Clare’s new position at Books, Etc.’s downtown Los Angeles store wasn’t getting any easier. She’d had another terrible day trying to meet corporate standards. She’d fired half of her café staff, customers had yelled at her—one man even threatened to call the police—and she’d been too busy to eat lunch. Book two of a popular three-part young adult series had just released, causing absolute havoc, and she’d watched someone shoplift a copy from right under her nose. She’d run around the store like a madwoman through gaggles of giggly teenagers, moms with strollers, and retirees using her store like a library, breaking all of her bindings and drinking the last of her coffee, for which her inept staff forgot to charge.
All this, and when Clare finally walked out the door, the darned sun shone bright in the sky. Doesn’t it ever rain in California?she wondered as she waved good-bye to her assistant manager through the display window.
Clare climbed into her giant pickup truck with the Nebraska plates—talk about standing out a like a sore thumb—and felt homesick, hungry, and bitter. She yawned. Tired. Mostly tired. She’d kill for a nap and a burger from John’s, her favorite pub back home.
Clare maneuvered the truck out of the store parking lot and onto the freeway. After twenty minutes of stop-and-go traffic, she had traveled no more than two miles.
“Ahh!” Usually she found yelling at the top of her lungs in the privacy of her truck therapeutic. Not today. She plugged in her phone and rocked out to her AC/DC playlist, attempting to forget her day.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, traffic opened up. Clare pressed the gas and moved into the left lane, singing T.N.T. and making steady progress until she saw the red brake lights in front of her.
As she slammed on her brakes, her heart stuck in her throat and her body tensed. She stood on the brake pedal, praying, but no matter how hard she pressed down, there was no stopping the collision. Clare squeezed her eyes shut as her tires shrieked along the asphalt, followed by the sound of glass breaking and metal crunching.
I just killed someone, Clare thought as she opened her eyes and unclenched her grip on the wheel. Her hands shook as she felt her body to make sure she was in one piece. Satisfied, she peered through her cloudy windshield and saw the little BMW in front of her, crunched like an accordion. She unbuckled her seat belt and jumped out of the truck.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” she murmured. She ran toward the crushed car as its angry owner kicked the door open and stepped out.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” he yelled.
Clare stood in shock, staring at the most beautiful, angry man she had ever seen, berating her on the freeway. She looked him over, making sure he was intact, then looked him over again. He ran his hands through his longish hair, which was not quite brown and not quite blond. His scowling face looked as if it had been carved from marble with its chiseled jaw and high cheekbones. His tense, gold-colored eyes glared at her, and she blushed. After her flush of hormones passed, Clare shook her head and regained her senses, assessing him as a six-foot-tall jackass.
As cars weaved a traffic pattern around the accident scene, the man turned his back to her and cursed, surveying the damage. “Are you kidding me?” he said as he dropped his head back and looked to the sky.
Overcome by the stress of her day, when Clare was satisfied that neither of them was injured, she marched to the man and poked him in the chest with a shaky finger.
He continued to stare at the remains of his car.
“Hello?” She prodded his rock-hard chest again. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I’m all right?”
“Obviously you are all right,” he said as he pulled out his phone and tapped the screen.
Yep. Jackass. She stomped back to her truck and grabbed her insurance card out of the glove compartment. When she returned, the man covered the bottom of his phone and whispered, “Highway patrol.”
Clare crossed her arms over her chest, grasping her paperwork, waiting for him to hang up. When he finally took the phone away from his ear, she flung the card at him. “Here’s my insurance information.” She used every ounce of energy to hold back her tears as she walked away.
“You could say you’re sorry, you know,” he called after her over the sound of the traffic.
Clare froze and took a deep breath, then spun and charged back toward him. The pressures of her day had finally become too much, and she couldn’t help herself from screaming. “Sorry? Sorry?” She waved her arms toward nowhere in particular as she continued. “You want sorry? Okay. I’m sorry there’s so much gosh-darned traffic in this stupid town that you can’t even use your gas pedal. I’m sorry the sun is so friggin’ bright you can’t see straight. I’m sorry your mama raised you so wrong that you don’t even ask if I’m okay before you start calling me names and cursing Jesus. I’m sorry everyone in this city is such a jerk… I’m sorry…” Clare huffed and puffed as the tears fell.
