I was okay with the divorce. Honestly, I’d seen it coming for a while, and Jordan was nice about the whole thing. Yes, he got the house and the furniture and the dog, but I got to keep my car. He worked hard, so it only made sense that he got most of the things. And I could handle losing my job. I was the newest on the team, and the company was struggling. Logically, if they had to get rid of anyone, I was the best choice. I was even fine with my parents moving to Denmark on a whim. I might not have seen that one coming, but I would still be able to video chat with them, even if the hours were a little off. They deserved to do what made them happy, and I couldn’t argue with their decision. They promised to come back for Christmas in a couple of years, at least, so it was fine. I was okay with all of that happening over the last week.
But the flat tire was too much.
It happened just outside of Kansas City. The car suddenly jerked away from me, and I might have screamed a bit as I pulled over to the side. Thankfully, I managed to get to the curb without too much careening back and forth like I always saw in the movies. As clouds built overhead in the late afternoon sky, I sat there for a minute just trying to catch my breath.
“This is what happens when you aren’t paying attention,” I told myself and unbuckled my seatbelt with shaking fingers. At least there wasn’t a lot of traffic going past, so I didn’t feel like a complete idiot when I got to the passenger side of the car and frowned at the completely mangled front tire.
What had I hit? A chainsaw?
I took a deep breath and shivered as a bit of wind cut through my sweatshirt. I just had to think this through. My dad had taught me how to change a tire when I learned to drive, and yeah, okay, that might have been fifteen years ago, but how hard could it be? I had a spare in the trunk, and Dad had drilled it into me to always be prepared for this kind of thing, no matter what.
My first instinct was to call Jordan, and I might have actually done it if my phone wasn’t in the car. Never mind he was way back in Chicago—calling my ex-husband was a terrible idea no matter what. I knew better than to bother him with something I should be able to handle myself. So instead of crawling into the car to get my phone, I rolled up my sleeves and pulled open the trunk.
“Well,” I huffed and stared down at the complete mess of junk inside.
That was the problem with moving across the country without renting a van; I had a lot more stuff than I realized, and I wasn’t so great at the whole block puzzle game thing, so it was all just piled in there and shoved into every little nook and cranny, wherever stuff could fit. It would all have to move if I wanted to get to the tire.
“We’ll be smarter this time around,” I told myself and started digging.
Half an hour later, I managed to clear out the trunk just enough to hoist open the floor mat and hold it up with my shoulder so I could grab the spare tire. Dang, were tires always that heavy, or was it just this particular one? I needed to go to the gym more often, apparently. Though, now that I didn’t have a fancy one down the street from my house—the house that I no longer had—that wasn’t likely to happen.
If I was being honest, it hadn’t happened anyway.
“New Year’s Resolution,” I muttered then heaved the tire out with a grunt. “Never mind it’s July.”
By the time the tire was out and waiting, and I had grabbed the thingy to lift the car up, I was exhausted, and I hadn’t even gotten to the fixing part of all this. I had no reason to be tired just from moving things around.
“Don’t lie to yourself,” I said, frowning down at the mess of tools I didn’t know how to use. “You were exhausted to begin with. At least it can’t get worse.”
I should have known not to say those words out loud.
Kansas rainstorms were a whole lot worse than Illinois storms. Or maybe it was just this particular storm. It didn’t matter which was true, because I was still soaked within minutes, and the second I bent down to try to lift up the lifter thingy, my feet slid in the mud and sent me sprawling.
And I cried.
I hadn’t even cried the night Jordan handed me the divorce papers, but I sat there in the mud, huddling against my pathetic little car, and sobbed as the rain kept pouring buckets down. I missed my job, even if I hadn’t been doing much marketing despite that being my job title. I missed my parents, even though I had just barely spent a day and a half with them.
I missed Jordan.
His little good morning kisses and the way he smiled when I gave him his coffee in the morning and the way he breathed when he was deep asleep. I really hadn’t been able to sleep over the last week without him next to me, which was why I was so tired.
I wanted my life back.
I wasn’t sure how long I sat there and cried in the rain, but it was long enough that I was starting to feel a little ridiculous. I was thirty years old, for goodness’ sake. I was crying over a flat tire, and there were people out in the world who would kill to have a car at all. People probably had killed for a car like mine.
I gulped. “Don’t think about that, Amelia,” I said and brushed my wet sleeve over my face to dry my tears. Metaphorically. “You’ve had your cry, and now you can get back up and get to work. A pity party won’t do anyone any good, and Amelia Blake does not sit in the mud and wait for Prince Charming to come to her rescue.”
I would probably have to change my name, wouldn’t I? Jordan was pretty clear about wanting everything that was his, and that included his last name.
What would I change it to? Go back to being Amelia Carter? That felt like a step backward, a return to the girl I used to be. There was a letter sitting on my dashboard that had another suggestion, but even thinking that one made me shudder. No, I wasn’t brave enough for that name. At least not yet. I would have to look somewhere else, because it wasn’t like people just walked around offering up names to share.
“Do you need some help?”
I shrieked and slipped in the mud again, sliding onto my backside and giving myself a pretty thorough view of the man who stood over me with concern. I hadn’t heard a car pull up, but then again the rain was loud enough that I probably wouldn’t have. But given the guy’s level of soaking, I was pretty sure he’d been walking down the road, not driving it.
“Oh.” I struggled to my feet, though the mud made it difficult. He was a pretty young guy, and by the looks of him he had been walking this road for a long time. Days, probably. “No, I’m…” I glanced at the tire and the lifter thingy that was still just sitting next to the car because I hadn’t even gotten it underneath. “I’m fine.”
