Excerpt Garden of Dreams

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JD clenched his eyes closed and groaned. Lord, he ached. He thought he’d given up drinking. He didn’t have a masochistic bone in his body, and he had an aversion to pain. Drinking led to pain; ergo, he didn’t drink. But he still ached.

His head felt muggy. He heard voices, but he didn’t feel inclined to tune them in. If he didn’t think too hard, maybe he could drift back to sleep again. He could count line numbers in the banking program. That usually worked, if he didn’t get caught in a particularly sticky loop command. But he couldn’t remember what line he was on.

The voices jogged other memories. He winced and tried forgetting, but the memory slashed a fresh gash across his brain, and the wound still bled. How could Uncle Harry do this to him? He still couldn’t believe it. Maybe he didn’t trust people much, but Uncle Harry? Harry had been closer than a father to him. There was something wrong with this picture, only he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Finger. Fingers. On his forehead. Cool ones. Smooth and slender. JD instantly jerked back from whatever world he drifted in. The voice that spoke over his head had no resemblance whatsoever to Harry’s.

“He’s not feverish. The doctor said he’d come around soon. Go ahead and finish your hamburger. He’ll be all right.”

JD didn’t think so. He thought he might die first. Imps of hell pounded sledgehammers in his brain, and now that he’d been dragged back to consciousness, he realized his foot throbbed and ached as if he’d pulled it off and stuck it back on wrong. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d hurt worse. Maybe that time when the horse threw him… Or the day he slammed the bike into a tree. But that had been a long while ago. He was too old for those stunts now. Remembering the son he hadn’t known he had, he groaned. Entirely too damned old.

The cool fingers slipped away, but he sensed their owner hesitating beside him. He didn’t suppose he’d see the face of an angel if he opened his eyes. His luck didn’t run that way. But a she-devil might be just up his alley.

Wincing against the pain of movement, JD squinted into the dim light of the room. The slender figure outlined against the glare through the window blinds reminded him of someone, or something, but he didn’t strain his brain remembering.

“Awake?” she asked quietly, stepping farther away, almost out of his sight.

He tried nodding and realized the mistake at once. He closed his eyes again. “Jackie?”

“He’s wolfing down a pound of hamburger right now. I’d say he’s fine. Can I get you something to drink? The doctor said you shouldn’t eat anything just yet.”

He thought he heard a trace of amusement in a voice almost as slender as the figure he’d seen. Or could voices be slender? Thin? Tinkly? He concentrated on the words rather than the sound.

He definitely didn’t want to eat anything. He didn’t particularly want to sit up either, but his mouth felt like the inside of a toaster. “Beer?” he asked cautiously.

“Not likely. This is a dry county. How about Coke?”

He grimaced and regretted the effort. “Water.”

JD had managed a semisitting position by the time Jackie bounded in with a tall glass of ice water. The mysterious voice had evidently closed the window blinds, and he could open his eyes a little better. He still couldn’t focus on Jackie without narrowing them. “You all right?” he asked gruffly. He hadn’t yet acclimated himself to this tall young man who claimed him as father. He’d certainly set a hell of an example so far. Lack of paternal behavior must be another of those genetic flaws he’d inherited.

“I’m fine,” the boy acknowledged. “It’s you they sent spinning off the road. The bike’s dented, but the engine still starts. I don’t know about the computers, though.”

The computers. Oh, shit. JD sipped the water and nearly gagged. Tap water. Or worse. But he was too thirsty to argue. He drank some more and tried to orient himself. The truck had died on a road to nowhere. He’d shifted to neutral and had started climbing out to help Jackie push. He couldn’t remember any more than that. He squinted back at the boy.

“What the devil happened?”

“Some clown pulled out and rammed right into us, sent the truck flying. I’ve been trying to persuade Miss Toon not to call the cops.” He lowered his voice. “I used some of the cash in your wallet for the doctor and told them your name is John Smith. Was that okay?”

Oh, shit. Oh, double shit. JD gritted his teeth and leaned back against a surprisingly comfortable pillow. He wasn’t in a bed. He’d gathered that much. His elbow poked against a couch back. A man could get used to a couch as soft as this one. Even his legs fit on it without coming off the other side. Which was a good thing, he decided, peering blearily at his feet. The damned arms of the couch must be a foot high. He blinked as he looked at his feet again. Instead of seeing the black square- toed boots he favored, he saw a bundle of white bandages. Oh, shit.

“What’s wrong with my foot?”

“Cracked a bone when it hit the gearshift, apparently. Doctor said he couldn’t do much for it but keep it wrapped so you couldn’t bang it around more. You’re supposed to stay off it, though.”

Shit. Horse manure. Chicken droppings and cow flop. He couldn’t think of a word bad enough. He sipped the nasty water again and wished for whiskey. Maybe he should take up drinking again. It couldn’t make his life any worse than it had become this last month or so.

