Excerpt from Side Trip
Joy shouldn’t have agreed to Dylan’s deal. She should have let him say goodbye, because goodbye would have been much easier than the crushing despair she feels right now. She wouldn’t be left wondering what might happen between them, or what could happen down the road. What didn’t happen today. Things she shouldn’t be wondering about.
But that doesn’t stop her from looking toward the sliding glass doors to the British Airways check-in counter at JFK, the terminal Dylan just walked into. She presses a hand to the center of her chest and breathes through the gaping hole his departure has left. She aches.
Songwriter, music producer, and record label executive Dylan Westfield is a brilliant musician, and one of the most talented singers she’s had the privilege to hear. A temporary friend she met ten days ago. She’ll never again hear his voice, or touch his face, or see the smile that could melt hearts. This can’t be how it ends. What if she goes in after him? What if she tells him how she feels? What if—
A shrill whistle blows behind her. Numbly, Joy turns her head to the sound. A stout, red-faced airport security officer stands by her brand-new 2010 Volkswagen New Beetle. Both the passenger- and driver-side doors are open. They’d been so caught up in each other and their last moment together that neither had bothered to close their door.
“This your car, lady?” the officer demands.
“You need to move it. Come on, get a move on.”
Dylan’s moving on. She agreed to do the same.
Together their chemistry had been off the charts, something undefinable and more than anything she’s known before. But she can’t delude herself that anything good can come of starting something with a man she met only ten days previous. Dylan is set on living his best life. With plenty to look forward to, she’s determined to do the same. A new home, new city, new job as an entry-level cosmetic lab tech at Vintage Chic. She should be excited about working in a lab on their lipstick line, mixing oils and colorants. It’s an incredible opportunity. Her sister, Judy, would have been ecstatic to work there.
Joy swipes the moisture from under her eyes, and her engagement ring catches the waning New York sunlight. The ring Mark had placed on her finger just two short months ago, the day after she graduated from UCLA. The man faithfully waiting for her at his apartment in Manhattan.
Guilt takes a roll downhill in her stomach.
Joy closes the passenger door and walks around to the driver’s side. She sinks into the seat Dylan recently vacated and shuts the door. She takes a deep breath, and a wave of longing washes over her. Her car smells like him. It feels so empty without him.
She feels empty.
She plucks a soiled tissue from the cup holder and dabs her eyes, willing the tears to dry up. She needs to stop crying and she needs to put him out of her mind.
Leaning across the seat, she grabs her purse from the passenger-side footwell and roots through the bag. Her hand deliberately dives past Judy’s Route 66 Bucket List, the list Joy failed to complete.
That hadn’t been part of the plan, and she feels like she let Judy down. Her sister would have completed the list no matter what. She was efficient like that, with laser-sharp focus. It was one of the many traits Joy had admired in her.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers.
She takes a deep, pained breath and grabs her phone. Two texts had arrived during the time Dylan parked her car curbside and left: one from Taryn, the other from Mark.
She reads Taryn’s text first and feels a hint of relief and a smidge less lonely. Inseparable since the day Taryn toddled three doors down wearing nothing but a saggy potty-training diaper and the sticky, Kermit-green stain of Popsicle drippings on her bare chest, her BFF texted that she’s in line for a promotion at the social media agency where she works in LA. With luck, she’ll be able to transfer to New York within a few months.
Mark’s text is more sobering. He’s waiting for her. He can’t wait to see her. He can’t wait to make love with her.
Joy swallows her guilt and brings up Mark’s address. She launches the directions to his place—their place—and buckles her seat belt, giving the belt two sharp tugs to ensure it’s latched. She shifts the car into gear the same moment the officer loudly raps his knuckles on her window.
“Move on, lady!”
Joy does, merging into the airport traffic, resisting the urge to look back. Because what she might want, or who, doesn’t matter. It hasn’t mattered for years.
A tall drink of water.
Joy never contemplated the meaning behind that idiom. She never considered using it to describe a guy. The expression was archaic. Something her grandmother would have said. Or Judy, given that it was dated slang and her older sister had loved everything retro, specifically anything circa 1950s. But then Joy saw him. Now she couldn’t think of a better way to describe the man she’d been watching through the window.