His lips quirked on his thin face as he took me in. I must have looked terrible, covered in mud and soaking wet. Then again, he was just as soaked, so I was only half terrible. “You sure?” he asked, and one of his black eyebrows rose higher up his forehead than the other. His eyes were such a bright, icy blue that they seemed to glow through the storm, and I couldn’t look away.
“Oh yeah,” I said and tried to sound confident as I smiled at him. “I don’t want to bother you, and I’ll figure it out. How hard can changing a tire be, right?”
The quirk turned into a smile to match mine, and he glanced up the empty road, as if waiting for someone else to come along so he could be off the hook. But then he slid his shoulders out of what I realized was a guitar case and held it out to me. “Hold this,” he said, and the moment my hands grasped the guitar, he dropped down to his knees and slid the lifter a few inches deeper under the car.
I stood there somewhat dumbstruck as he worked, maneuvering the thingy and twisting the x-shaped tool until the car started to rise on one side. He didn’t have the problem of sliding around in the mud like I had, though I wasn’t sure why it was so easy for him when he wasn’t exactly a big guy. His worn black t-shirt did nothing to hide how slim he was, and though he was taller than me, that wasn’t saying much. I was average at most, so this guy couldn’t have been more than five foot nine. And yet he worked the tire off without much issue and was already lifting the spare into place before I was even aware he was doing it.
That was when I realized what I was holding. And that it was getting completely wet. The hard guitar case was old enough that I had a feeling it wasn’t exactly waterproof, so while the stranger fixed my tire for me, even though I hadn’t asked him to, I hurried to my pile of wet stuff behind the car and dug through it until I found a blue tarp that had sat in my trunk for years. It wasn’t the prettiest solution, but at least it would keep the guitar dry. Drier than it was at the moment.
I probably should have used it to cover my own possessions before now, but clearly I hadn’t thought that one through.
By the time I came back to the side of the car to see if the guy needed help, he was on his feet with the lifter thing in one hand and the ruined tire in the other. “You’ll probably want to buy a new one,” he said, lifting the tire a little before tossing it into the trunk. He was nicer with the lifter, holding it out to me so I could put it where it belonged. “Jack.”
“Oh yeah!” I said. “That’s what it’s called.”
He laughed, and water dripped from his dark, too-long hair as he shook his head. “No. I mean, yeah, that’s what it’s called, but I meant… I’m Jack.” And he held out his greased and muddied hand.
Suddenly the rain didn’t feel quite so cold as my face burned with heat. “Oh.”
He pulled his hand back, apparently thinking I didn’t want to shake it, which wasn’t at all the truth. I was about to, but now he probably thought I was both pathetic and rude. I liked to think at least the latter wasn’t true.
“Thanks,” he said and nodded to the tarp covering his guitar. “I’ve been meaning to get one of those.”
“You can keep it,” I replied before he tried to give it back.
Smiling again, he tucked the tarp a little more securely around the case then lifted it up and slipped it back over his shoulders. “Well, don’t drive too fast on that spare. You should be able to make it back to Kansas City to get yourself a new tire. Ideally you should get four, but the others don’t look too old, so you might be okay.”
My heart seemed to sink into my stomach. Needing to buy one new tire—let alone four—was going to be bad enough, but I hated the idea of backtracking, even if it was only twenty or thirty miles. This drive was pushing my bank account’s limits as it was, and gas wasn’t exactly cheap.
“Thanks,” I said and started running through my budget again, trying to see where I had some extra money. I stared at the spare tire that looked so innocent but wasn’t as helpful as it wanted me to believe.
Jack was already a good thirty feet down the road before I realized he’d started walking again.
“Wait!” I shouted and nearly slipped in the mud again when I dashed forward to stop him. “You’re going to walk in this rain?”
He glanced up at the sky as if he hadn’t even noticed the water pouring down. How could he smile at a time like this? I was legitimately waiting for the floods to come, and he didn’t seem bothered in the least. He even managed to grin. “You know, it’s not too bad. At least it’s summer, right?”
Looking back at my repaired car, I knew I couldn’t just let him wander off into the storm looking like a drowned rat. The man had fixed my tire, for crying out loud, and I was taught better than to let him go without something to repay him. “Come with me back to Kansas City,” I said. “Let me buy you lunch.”
My budget screamed a little.
But Jack smiled again, and the expression was so warm that I knew I couldn’t rescind my offer. “I can’t argue against free food,” he said and wandered back to the car. And before I could stop him, he slid the guitar off his shoulders again and began reloading my trunk.
I thought about arguing, but I was too tired for that and simply joined him, handing off my little possessions as he placed them with a lot more care and deliberation than I had. Clearly this guy was a lot better at that one game with the falling cube shapes than I was. Within ten minutes, everything I owned was back in the car—soaked but intact—and Jack was squished in the front seat with his guitar between his legs as we drove in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go.
Weirdly, it felt almost normal to have him sitting next to me as I drove, and at first I chalked it up to familiarity. I’d been married for several years, so it wasn’t like I spent a lot of time in the car by myself. But then I considered the fact that Jordan was always the one who drove, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had had a passenger when I was behind the wheel.
Something about having Jack in the car with me after my little breakdown made all of this feel better somehow. In the middle of the worst rainstorm I’d ever seen, Jack was almost like his own source of calm as he looked out the window and silently watched the plains go by. Sure, I’d hit rock bottom. When it rains, it pours, all of that. But I had a feeling everything would be okay.
I had no idea what it was, but something about Jack felt important. Like we were meant to cross paths on this highway in Kansas.
I wondered if I would ever figure out why.