“Where are we?” JD calculated how much cash he’d brought with him. Would they trace credit card receipts? Bank card transactions? He couldn’t imagine Uncle Harry or his cohorts being that smart, but he sure as hell didn’t like taking chances when the odds were against him. And then he remembered Nancy and the police. Double damn hell.

“Just across the lakes. Miss Toon saw the accident and took you to the clinic. They don’t have hospital beds or anything there, and I told them you didn’t have insurance, so she brought us back here until you could wake up and decide what you want to do.”

“Good thinking.” He reassured the anxious boy while his brain whirled. Miss Toon must be the slender shadow he’d seen when he woke up. The image of spiky white-blond hair surrounding a petite face of sharp bones and huge green eyes came to him, but he couldn’t place it. He and Miss Toon needed to talk. Calling the cops wasn’t such a hot idea at all.

He could do surface charm well enough. It was relationships he bungled. He didn’t want a relationship with Miss Toon. He just needed her temporary cooperation. Maybe charm would work. “Go get Miss Toon.”

Jackie disappeared, and a moment later JD caught the fresh scent of some flowery fragrance. It made him aware of his own ripe aroma. Rubbing his eyes, he focused on the woman drifting on the edge of his vision. He wanted to yell at her to get over where he could see her, but in his experience women frequently didn’t respond well to orders. They were a mysterious gender he’d avoided whenever possible. Obviously, if Jackie were any indication, he hadn’t avoided them enough.

Although his head ached like hell, he tried reason and politeness. “Miss Toon?” His voice croaked, and he took another sip of water.

“I’m here, Mr. Smith. How does your head feel? You’ve got a rather nasty cut there.”

Well, that explained something, anyway. Gingerly, JD explored the bandage taped across his forehead. “Jackie tells me we have you to thank for rescuing us. It’s not every day someone goes out of their way for strangers. I appreciate it.”

“You’re quite welcome, but anyone would have done it. I couldn’t leave you out in a bean field. Your brother tells me we can’t reach your father. Is there anyone else I can notify? Someone must be getting worried by now.”

“Brother?” JD squinted up at the silhouette hovering somewhere behind his left elbow. What in hell was she talking about? He wished he could get his head in focus. The doctor must have given him something for the pain. “We’re traveling,” he managed to get out. “There’s no one expecting us. What time is it? Do we have time to find a motel?”

She drifted closer and took the glass he’d emptied. “It’s almost nine, and you’re in no condition for driving, even if the truck is, which I doubt. And the next motel with any chance of a vacancy this time of year is about fifty miles down the road. I told the sheriff I’d keep you here for the night. He said he’d talk: to you in the morning.”

“Crap!” He didn’t realize he’d roared the word until Tinker- bell stepped backward, away from him. He considered apologizing, but “Damn it to hell” came out instead.

“My feelings exactly, Mr. Smith,” she said dryly. “It’s been one of those days. I’d offer you some ice cream, but it’s melted all over the rug of my car. It blends well with the blood. But my aunt wouldn’t like it if I offered any less than my full hospitality. May I fix you some soup, perhaps?”

He damned well didn’t want soup. The ceiling fan whirling lazily over his head created something of a humid breeze, but it sure as hell didn’t cool things off any. Hadn’t they heard of air-conditioning out here? JD felt his shirt sticking to his back. That ice cream would have tasted good right about now. “I’ll pay for your rug,” he grunted. He had too many things to think of at once, and his head just wasn’t up to it. “Just bring me some more water, please.”

“How about iced tea? And perhaps some cheese and crackers? They’re not too heavy. Maybe they’ll stay down.”

He hadn’t had cheese and crackers in years, not unless it was goat cheese on fancy rye crackers of some sort at one of those parties Jimmy had insisted he attend. Somehow, JD knew Tinkerbell didn’t mean goat cheese on rye. Soda crackers and Velveeta would suit him nicely right now. He nodded.

He kept his eyes closed and pretended the breeze from the fan was cool as she drifted away again. He didn’t hear her coming or going, but he could catch her flowery scent as she passed. The kitchen must be nearby. He could hear her talking to Jackie. She talked with the kid much more easily than she did with him. Of course, Jackie probably didn’t swear at her.

Jackie came back with the tray, and JD almost felt disappointment. He didn’t waste time puzzling on that. He glanced at the boy’s pale, wary face and decided he’d better sit up and pretend he wasn’t dying. Learning the responsibilities of fatherhood at his age and in this condition seemed pretty ludicrous, especially after thirty-two years of doing what he damned well pleased.

Just throwing his foot over the edge of the couch warned he would die sooner than later if he tried that again. Gritting his teeth, JD propped the bandaged foot on a convenient coffee table and sat up against the back of the couch. It had a good high back, one a man could feel comfortable with. The seat sank down deep so he could sprawl, and he sighed with relief once his foot settled. He sipped the iced tea and decided Miss Toon was right. He definitely preferred this over water.

