Craig Emerson would turn over in his grave if he could see her now. Rolling down Highway 22 toward Myrtle Beach, windows down, radio blaring a classic rock station, the wind blowing through her short hair, with a three-inch wedge sandal pressing down on the accelerator. No one—not even his wife—ever drove his orange and black, 1970 Plymouth GTX.
“Craig, are you seeing this?” Vivian Emerson had been talking to her husband this way ever since his death almost a year ago. After this weekend, she decided these little talks would come to an end. There had been plenty of things for her to get off her chest—things she had wanted to say while he was alive, but he would never listen.
So many times in the past year, she would go out to the garage, sit in Craig’s car, and pour her heart out. Sometimes she would talk quietly while tears streamed down her face, and other times she would yell. But this was the first time she’d actually driven his car. So far, her one-sided conversations on this trip had been backed with laughter. This trip to the beach would be her last act of letting go. She was ready.
Vivian smiled at her reflection in the rearview mirror as she ran her fingers through her dark brown hair. Craig had wanted her to keep her hair long, and she had. At her first stop for a bathroom break, she had tried to brush through the long, tangled mess thanks to driving with the windows down. As the brush snagged another knot, she decided right then it was time for a change. A search for the nearest hair salon on her cellphone’s GPS landed her in front of The Cut and Curl.
After everyone oohed and aahed over the GTX and she finally sat in the angled chair, Vivian told the stylist that she didn’t care how it was cut, as long as it was shorter and easier to manage. Less than an hour later, she emerged with a slightly longer version of a pixie cut. The style suited her, and it definitely showed off her eyes. Why hadn’t she done this years ago? She headed back out on the road feeling light and carefree.
She crossed over Highway 17 and carefully turned into Walmart’s parking lot. The muscles in her upper arms tightened in response to the lack of power steering. No wonder people had been in better shape back when this car was made. As she searched for a spot closer to the door, she started making a mental list of things she needed to purchase to get her through the next four days.
Her ankle twisted a little with her first step toward the store. Vivian had not worn heels in over twenty years because Craig had only been an inch taller than her. She was determined to get used to wearing them again. In fact, she’d bought herself a whole new wardrobe last weekend. Gone was the drab clothing that now hung loose from her frame due to the thirty-five pounds she had lost in the last year. No diet or exercise had been necessary. The junk food Craig loved so much was no more. Plus, she had lost her appetite for a while right after his death.
Vivian tugged the bottom of her orange sweater down in the back. It was a warm day for mid-March, but the wind whipping through the open windows of the GTX had still been cool. She was extra thankful for the layers of clothing when the air-conditioned breeze greeted her as the automatic doors slid open. In less than fifteen minutes she was headed back out into the warmth of the sun.
After loading her groceries into the trunk with the rest of her stuff, she carefully made her way through the parking lot in the tank-like car. Thankfully, there was a stoplight that would make it easier for her to get back onto the busy highway. The light was red and she had almost come to a complete stop when the brake pedal suddenly dropped to the floor. The car rolled past the line until the front end completely blocked the first lane of the road in front of her.
She gripped the steering wheel and her whole body tightened as she prepared for impact. Her head jerked to the left at the sound of screeching tires and a blaring horn. A huge burgundy Suburban stopped just a few feet from her, close enough for her to see the scowl on the face of its curly-haired driver.
Vivian looked in her rearview mirror. A man stepped out of the car behind her and walked toward her. Fear coursed through her. The urge to roll the window up before the stranger got there was strong. But that would be silly. He wouldn’t harm her with so many witnesses.
Another horn blared as the angry woman in the Suburban finally moved around her, tires squalling once she got past the nose of the GTX.
“What’s the problem?”
Vivian jumped at the sound of the man’s voice, but the tension in her shoulders eased when she looked up into his smiling face. “The brakes won’t work. The pedal went down to the floor.”
“Have you got it in park?”
Why did she feel like she’d done something wrong? “I didn’t want it to roll any further.”
“That’s good. Do me a favor and pump the pedal a few times. Does it feel like you have brakes now?”
The pedal didn’t go down all the way this time, but it felt softer than usual, like it would give with enough pressure. “It’s better than before, but it still doesn’t feel right.”
“They should work well enough for you to get off the road. I’ll back up so you can.”
She watched in the rearview mirror as his car backed up a good distance away from her before she put the car in reverse. As soon as the road in front of her was clear, her helper moved around the GTX and left the parking lot. He didn’t even look back as he passed by. The only person he’d been trying to help was himself.
She needed a wrecker but had no idea who to call. Craig had always been the one to take care of things like this, and before him, her father had done it. According to them, a mechanic couldn’t wait to see a woman come into his shop because he could charge whatever he wanted, and she would be none the wiser.
A car pulled up behind her and blew the horn. She hunted around on the steering column until she found the switch for the emergency blinkers and then waved the car to go around her. She was alone now. Craig was gone, and her parents were in Colorado. She didn’t even have a son she could call on. There was nothing left to do but handle this the best way she knew how. Vivian slipped her phone from her pocket and began scrolling through her options on Google.
