was kidnapping them, from what Jayden said. And are secretly dialing the police in your pocket?” Geo glanced at Travis’s jeans. “Not that I was looking at your, uh, pockets.”
Travis bit back a smile.
Geo waved a hand at the backseat. “But it takes Lucy a long time to warm up to people, so I’m not sure…”
“Let me try. I’m pretty good with kids. And I have a secret weapon.” He pointed at his SUV. He didn’t mean to get pushy, but another minute of that screaming would send him round the bend.
Geo regarded the SUV. His eyes got wide and he gave a hesitant nod.
Travis walked around the car and abruptly opened the door next to the little girl. He plopped down into a squat. “Excuse me, miss?”
The little girl was so surprised, she stopped screaming for a moment, her mouth hanging open as big brown eyes stared at him. Her elfin face shone with tears. She looked Indian or Middle Eastern in heritage, with a dark complexion and hair thick and straight and black as any he’d ever seen.
“I heard a rumor that you like dogs. That can’t be true, can it?” Travis tilted his head curiously.
The little girl hitched in a breath but didn’t start screaming again. She closed her mouth and clutched her dolls close to her chest.
“Real dogs? Cute, furry, silly dogs?”
Her eyes lit up and she nodded adamantly.
“Well, what a coincidence! It so happens I have a dog. His name is Max, and he loves little girls. Would you like to meet him? If your dad says that’s okay?”
“Dogs bite,” Jayden put in matter-of-factly.
“Nah, not this dog. Max is a love bug.”
“Yeah, Lucy!” Geo said, coming up alongside Travis. “I can see him in the other car. He’s a real pretty dog. Would you like to say ‘hi’?”
Lucy rubbed her nose with one hand, tears forgotten. Her little face perked up. She dropped all the dolls she was holding and pushed herself up higher in her child seat. “Dog,” she whispered, a word barely there. She reached up for Travis, hands opening and closing, as if she wanted him to pick her up.
He looked at Geo. The guy’s expression fell for some reason. But it was only a moment before he smiled again. He nodded at Travis.
“Okay. I’ll go get him,” Travis said. “But first, will you do something for me, Lucy? If I bring Max over, will you promise not to cry anymore today? Is it a deal?” Travis held out his hand.
Lucy nodded solemnly, placed her little hand in his. He shook it once. “Deal. Awesome. I’ll go get him.”
Travis stood up and went past Geo, who was staring at him. He let Max out of his seat and put him on leash. Max had been in the SUV for hours and was eager to greet anyone, anywhere, after having a nice, long pee. Travis let him do his business at the side of the road, then murmured a warning at Max to “be gentle.”
He didn’t really expect Max to obey. He was only a year old and still had the exuberance of a puppy. He followed commands when he felt like it, which was almost never. But maybe he sensed a fragility in Lucy. Because when they reached her side of the car, Max was gentle. He sniffed at her glittery purple sandals, making Lucy squirm and smile, then he put his paws delicately on the seat so she could pet his head. He gave her belly a friendly snuffle.
“This is what I wish for you,” Geo said in an awed voice. “I wish someone, someday, looks at you the way Lucy looks at your dog.”
Travis chuckled. “Well, Max looks at me the way Lucy looks at Max. That’s why I feed him.”
Inside the car, Jayden had backed up against his door, and he eyed Max warily. But Max was being calm, letting Lucy pet him and hug him. Slowly, Jayden reached out a hand and cautiously patted Max. “Don’t eat me,” he muttered.
“Do you really have gas?” Geo asked. “Or was my desperate brain putting words in your mouth?”
“I have gas,” Travis said, then he frowned. “Well. Not personally.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Okay to leave Max here while we do that?” Travis asked.
“He doesn’t look like he’s about to snap,” Geo observed.
“I’d say the odds are against it.”
Geo leaned down to look into the car. “Jayden, we’ll be right back. This blessed angel has a gas can.”
“But the dog might eat us,” Jayden said.
“Just be nice to him, and he’ll be nice to you,” Travis advised.
“That’s always been my motto,” Geo quipped.
The guy was funny. Travis secured the leash to the passenger-seat headrest. Better safe than sorry. There was a lot of traffic on the road.
Geo trailed Travis over to the SUV. He opened the hatchback door. The storage area was stuffed with everything from suitcases to a sleeping bag, oars, life jackets, grocery bags, and, yes, a gas can.
“You on the lam from the Feds?” Geo asked.
“Hey, don’t knock my stash.” Travis held up the gas can. “Five gallons.”
Geo frowned. “Did you have that for something specific? If you follow me to Big Bear, we can pull into a gas station, and I can refill it for you.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not going all the way to Big Bear.”
“Well then, at least let me pay you. My wallet’s in the car.”
“Nah, it’s not that much.” Travis walked back to the car with the gas can. He sure wasn’t going to take money from a guy with two kids in a Honda Civic.
Geo hurriedly opened the gas tank cover and unscrewed the cap. He glanced sideways at Travis and checked him out, gaze running up and down Travis’s body. It was quick, but it was there. Yup, he was definitely interested in men. Warmth stirred again in Travis’s belly.
He cleared his throat and put the neck of the gas can into the tank—nope, no sexual metaphor there at all. He spoke over the gurgle of gasoline. “So. You said you’re fostering them?”
Geo shrugged. “For now.”
Annnnd that was the ball game. A wave of anger and disgust washed through Travis, killing the warm fuzzies he’d been feeling for the guy. Stamping them out cold.
Travis didn’t know these two kids at all, but if they were in the foster care system, he’d bet they’d been passed around a lot. Now this guy was already eyeing the door. Nice.
“There you go,” he said tersely. He abruptly jerked out the empty gas can nozzle. Nope, not a metaphor at all.
Geo screwed on the tank’s cap. “Thank you. Seriously. Disaster averted and all that.”
“Sure,” Travis bit out.
He went around the car to get his dog. He paused at the adorable sight that greeted him. Max had his hind legs on the floor of the car now and was contentedly lying on Lucy. She held his head in her little hands as he licked her chin very seriously, as if washing away the tracks of her salty tears. Jayden had scooted a little closer and was watching Max curiously.
“Okay, Princess Lucy,” Travis said, taking a cue from her shirt. “I’m afraid Max and I have to be on our way. But you remember what you promised me. No more tears today.”
Lucy’s lip wobbled as she looked at Max, but she nodded.
“Come on, Max.” Travis unhooked Max’s lead and he jumped out of the car. “Bye, Lucy!”
Travis leaned down to look through the car at Jayden. The boy’s face was so full of attitude it was both funny and sad, and it sent an echo of déjà vu through Travis. “See ya, bro,” Travis said to him.
Jayden’s eyes sparked at the attention. “Yeah, hey, thanks for the gas and shit. You saved Geo’s butt big time.”
“No problem. Hang loose, buddy.”
Travis straightened up. Geo was behind him. “You did save my butt big time. Thank you.”
“Sure. Good luck, Geo,” Travis said coldly.
“Thanks. Um…you too?”
Travis put Max back into the SUV, got in, and drove off, not even glancing back at Geo. Maybe he was being a dick, but he was really upset by Geo’s comment about returning the kids. It triggered a lot of old rage, fear. Things he didn’t like to remember and never wanted to feel again.
Too bad. There for a moment, Travis had sworn he’d met a really nice guy.