“What are we going to do about the sheriff?” the boy whispered.

“Why does she think you’re my brother?” JD whispered back.

The kid shrugged. “Heck if I know. You don’t look much like a father, I guess.”

If his head didn’t hurt so damned much, that thought might make him laugh. Ever since he’d discovered he had a fifteen- year-old son, he’d felt like Methuselah. “All right, we’ll just let her think that. You’re my brother, Jackie Smith. A hick sheriff doesn’t need to know more.”

Jackie nodded uncertainly. “I guess. She’s kind of nice. She teaches at the high school here and knows all about Monster House.”

And probably disapproved of the video game thoroughly, but JD didn’t add that. “Well, we wouldn’t want her mixed up in all this then. We’ll talk to the sheriff in the morning and be on our way. She won’t ever know.”

The boy squirmed uncomfortably. “I don’t know about that. The engine died before the truck got hit. The whole thing’s in pretty bad shape now. And the doctor said you should stay off that foot. That’s your gas-pedal foot. I don’t see how we can go anywhere.”

“What about the Harley?” JD demanded.

“What about the computers?” Jackie asked.

Stalemate. They couldn’t haul computers on a Harley. He couldn’t hold the blamed bike up with one foot either. Not for long, anyway. “All right. Send Miss Toon back in here. I’ll see what we can do.”

He was too tired to think. If it hadn’t been for Uncle Harry and Nancy, he could just catch a ride to the nearest dealership and buy a new truck. But he couldn’t let either of those two connivers know where he and Jackie were yet. Maybe this impulsive jaunt across middle America hadn’t been such an intelligent idea, but it was all he’d thought of when the walls started crumbling around him. It was what he’d always done when things turned bad and he could trust only himself. In his eagerness to escape, he’d promised Jackie the ocean, but maybe the kid would settle for those lakes. Maybe.

The pixie drifted in again. Jackie had turned a light on, and this time JD could see trim, suntanned legs running up into hideous wide-legged denim shorts that carried up past her hips into a bib over her breasts. If she had breasts, that is. A man couldn’t tell beneath all those denim pockets. Bib overalls, for crying out loud. He really had landed in the outback of nowhere.

But then JD’s gaze reached her face, and he figured the blow to his head had smacked him into another dimension. Wide green eyes filled the area above sharp, high cheekbones. If it weren’t for the pouty pink lips, he’d vote her as best model for one of those velvet paintings of wide-eyed waifs. Of course, those paintings didn’t have spiky white-blond hair. Tinkerbell did. And she was a schoolteacher? They didn’t make schoolteachers like that when he was kid, or he’d have gone to school a little more often.

“If you’re tired, I thought Jackie might help you into Aunt Hattie’s room. It’s on this floor, so you won’t have to climb stairs.”

She spoke with such soft diffidence that he scarcely heard her. How could a schoolteacher keep a roomful of teenagers in order when she talked like that? JD ran his fingers through his hair and winced as they came in contact with his throbbing head. A bed sounded incredibly good right about now.

“I don’t mean to impose,” he answered stiffly. “I don’t want to put your aunt out of her bed.” Miss Toon might look like an alien, but he felt like one. He’d never lived in the country, never had an aunt of any sort, had never relied on the kindness of strangers. He’d been insane to cross the country in that old pickup, but he hadn’t wanted Harry and Nancy tracing airplane tickets. Damn. He still couldn’t believe Harry.

The pouty lips smiled shyly. “I don’t think she’d mind. She’s over in Hopkinsville.”

JD didn’t know where or what Hopkinsville was and didn’t bother asking. “If you’re sure she won’t mind,” he agreed wearily. He hadn’t the strength left for arguing.

“I’m sure she won’t,” she answered with a hint of amusement. “Shall I call Jackie? I thought he might like a cot in the room with you, but I can make a place for him upstairs, if you’d prefer.”

“I don’t want to trouble you. You’d best leave him with me.” Tilting his head, JD looked at her long and hard, drinking her in as if she were the tall, cool beer he needed. He couldn’t fit all the pieces together. The hick clothes, the punk hair, the shy voice.

She retreated from him even as he stared. “It’s no trouble at all. I’ve got plenty of room.” She slipped away before he could say anything else.

As she left, JD contemplated with bemusement the new ache she’d aroused, the one forming a hard lump behind his zipper. He didn’t think this was a particularly appropriate time to end his jinx with women. But his rebellious body had never had a lick of sense.

Great. Just great. He groaned, leaning his pounding head against the pillow as he considered his new predicament. He’d stolen his own program and computers, practically kidnapped a kid he didn’t know to keep the kid’s stepfather from killing him, and now his only means of transportation lay in a cornfield—while he sat here with a broken foot and a hard-on for a woman who looked like Tinkerbell.

Wasn’t life just a bowl of cherries?

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