This was officially the worst day of Harper’s adult life.
What had she ever seen in that jackass? She yanked the sun visor down, squinting against the low spring sun. At least the setting sun meant this day from hell was almost over. Even if she still had no idea where she was going.
Which was just perfect.
She automatically reached for her bag before remembering that she had left it — and her wallet and phone — behind. Her phone with its GPS that could tell her if she was even heading in the right direction.
Hannah lived two hours southwest of the city. Harper wasn’t sure how her college roommate would feel about a short-term couch crasher, but she was her only hope at this point.
The dashboard’s orange low fuel light chose that moment to ding on. “Damn it.” She had forgotten to stop for gas on the way home and she certainly hadn’t been thinking about it after storming out.
She spotted the next exit — a town called Benevolence, Maryland — and signaled. She was going to have to find a payphone. Did they even have those anymore? Did she even have anyone’s number memorized? Harper groaned.
Maybe she could borrow someone’s phone, log on to Facebook, and beg nearby friends for a ride.
Just inside the town’s limits, she coasted into the gravel parking lot of what appeared to be a bar gearing up for a hopping Friday night. It was a rustic-looking, log cabin kind of place. No neon lights in the windows, just a simple hand-painted sign that hung from the eaves of the skinny front porch.
There was a patio on the side strung with lights and sail shades. A few patrons were clustered around heaters and an open fire pit.
It felt friendly. And she could use a friend right now.
Harper climbed out of her aging Volkswagen Beetle, and the hinges squealed as she shut the door. Leaning against the faded fender, she let her gaze wander, looking for a friendly stranger with a smartphone. “How do I get myself into these situations?” she sighed, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.
“I warned you!”
The guttural shout came from between a pair of pickups, two rows back where a man towered over a tiny brunette. He had the woman by the shoulders and was shaking her hard enough to rattle teeth.
“I fucking told you, didn’t I?” He shook her again, even harder this time.
Harper hustled forward. “Hey!”
The screaming giant barely spared her a glance over his shoulder. “Mind your own business, nosy whore.” Harper could hear the slur in his words.
The brunette started to cry. “Glenn —”
“I’m sick of hearing it!” He closed a ham-sized fist around her neck and shoved her against the truck, lifting her off of her feet. The woman clawed helplessly at the hand squeezing her throat.
Seeing red, Harper launched herself at his back.
At impact, she wrapped her arms around his neck. He shrieked, too high-pitched for a man of his size, and released the woman. Arms flailing, he slammed back against the pickup trying to dislodge Harper.
She held on tighter as his weight crushed into her torso.
“Not so easy when we fight back is it, asshole?” she gritted out.
“You’re fucking dead, you bitch!” he squealed.
She briefly thought about biting his ear, but instead used her legs to shove them off of the truck and squeezed her arms tighter around his neck. His face was turning bright red from the pressure.
Glenn gripped her arms and lurched forward, tossing Harper to the ground in front of the crying woman. She landed hard on her side and came up swinging. He glanced a blow off her shoulder, making it sing, and she caught him on the side of the head.
“Glenn!” A deep voice full of authority snapped out from behind them.
Harper used the distraction and fired a shot to his face, catching him off-guard, but only for a moment. The drunken giant swung back at her, and the parking lot exploded into stars.
“Hey.” There was that voice again, this time floating towards her through the haze. Deep, and a little rough.
Harper was flat on her back in the gravel. The side of her face felt like it was on fire. But what held her attention was the man hovering over her. Buzzed short dark hair and a five o’clock shadow framed the deepest hazel eyes she had ever seen. A spectacular sunset was happening behind his head. It was a gorgeous picture.
“Wow,” she whispered. “Am I dead?”
He grinned and she saw a dimple appear next to his mouth. Holy hotness. She was definitely dead.
“You’re not dead, but you could’ve been, taking on a big son of a bitch like that.”
Harper groaned, remembering. “Where is the big son of a bitch? Is the girl okay?”
“He’s face down underneath a deputy and Gloria’s fine. Thanks to you.” He touched her face gently, probing around the fist-sized ouch. “You take a hit like a champ.”
She winced. “Thanks. Can I sit up?”
Wordlessly, he helped her into a seated position and held her by the shoulders. “How do you feel?” Concern colored those deep eyes.
She brought her fingertips to her cheek and felt the heat pumping off of what had to be some serious nastiness. “I’ve felt worse.” He had a scar through one dark eyebrow and the slightest crinkles around his eyes. His very fit right forearm was completely covered in a sleeve tattoo.
“That was a very brave, very stupid thing you did, taking on a guy that size.” He smiled again.
“It’s not the stupidest thing I’ve done today.”
“You guys all right, Luke?”
Harper stopped staring at him long enough to notice the crowd that surrounded them.
“We’re fine.” He turned back to Harper. “Think you can stand up?”
She nodded, moderately pleased when her head didn’t snap off of her neck with the motion. He slid his hands under her arms and gently lifted her to her feet. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
“About time someone put that asshole in his place,” someone cackled, and the rest of the crowd laughed.
“Jesus, Luke, what did you do now?” A gorgeous raven-haired beauty in a denim skirt and a Remo’s embroidered polo weaved her way through the spectators.
“Don’t get all pissy with him, Soph.” A deputy stepped forward. “He didn’t start it, but one of them broke Glenn’s nose.”
Harper glanced down and noticed the split knuckles on her hero’s right hand.
“There are enough witnesses for him to spend a few nights in jail even if Gloria doesn’t press charges this time,” he continued.
The woman hooted and grabbed Luke for a smacking kiss. “Mom is going to be so proud.”
Luke rolled his eyes, hands still steadying Harper.
The brunette turned to Harper. “And what were you, collateral damage?”
“Are you kidding?” The deputy laughed. “I was pulling in when I saw her jump on his back with blood in her eyes. She went Xena Warrior Princess on his ass before he got in a lucky shot and Luke took him down,” the deputy said.
“That settles it,” she pointed at Luke and Harper. “You two are drinking for free tonight.” The crowd erupted into cheers.
“Hey, what about me?” the deputy mock pouted. “I handcuffed him.”
“Ty, you’ll get your reward after your shift.” She tugged him in for a hard kiss on the mouth and grinned up at him. “Don’t forget to pick up eggs on your way home.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he sighed. “I’ll hold you to that reward. Well, I’m gonna run this asshole by the ER on the way to jail.” He winked and headed back to his squad car. Glenn was slumped over in the back seat. Ty slid behind the wheel. “See y’all later.”
He flipped on the lights as he peeled out of the lot to the delight of the crowd.
She tossed her dark curls and rolled her eyes heavenward. “That’s my husband,” she sighed. “So, Tough Girl. Got a name?”
“I’m Sophie. Welcome to Benevolence, Harper. How about some ice for that face?”