ERIC HANLEY didn’t often talk to a car, but sometimes circumstances called for the practice. He spoke in a soft tone and praised his sister’s baby for climbing the hill without too much trouble. Hill. Who was he kidding? He just lied to this car. It was a mountain, and a steep one at that. He hoped it was the last one until he got to Flagstaff. He realized now that he should have at least looked at a map, but it was a straight shot from Phoenix to Flagstaff. One road, no turns.
Eric’s six-foot-two frame was shoved into his sister’s compact sedan. He felt like he was folded in half. Shannon’s transmission had gone out when she was in Phoenix last month, her mechanic took his sweet time fixing it, and Eric said he would bring the car back when he moved to Flagstaff. He had let Shannon take his truck back up the hill with her. He missed his truck. At least this would be the last day he would have to accordion himself into this car. The moving men had packed his apartment this morning and put all his belongings in storage until he found a house.
Eric had spent the last semester teaching a special physics class at Arizona State University. He liked ASU, but the desert was just not for him. He had been living and teaching in North Carolina for the last five years and felt like he needed a change, and that his sister lived in Arizona had made up his mind. He hadn’t realized how big Arizona was, and he thought that Shannon and he would be closer. When he had been offered a tenured position at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, he’d jumped at the chance. He was looking forward to spending the holidays with his sister in his soon to be hometown.
Flagstaff—thirty-five miles. Finally. He should be there in a half an hour or so. He was always late, no matter what he did… alarms, setting clocks ahead, or people calling him. His sister just expected him late (or told him an earlier time). The clouds that were forming over the mountains concerned him. The forecast called for a couple of inches. It had started to snow as soon as he climbed out of the Verde Valley. The flakes at first were coming down slowly and gently. Now the snow was getting thicker and the wind was starting to blow. At the Stoneman Lake Road exit, there were Department of Public Safety cars, lights flashing, with the officers pointing people to a gravel “chain up” area. What was a chain up area?
He pulled up to the officer and rolled down his window. Eric was stunned by what he saw. The man before him was gorgeous. Mid-twenties, strawberry-blond hair, hazel eyes, and just the right amount of freckles across his nose and cheeks, which were blossoming with color in the cold wind.
“Sir. You need chains to go any farther north.”
“Chains?” It sounded kinky to say it like that to a man in uniform.
“Yes, sir. For your tires. To drive in the snow. Do you have any?”
Eric looked at the man’s coat and saw his nametag said C. Gallagher. “Officer Gallagher, to be honest, I have no idea what they are.”
“Well, then you are going to have to turn around and go back down to Camp Verde and get some, or come back tomorrow after the roads have been plowed.”
“This is my sister’s car and she lives in Flag. Would she have them?”
Officer Gallagher barely kept his eyes from rolling. The people coming up from the valley during the winter set his teeth on edge. He smiled instead and said, “Why don’t you pop the trunk, and I’ll take a look.”
Eric pulled the lever for the trunk and stepped out of the car. He rounded the side just in time to see the officer take a gray plastic box out of the trunk labeled “tire cable chains.” “These need to be installed on the front tires. Take your time. I’ll come back and check on you later.” Eric turned and watched as Officer Gallagher walked away to direct the traffic that was coming down the interstate. Eric shook his head and stood there, not quite knowing what to do. He didn’t even know what chains were, and now he was supposed to install them?
He opened the plastic box, took out the contents, and read the instructions. It didn’t look too hard. The cables needed to be laid out on the backside of the tire. Great. Good thing he had long arms and big hands. The snow was a little bit higher in the back and he had to scoop away the snow to level it out. He was practically lying under the car. He scooted out from underneath and tried to stand. He grasped the door handle on the car for leverage and pulled.
Thank goodness, the hot and hunky cop wasn’t looking in his direction. Eric was still sitting on the ground, and his glove was no longer on his hand. His glove was so wet it had frozen on the outside, hence no grip. He was a scientist, he should know these things. He rolled over so he was on his knees and slowly stood up. The snow was now falling so hard he had to wipe it off his face.
Eric gripped the cables and managed to get the top clasp to snap together. The bottom was a little harder because of the snow. When he had the first one done, he actually did a little jig in celebration. He was not going to let the weather gods spoil the day.