She felt parched, her mouth dry. It could very well be from ogling the gorgeous guy with the heather-gray, sweat-drenched T-shirt and stonewashed jeans that fit him way too well as he bent over the engine of his beat-up Pontiac Bonneville rather than the triple-digit dry heat baking the asphalt and everything alive outside Rob’s Diner, where Joy had stopped for a cheeseburger and fries. Food Judy would have ordered if she’d had the chance to take this trip.
Her sister had loved cheeseburgers, and she and Joy had eaten their share at In-N-Out Burger. Joy missed those weekly outings when Judy would buy their meals. They’d eat them outside on the white tables with red chairs under a duo of palm trees, the sun setting over SoCal suburbia.
Joy sucked her Cherry Coke through a red-striped plastic straw and watched the man outside. He straightened, wiped his forearm across his glistening forehead, and looked east down the sprawling stretch of Route 66. She didn’t know how he could stand the desert heat. August in Ludlow was brutal, and tall-drink-of-water guy had been tinkering under the hood of his Pontiac for well over forty minutes. He’d arrived right after Joy had been seated at a window booth.
She liked watching him, which was a first for her. She didn’t ogle guys. She was engaged. But no harm, no foul. She was only looking, and he was certainly more entertaining than what she’d intended to do during her lunch: plan which item she’d cross off that day on Judy’s Route 66 Bucket List. She also liked the way the man’s shoulders rippled under the thin material of his shirt. She liked the color of his hair, a brown so dark it almost looked black, even under the blazing summer sun. But then he ran his hands through the thick mass and she caught some golden highlights. He wore his hair too long to be called short, where the ends curled up off his neck. He had a nice wave that he finger-combed off his forehead. Indie rocker style, Joy thought. He reminded her of a young Chris Cornell, the way his hair flopped back and he gave his head a shake to move it off his face. She wondered what color his eyes were and almost pouted that she’d never get to find out when he slammed the hood closed , sank into the driver’s seat, and started the car. After a couple of chokes and coughs, the engine finally turned over.
He eased the car forward, pulling more fully into the parking spot he’d aimed for when the car had died the first time. He drove two feet and the engine sputtered and died again. Tall-drink-of-water guy sat there for a good five seconds when he suddenly snapped. He smacked the steering wheel three times. He then got out of the car, slammed the door, kicked the door, then kicked the front tire.
Joy struggled to keep a straight face. Giving up, she grinned and shifted her attention to the list on the table in front of her, musing that he was about to “go ape,” as Judy would have said. Apeshit was more like it. Honestly, she felt sorry for the guy. She’d hate to be stuck out here with a broken-down car. For the first time since she’d decided to take this trip, she silently thanked her dad for insisting on the 2010 Volkswagen New Beetle rather than the 1955 Plymouth Belvedere she’d been researching to purchase for her cross-country trip. But her parents bought her the convertible Bug as a college graduation gift. It was reliable and safer, her father had said, upset she’d consider driving an old car in the first place, especially after what had happened to Judy.
A twinge of guilt rode up her back like a tailgater on the highway. It always did.
Joy munched on a cold fry to rid herself of the sour taste in her mouth and returned her attention to the man outside.
Flustered, he shook his fists at the sky; then, to Joy’s amusement, he flipped off the blazing sun.
Who was he so pissed off at—God, the universe, or some other poor soul?
Joy didn’t get the chance to contemplate an answer because the man was now heading toward the diner’s entrance. The door swung open and the bell above jingled his arrival as if announcing “one tall drink of water coming right up.”
She almost snorted at her thought. She also couldn’t take her eyes off him.
She imagined her fiancé scowling across the table. Mark wouldn’t be pleased.
Licking her dry lips, her gaze glued on the stranger, she reached for her soda and brought the straw to her mouth. She sucked hard, forgetting the glass was nearly empty. A loud slurping noise startled her, and she almost dropped her glass. The rude sound drew the attention of the family in the booth next to hers. It also caught his attention. He looked at her. Cheeks burning, Joy looked down at the table, hoping he didn’t notice she’d been staring at him.