“All right, calm down,” the man said. “Don’t cry…” He picked up the card and looked at it. “Clare, is it? Okay, I’m sorry. I should have been nicer.”
“I just hate LA,” Clare said, her shoulders sagging as she wiped away her tears.
“Please stop crying.” The man bent down to look into her eyes, squinting at her with concern. Clare studied his face and caught her breath, wondering how one person could be so good-looking. It didn’t seem fair. Stupid California. She took a deep breath and let the tension release on her exhale, using the back of her hand to wipe her tears. “I’m sorry I hit you,” she said, her bottom lip quivering.
He shrugged and sighed. “I’m sorry I overreacted. But I literally just drove it off the dealer’s lot like ten minutes ago.”
“Oh no! You have got to be kidding.” She tried but couldn’t stifle a giggle.
The hottie jackass grinned too, flashing a mouthful of pearly whites. She knew those teeth from somewhere. “Chalk it up to bad luck. I’ll have to go get a gosh-darned new one,” he teased.
“I can’t believe you’re making fun of me,” Clare murmured.
“I couldn’t resist. Nebraska?” he said, pointing to her license plate. “I didn’t know people actually lived there.”
“There are one or two of us. No traffic where I’m from, though.” Clare plopped onto the median of the freeway, ignoring the dirty looks of the commuters rolling by.
The man sat down next to her. “I’m Dylan,” he said. “Dylan Barnes.” He presented his hand for her to shake.
Clare took it. “Clare Davis.”
“Trying to prove something…to someone… I don’t know.” What am I doing here? she thought. She could go home, quit the Golden State, and be no worse off. Except she’d have to face her mother. Her boyfriend. Her boss. Her friends. They’d all doubted her ability to morph into a coastal-city girl and embrace the West Coast. Maybe they were right.
Dylan sighed. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I hated LA when I first got here.”
Clare sputtered, “Yeah, right. You look like you were created right from the soil under the Hollywood sign.”
“Do I? That’s a little scary.”
Something about the gleam in his eye made her ask, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
He smirked. “You travel this freeway a lot?”
“Every day, practically.”
Dylan stayed seated on the median staring at the passing cars. Without a word, he bent his arm, thumb out, to point behind them. Confused, Clare turned and watched the cars travel the opposite side.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
Clare looked from the cars up and over the highway to the billboard she admired every day on her way home from work. It advertised a fragrance called Lust, and Clare had taken to calling the hot, half-naked guy holding the bottle Lusty.
She looked between the billboard and Dylan. Then back to the billboard. “Well I’ll be a tornado in December. You’re Lusty?”
“Holy cow. Lusty! You know, that billboard should be taken down. It’s so gosh-darned distracting.”
Dylan smiled. “Anyway, that may be why you recognize me.”
Clare stared in awe. The billboard didn’t do him justice. She wondered if his abs really looked like Lusty’s, or if Lusty’s were retouched. The wailing of sirens pulled her from her trance as two officers on motorcycles approached the scene. “Oh my. Are they actors or real?” she asked.
“Probably both,” Dylan whispered.
He walked away from Clare and reached into his mangled car, then reappeared with his paperwork. The officers took down the information they needed and called for a tow truck.
When there was nothing left to be done at the scene, Clare offered Dylan a ride. She climbed into the truck as Dylan opened the passenger-side door.
“I don’t think your truck is big enough,” he said, hoisting himself into the seat with the help of his long limbs.
“Yeah, I was hoping to go bigger but with the price of gas and all…” Clare smiled. “Where to, Lusty?”
“I don’t know. A rental car place, I guess.” Dylan took out his phone as Clare turned the key. They both jumped off their seats when T.N.T. blared through the sound system.
“Crap! Sorry about that,” Clare yelled as she turned down the volume. “In Nebraska we spend a lot of time driving around in our pickups listening to loud music.”
“No wonder you’re getting into car accidents. That’s probably not the best idea in LA. I’d never pin you for an AC/DC kind of girl.” Dylan studied his phone. “There’s a car rental place about five miles away.”
“Great. That should only take about ten hours to get to.”
“Ha. You Nebraskans are funny. I know the area. Want me to drive?”
Clare shrugged, completely at ease about letting a stranger drive her truck. Maybe he’d brainwashed her with his flickery eyes. Maybe he was a serial killer. Well, whatever. He sure is pretty to look at, and today is as good a day to die as any, she told herself as she and Dylan switched seats.