Cameron Gallagher was keeping an eye on the desert rat. He looked like he was getting the hang of putting the cables on. Cameron watched as the man put both hands up in the air and danced a little. He sure did look proud of himself. Too bad he wasn’t done.
Cameron went back to his truck and got his thermos of coffee. It was a good way to break the ice. Here was someone that he wanted to get to know better. His replacement had arrived and he wanted to make sure this guy was on his way before he left. The thermos of hot coffee he had in his car was offered to the weary traveler.
“Thank you. My hands and face feel like they’re frozen.”
“It’s the wind. It’s really blowing today. I see you have the cables on. Let me check them and make sure they’re tight.” He squatted next to the front tire and pulled on the cables. The tensioner still needed to be fastened, and he did that in five minutes for both tires. He stood up and faced the desert-dweller. “You hadn’t set the tensioners. Your celebration was a little premature.”
Eric was startled to hear the officer say that he had watched his dance. Maybe he could blame it on the weather? “Oh, I wasn’t dancing. I was stamping my feet and shaking my arms to get the blood circulating.”
Cameron looked at him in disbelief but did not call him on it. “Okay, you’re all set. Just remember that you can only drive thirty miles an hour or so. Take your time. You’ll be in Flag in about an hour. Do you need to contact anyone?”
“Oh, shit! My sister is probably freaking out. Thanks for reminding me.”
“Go ahead and make your call. I’ll follow you after you start out to make sure you’ll be okay.” He hoped that sounded like what a police officer would do. He had never gone this far for a motorist, but he was attracted to this man and he wanted to extend their time together. He looked at the traveler as he spoke on the phone to his sister. He was tall, had a regular build, black hair and blue eyes. He had the look of an Irishman, and Cameron had always been attracted to that. He looked to be in his thirties. Cameron liked older men. They did not seem to have the angst that his contemporaries had. It seemed like men his age only wanted to get laid every weekend by someone new and then wondered why they were alone. Cameron actually wanted to date one person at a time and find someone to spend his life with.
“Shannon, I’m fine.” Eric looked at the officer standing not two feet away and rolled his eyes at the phone. “I’m at Stoneman Lake Road. About an hour. I have my very own police escort. Okay. I will.” He closed his phone and smiled at the officer. “My sister is a bit of a worrywart. You would think I was twelve instead of thirty-two. I guess I’ll always be her baby brother. I’m Eric, by the way.” He put his hand out and Officer Gallagher shook it.
They looked at each other, their hands lingering just a couple of seconds too long. Both wished they were not wearing gloves. “I’m Cameron. Nice to meet you.” They released each other’s hands and stepped back.
“Sergeant Gallagher! You better get going. They are going to close the road at dark until tomorrow morning,” his replacement came over and told him. “The snowplow is about five miles ahead so you should be good to go.”
“Thanks, Peterson. I’ll see you back at the station once the crews get the road closed. Has the alert gone out to ADOT?”
“Yes, sir. The crew should be here any time. We’ll let one last group go when the snowplow comes back. We should be back in by six or so.”
Eric looked at his watch. It was four-thirty now. They had to stand out in the snow for another hour and a half? He had new respect for the officers up here. “Well, I better get going. I’ve never driven in the snow before.”
“I’ve never driven in the snow. How bad can it be? I can only go thirty miles an hour.”
“Jeez. Okay, you are the last of this group to leave. I’ll follow you into Flagstaff. If you start to skid, steer in the direction your car is pointing, not away. If you start to feel uncomfortable at all with the drive, just pull over, and I’ll take you in the rest of the way.”
“Okay. I will, and thanks. You’ve been really kind to a stranger.” Eric got into the car, started it up, and drove off at ten miles an hour. Cameron chuckled to himself. The next hour was going to be a long one.
Cameron climbed into his police-issue Blazer. He had four-wheel drive and snow tires. He could drive quite a bit faster than thirty, but he wanted to make sure Eric got where he was going. Once he got on the road, he did something he shouldn’t. He put Eric’s license plate in the computer. He knew the car was Eric’s sister’s, but he didn’t expect the name that came up in response to the license search. Shannon Riordon. She was his neighbor down the street, who was quickly becoming a good friend. That was her brother? She’d said he was a physicist and a nerd. The man he met today might be a rocket scientist, but he was definitely not a nerd.