Correction: drooling over him, which was so unlike her. She hadn’t felt such an instant attraction toward anyone since, well . . . never. Her body buzzed with interest, and the energy bouncing through her left her off-kilter. A bit disconcerting compared to the steady and cozy reaction she had when Mark walked into a room.
Joy picked up her phone, pretending to read a text. She could hear the two kids in the next booth over laughing as they mimicked her, making loud slurping noises with their sodas as their parents scolded them, threatening no pool time if they didn’t knock it off at once. She could also hear the waitress ask the man, “Table or counter?”
“Do you have a phone I can use?” he asked instead.
His voice. Joy sighed. It rolled over her, worked its way inside her, and settled in her stomach. He sounded as good as he looked. She peeked at him from under her lashes.
“Sorry. Phone is for paying customers only. You don’t have a mobile?”
“Would I have asked to use your phone if I did?” He smiled casually.
“No.” The waitress giggled. She had to be forty years older than him and she giggled. Obviously, Joy wasn’t the only one affected by his good looks. This probably happened to him everywhere he went, which made her feel a tad less guilty about her own attraction. Joy would bet that he knew it, too, and worked it to his advantage.
“Are you sure I can’t pour you a cup of coffee?” the waitress offered him with a sweet smile that made Joy feel a little queasy. For real? She was old enough to be his grandmother.
The man shook his head and looked around the small diner. His gaze landed on Joy and she blinked.
“No thanks,” he told the hostess and made his way over to Joy.
Omigod. Omigod. Omigod.
Joy’s heart beat frantically. Her hands felt damp and sticky. Why was he coming over here? What did he want with her?
But it wasn’t Joy he was looking at. His gaze was pegged on the iPhone 4 Mark had gifted her when she’d graduated from UCLA two months ago. Joy tucked her phone in her lap and ducked her chin, ashamed of her reaction to this stranger with her fiancé so close to mind. She was also afraid her interest was evident on her face. A big billboard of an expression that shouted one of Judy’s favorite phrases: “Hey, handsome, you razz my berries.”
The man stopped at her table, and heart in her throat, she slowly looked up his torso to his face.
Oh. My. God.
They were the most gorgeous hazel she’d ever seen. Gray-green irises with a kaleidoscope of light brown and golden-yellow flecks under an awning of long, dark lashes.
He’s so dreamy, Judy would have said, nudging her.
The thought Judy would be reacting the same way toward him almost made her sigh with relief. Steady boyfriend or not, Judy would have been swooning just like her.
He smiled. “Hi.”
Joy blinked, mute.
His smile widened, the left corner of his mouth pulling up higher. He knew exactly the effect he had on her.
“May I borrow your phone? I’m not going to run off with it,” he added when Joy remained speechless. He nodded at the window. “You probably noticed my car’s dead.”
She felt a blush creep up her neck. He knew she’d been watching him. Could she sink under the table and die?
“One call.” He raised a finger. “Promise.”
“Sure,” she said in a voice rendered meek from embarrassment. She set the phone at the end of the table.
“Thanks.” He slid into the booth and a light gasp escaped her lungs. He slung her a grateful grin and keyed in a phone number. “Rick, it’s Dylan . . . Some gal let me borrow hers.” He glanced at Joy. “Look, Jack’s car died . . . I told you it would . . . No idea. Spark plugs? It’s not the battery . . . The car’s a piece of crap. It won’t make it cross-country . . . You deal with it. I don’t have time to pick my nose and wait around. I’m gigging in Flagstaff tonight and need to be in New York in nine days . . . I’ll rent a car . . . I don’t give a shit. Jack’s car kicking the bucket doesn’t fall within the guidelines either. You figure it out, you’re the attorney. I’ll call you when I get to Flagstaff.”
Dylan ended the call, wiped the phone clean of car grease with a paper napkin, then slid the device across the table with a muttered thanks. Looking out the window, he pushed out a long stream of air and shoveled a handful of hair off his forehead. Joy noticed the dark hair that dusted his forearms. Thirteen leather bands circled his left wrist. He swung his head back around and fixed his gaze on her. He smiled and snagged a cold fry from her plate.