Bo would’ve noticed the GTX even if he wasn’t looking for it. When it came to classic cars, this model was one of his favorites. Plus, it was partially blocking the exit to the parking lot. Cars honked as they tried to maneuver around the nuisance. The lady had said it was still drivable, so why hadn’t she moved it out of the way? He parked the rollback in a clear row near the edge of the lot.
He walked over to the car, admiring the black stripe against the orange paint as he approached the driver’s door. Orange wasn’t his favorite, but it was a good color for this particular model. Solid black would work too.
Alarm shot through him when he got to the driver’s window. The woman inside had her face buried in her hands. Her shoulders were shaking, and as he leaned down, her soft sobs reached his ears through the open gap at the top of the window.
She jerked up, looking his way.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Bo Manning from Manning’s garage. You called for a wrecker. I’m here to pick you up.” He paused. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes.” Her breath shuddered as she let out another sob. She swiped away mascara-stained tears that were quickly replaced with more.
Had she been attacked? Surely not out here in the open. His protective instincts kicked into high gear. He opened the car door and squatted down closer to her. He tentatively touched her shoulder and when she didn’t jerk away, he stroked her arm in what he hoped was a soothing sort of way. “Tell me what happened.”
She turned and leaned toward him. “The car broke down, my husband is dead, and I have no one. There’s no one who can help me, and I’m alone.” Heart wrenching sobs separated each word.
All it took was slight pressure on her arm and she leaned closer and placed her head on his shoulder. He patted and rubbed circles on her back while she cried. It had been a while since a woman cried in his arms. “It’s going to be all right. I know what you’re going through. Trust me, it might not seem like it right now, but everything is going to be okay.”
It didn’t take long for her to pull away. Using the bottom corner of her sweater, she began drying her face. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually go on like this and especially with a stranger.”
Bo wished he had a handkerchief to give her, but even if he had one, it would probably be covered in grease. “Don’t worry about it. Believe it or not, I’ve been right where you are. I lost my wife fourteen years ago. I still remember how it feels, but I promise you, it does get better.”
Someone in a green VW pulled up behind the GTX and blew the horn. While he’d held her, he had watched as every other driver redirected themselves to the other exit. Why did some people want to be difficult on purpose? He looked back at the woman next to him. What was her name again? She had told him over the phone.
For the first time since he arrived, she looked directly at him. Jade green eyes that were only made brighter by the tears peered back at him, still beautiful even red-rimmed and devoid of makeup. A tingling sensation ran down his arms. A feeling of possession that he’d only experienced once in his lifetime came over him—like this woman belonged to him.
This is crazy.
He stood and glanced toward the back of the car to see if the VW had found another way out. Anything to break contact. Vivian. That was it, Vivian Emerson. The name came to him just like that. He leaned down just enough to look at her again, “Um, Vivian, could you scoot over to the passenger’s side so I can move the car?” He pointed to the edge of the parking lot. “My rollback is right there. I’m going to drive over to it. You did say it runs, right?”
She looked over her shoulder and then back up to him. “Going is not the problem, stopping is what you have to worry about.” She scooted across toward the passenger’s side as she spoke.
Bo sat down behind the wheel and pressed the brake pedal. With enough pressure, it would go all the way to the floor, but the brakes would work well enough to get him to the rollback. He turned the key, and the beast rumbled to life. Nothing else had quite the feel of a Plymouth. He would love to get this thing out on an open road and see what it would do.
There was nothing behind them now. Everyone seemed to have finally gotten the message not to come this way. He backed into the parking lot and lined the GTX up with the back of the rollback, leaving enough room to tilt and slide the bed out in front of it. “Is there anything you need to get out of the car before I load it up?”
Vivian glanced into the empty back seat. “I don’t guess so. There are groceries in the trunk that were frozen, but they’ve probably already begun to thaw by now. You know what, I’m not even worried about them.” She took a deep breath and let it out with a huff. “Sorry, I’m rambling. I don’t need anything except my purse.”
“You can sit in the rollback while I load up. Maybe some air conditioning might help you feel a little better. Can you believe this kind of heat in the middle of March?”
She only shook her head as she opened the door and got out.
Bo ran ahead to unlock the doors and crank it up, making sure the air was on. After loading the car and strapping it down, he knocked on her window, and waited for her to open it. “I’m going to run into Walmart to grab something to drink. You want a Coke or Pepsi or something?”
“Pepsi would be good. With cherry if they have it.” She reached for her purse.
“No, I’ve got it. I’ll be right back.”
The tears had stopped, but she still looked weary. Hopefully the sugar and caffeine would help. He wondered what had happened to her husband and how long ago it had been but knew better than to ask. He looked over his shoulder at the woman one last time before heading into the store. What could he do to ease her pain right now?