“Do you mind?” She pulled the plate to her side of the table, repulsed yet impressed at his boldness. She’d once been bold. She used to not give a squat what others thought.
“I’m starving.” He flagged down the waitress and pointed at Joy’s plate. “What did you have?” he asked Joy.
“Cheeseburger and fries.”
“I’ll have that,” Dylan said to the waitress.
“And to drink?”
“Water’s fine. I’m dying of thirst.” He blotted his forehead and neck with a paper napkin.
“Can I get you a refill?” she asked Joy.
“Yes. Cherry Coke, please.”
The waitress took her empty glass and Dylan smirked.
Her back went rigid. “What?”
“You’ve got the whole fifties vibe going.” He gestured in her direction.
Joy touched her hair, trying not to take offense. She’d pulled it back into a high ponytail and tied it with a silk scarf that morning in San Bernardino before she’d left home for the last time. She thought her hairstyle looked nice. It sharpened her cheekbones and highlighted the caramel lowlights in her hair.
“Back in a sec. I’m going to wash up.” He showed her his grease-stained hands, then slid from the booth. The waitress returned with her refill and Dylan’s water and took away her plate.
What a rude, presumptuous clod, Joy thought as she admired Dylan’s backside until he slipped through the swinging door to the restrooms. She debated asking for her check. She should get on the road. But when he walked back to the booth, she decided to hang out a bit longer. She liked the sound of his voice. And now that she’d seen the color of his eyes, she wanted to find out more. Who was he? He’d mentioned a gig in Flagstaff. If his vocals sounded anything like his speaking voice, he could melt his audience. What instruments did he play? What type of music? Suddenly she wanted to know everything about him, which she reasoned was perfectly okay. Tall-drink-of-water guy was a musician and Joy was obsessed with music. Better that than drugs, Joy argued whenever her parents complained that she never unplugged.
Dylan slid back into the booth and chugged his entire glass of water. He moved the glass aside and leaned his forearms on the table. “What have you got there?” Before she could answer, he snagged Judy’s list.
“Hey.” She tried to grab it back but he jerked it out of reach. “Do you mind?”
“‘My Route 66 Bucket List,’” he read. “Is this for real?”
The nerve of this guy. “Give it back.”
“You wrote this list?”
“My sister did. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“And she is . . . where?”
“Dead.” Joy swallowed and briefly looked away.
Dylan’s expression softened. A shadow flashed across his face. “I’m sorry,” he said gently.
“It happened a long time ago.” She gestured for the list. “May I have that back, please? It’s important.”
His eyes narrowed and he studied the ruled paper. “So . . . what’s the deal? She died and you’re completing her bucket list? That’s cool. I can respect that,” he said. Joy didn’t detect any sarcasm. She could almost forgive him for stealing it. Then he had to go and read it. Out loud.
“‘Drive across country in a convertible.’” He looked out the window. “That your Bug out there?”
“The white one? Yes.” She wiggled her fingers for the list.
“Nice car. Suits you. Heading east or west?”
“Going to Chicago?”
“Through. I’m moving to New York,” she said with a burst of nervous excitement. Moving cross-country was a big step. Marrying Mark an even bigger step. She showed him her left hand. “My fiancé lives there.” Maybe Dylan would catch a clue with the flash of glittery carbon. She was committed. He was being too forward. All up her business and in her face when he had no right to be.
“Relationships are a complicated mess. You’ll never see me getting married.” Dylan made a noise in his throat, then dipped his gaze back to the list. “‘Do something spontaneous. Do something daring. Do something dangerous.’ Oh, I like that one. What do you think you’ll do?”
“No clue. Give it back,” she asked, heart racing faster than the speedsters on the highway zipping past the diner. She glanced around, embarrassed. Was anybody hearing this?
He dramatically cleared his throat behind a fist. “‘Sleep under the stars. Dance in the rain. Make a new friend.’” He stopped and frowned again. “How come ‘fall in love’ is crossed off?”
“I’m already in love. Fiancé, remember?” She waggled her ring finger.
“Where is said fiancé?”
His brows drew together in concern. “He didn’t fly out to drive with you?”
“No.” And he didn’t need to know that Mark had asked to join her. This trip was one she had to do without him. Mark didn’t know about Judy’s list or why she felt compelled to complete it: Judy couldn’t. But if getting through this bucket list and Judy’s other goal lists helped Joy atone for a series of mistakes that had cost her sister her life, maybe Joy could make up for the hurt she’d caused. Maybe she wouldn’t feel so ashamed.
But she couldn’t let Mark learn the truth of Judy’s death. Her parents didn’t know, and Joy wouldn’t risk the chance of them finding out. They’d never forgive her, and Joy would lose more than a sister. She’d lose her family.
Dylan stared at her for a moment, then said, “I don’t think this one counts.” He tapped the crossed-out fall in love bullet item. “Shouldn’t everything here happen on Route 66? That’s the purpose of a travel bucket list. You have to do it while on the trip.”
Joy pushed back her shoulders, bristling at the direction of their conversation. Why were they discussing her love life? Leaning across the table, she yanked the list from under his fingers. “Doesn’t matter. It’s not going to happen.”
She didn’t understand why Judy had added that item in the first place. She’d been in love with her boyfriend, Todd, and filled with dreams of marrying him when she wrote the list. And Joy already loved Mark. As far as she was concerned, she intended to keep that line item crossed off.
Dylan’s food arrived. The waitress asked Joy if she’d like dessert.
“No, thanks. Just my check, please.” She should get back on the road if she wanted to make it to Flagstaff by dinner. She’d promised Mark that she wouldn’t drive at night. He didn’t want her to be too tired or else she might fall asleep at the wheel. She’d also call him in the morning before she got on the road and again in the evening after she’d checked into her motel. It was part of their deal. She felt safer and he’d worry less.
Dylan bit into his burger and wiped ketchup off his chin. “So, I’m thinking . . . ,” he began, taking another bite. “We’re both heading east. I have to be in Flagstaff by nightfall. I have a gig. Can I hitch a ride?”
Joy had started shaking her head before Dylan finished his sentence. No. Absolutely not.
“I don’t know you.” Mark would freak if she picked up a stranger on the road. She wasn’t sure she was comfortable driving this guy. He might be crazy good looking, and she might be a smidge too attracted to him, but she’d be alone with him. What if he was a rapist or serial killer? She also didn’t want to put up with his intrusive and obnoxious attitude for the four-plus hours it would take to get there.
Besides, she didn’t drive with passengers unless she absolutely didn’t have a choice.
Dylan ate half his burger, watching her. Daring her, Joy surmised, given his open expression. His gaze dipped to the bucket list. She folded the paper and tucked the list into her purse, out of his sight.
“What if you could check something off that list?”
“From driving you? Like what? ‘Do something spontaneous’?” She scrunched her face. She didn’t want Dylan to be her spontaneous item.
He shook his head. “No, the other one.”
She frowned. Which one? She went to retrieve the list when Dylan polished off his burger, wiped his hands together, and said, “‘Make a new friend.’”
“With you?” she asked, appalled. “How do you expect me to become friends with you when you’ve been nothing but rude?”
He shrugged, holding up his hands. “Only one way to find out.”
A valid point. She had been wondering how she’d accomplish that item. Hard to make friends on the road while constantly on the move, which meant she had to make the time, or look for opportunities to make friends.
Dylan might be such an opportunity.
The waitress returned with Joy’s bill. She took away Dylan’s empty plate.
Joy patted her hair, then wiped her clammy hands along her skirt. Four and a half hours wasn’t that long, not even a quarter of a day. The road was straight and flat, so the risk of anything going wrong accident-wise, she mused with a nervous twitch of her lips, was minimal. More important, she needed to fulfill Judy’s bucket list. It was the only reason she was making this trip on this particular route. Decision made. Make a new friend would be the line item she checked off that day.
“All right,” Joy said, slapping her credit card on top of her bill, the gesture drawing his attention. “I’ll drive you to Flagstaff.”
Dylan dragged his gaze up from the bill and her card on the table and grinned at her. “Outstanding.” He extended his hand. “I’m Dylan.”
She grasped his hand, hoping he didn’t notice how dry and cool his palm was compared to her damp and sticky one. “Hi, Dylan. I’m Joy.”
Ludlow, California, to Flagstaff, Arizona
Dylan quickly cleaned his car of fast-food trash and left a note on the windshield for the tow service company to call his dad’s attorney, Rick Keegan. Let him deal with this heap of rusting metal. Rick was the one who had forced him to take Jack’s car. The beast hadn’t been driven in over a decade. Frankly, Dylan was surprised he’d gotten this far, a whopping three hours out of LA. A miracle indeed.
If Dylan had had his way, he’d instead be driving the classic 911 Porsche he’d purchased off Patrick Monahan. But let’s be real, if he’d had any say about his current situation, he wouldn’t be on this road trip at all. He’d be home in LA writing music. He’d then fly out of LAX next week, not JFK, on the nonstop to Heathrow to meet up with his cousin Chase, a trip they’d had in the works for over a year. What he wouldn’t be doing was slogging from one gig to another as he made his way across the country.
Dylan grabbed his duffel and Gibson guitar from the trunk, grateful not for the first time that he’d learned from years of living on tour buses how to pack light. He then gave the car a once-over, locked up, and didn’t look back. Joy had told him her trunk was full so he put his stuff in the cramped back seat and settled into the passenger seat.
“Thanks for the ride,” he said, closing his door. “I would have been stranded here all day.”
She clipped her seat belt and gave the strap across her lap two solid tugs, then exhaled through pursed lips.
“Yes,” she said firmly.
He gestured toward the back seat. “I’ve got a guitar in there, not an ax.”
“What?” she asked, startled.
He grinned. “I’m not a murderer. Just a guy who needs a lift.”
Her hands squeezed the steering wheel. “That wasn’t funny.”
He sobered. “Sorry. Just trying to lighten the mood. Look, if driving me is going to be a problem, I can find another ride.” He didn’t want to. This girl intrigued him. But more to the point, he’d already lost enough time today. He glanced around the parking lot, even reached for his gear, wondering about his options.
She stopped him, her hand a light touch on his arm. “No, I’ll take you. Just do me a favor. Put on your seat belt.”
Dylan slowly smiled at her, relieved. “That, I can do.” Reaching over his shoulder, he drew the belt across his chest and clipped the latch. “All good?” He arched his brow and she nodded her approval.
“Is your car going to be okay parked there?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Not my problem anymore. It’s Rick’s.”
“My dad’s attorney. What are you listening to?” He pointed at the iPod she had connected to the car. The last thing he wanted to talk about was Jack’s attorney. Dylan was still salty over the car. It hadn’t even made it a day, and he had nine days of driving left before his flight.
“The McGuire Sisters.” Joy skimmed through the iPod menu.
“The McGuire who?” Dylan had never heard of them, and he knew a lot of bands, more than the average music aficionado.
“Sisters. They were big in the fifties. Judy liked them.”
Joy nodded, her free hand slowly moving to check her seat belt latch. Dylan wondered if she was aware of what she did. Doubtful. Her attention was on the iPod in her other hand. Her thumb traced a circle on the face of the device. Albums scrolled down the screen. She had a lot of tunes on that thing. Dylan would love to get his hands on her playlists. He could tell a lot about people from the type of music they listened to, and Joy’s interest in some obscure-to-him sister group as old as his grandparents told him quite a bit about her and her relationship with her sister. She idolized Judy.
“Is that why you’re dressed like that? Because Judy did?”
She looked up from the iPod, her mouth slightly parted in surprise. “You’re direct.”
He grinned. He couldn’t help it. He liked that she called him out.
Joy stopped scrolling. “Here, you might know this one.” She started a track and it took only two notes for Dylan to recognize the tune. He sang along with a verse of “Your Cheating Heart,” surprising himself. He normally didn’t burst into song like that in front of people. But an audience of one inside a car was far less intimidating than a stadium full of raucous fans.
“Wow. You’re good,” she exclaimed with a tentative smile.
“Anyone knows Patsy Cline.”
“No, I meant your voice. You can sing.”
Warmth radiated through his body. Head turned down, he shoveled the hair off his forehead and his lips curved into a closed smile. He liked that she liked his voice. He kind of liked her, as a friend, of course, he thought, eyeing the engagement ring. He’d noticed her the moment his car died during his attempt to park it at Rob’s. Damn thing had to up and choke on him before he could fully pull into the space, leaving the car’s tail sticking out like a big, fat ass.
Dylan had been pissed—at the car, his dad’s attorney, and his dad—then he’d looked up and seen Joy in the window, eating alone, all prim and stuffy with her ponytail and starched outfit that looked like she’d raided the costume room of West Side Story. Who was this woman? What was her story? There had to be a song there, and Dylan wanted to write it. Even if he hadn’t needed to borrow her phone, he would have found a way to meet her. He would have found a way to get to know her.
In the meantime, he had made sure she noticed him.
He might have flexed his deltoids more than necessary while he worked on his car. He might have tugged his jeans a little lower on his hips than was decent. If it hadn’t made his posing more obvious, he would have removed his shirt, because it was hotter than a mother today. But what he had done worked. She hadn’t been able to take her eyes off him. To his amazement, and absolute luck, she’d agreed to give him a ride. Now he had her all to himself for the next five hours, and he intended to use those hours to learn all he could about her. She was his new song, and by the end of the night, he hoped the first verse would be pinging through his brain.
But first he had to have her backstory.
“How did Judy die?” Dylan asked at the same time Joy shifted the car into reverse. She put it back into park.
“Car accident. Eight years ago,” she answered with a slight edge.
“I’m sorry. Were you close?”
She watched him for a short bit, her thumbnail flicking against her index fingernail when she eventually sighed. “We were four and a half years apart. She died the summer I turned fourteen. I was thirteen at the time.” Joy squeezed the gearshift.
“What was she like?”
She inhaled sharply. “You’re going to need to find another ride to Flagstaff if you keep asking questions about my sister.”
Dylan didn’t want to do that. He’d lost enough time today.
Joy sat still, waiting for him to figure out what he’d do. Dylan noticed her tight grip on the steering wheel, the firm set of her jaw and rigid posture. Interesting. She dressed like her sister, listened to her sister’s favorite music, and had her sister’s bucket list in her purse. Yet she didn’t want to talk about her.
Maybe she didn’t want to talk about her with him. He wasn’t a friend . . . yet. He’d have to work on that. He held up a finger. “One more question. Do you know how to drive?”
She looked at him from under her mile-long lashes. “Seriously?”
“It’s a valid question. My life is in your hands.”
Her face paled. “I’ve been driving since I was eight.”
His expression turned to one of fascination. “I don’t know if I should be scared, jealous, or impressed.”
“All of the above,” she said soberly. “I spent a lot of time on my grandfather’s farm driving tractors and his old truck. Any other questions?”
Dylan made a show of zipping his lips and tossing the key.
“All right, then.” She exited the parking lot and merged onto the highway, heading east toward Flagstaff.
“Sorry about earlier,” she apologized about a quarter mile up the highway. “It’s just . . .” She shrugged. “I don’t like talking about her.”
“Hey, I get it. We just met. You don’t owe me anything, especially an apology.”
“Thanks for understanding.”
He understood more than she realized. Dylan worked in an industry where a minute piece of personal information could explode into a gossip magazine maelstrom. He was picky about what he shared of himself and with whom. Which was why he’d try his best not to pry further, no matter how enticing it was to write a song about her.
Dylan held his hands up to the dash vents to cool off. Joy had the AC cranked and convertible top up. It seemed sacrilege to drive Route 66 without the top down, but he wasn’t going to complain. He was hot and in desperate need of a shower. He hoped the bar where he was playing tonight had a place where he could wash up.
“Are you a professional musician?” Joy asked.
“More of a songwriter, but yeah, in a way, I guess. How can you tell?”
“Aside from the guitar in the back seat? You mentioned you were gigging tonight and your vocals are off the hook.”
“Thanks.” A little smile touched his mouth. He could listen to her compliment him all day. In fact, he wouldn’t mind just listening to her. He’d bet a pack of Screamer blue guitar picks she had a mean set of pipes.
“What about you? Do you sing?”
She raised a hand. “Humble brag here. You’re looking at the number-one shower-singing superstar on the west coast.”
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