DAVID BOPPED his head as he hummed along with the song playing on the radio. He’d found the only noncountry station that existed on this stretch of highway and programmed it on two of his preset stations in case he accidentally deleted it from one of them. One hand was stuck out the window to enjoy the pushback of air at seventy miles per hour while he tapped the beat on his steering wheel with the fingers of the other. As he drove east on US-84, the small town of Clovis, New Mexico rapidly became a speck in his rearview mirror. The day was surprisingly pleasant for early June in the Southwest, the temperature comfortably on the tolerable side of hot. The wind felt wonderful on his scalp as it riffled through his hair, occasionally whipping it across his face and reminding him he needed a haircut. Fluffy clouds floated along in the clear sky, forcing David to squint his eyes against the rays of sunlight that randomly broke through. A brief spate of spring rain had coaxed the local flora out of hibernation, and desert flowers of all varieties provided dots of color on the harsh landscape.
The highway traffic was nonexistent. A quick glance at the radio clock showed he was making good time. David made the drive back and forth to Albuquerque every six months in order to attend a meeting of franchise owners for the general retail store he ran in Lubbock, Texas. It was a five-and-a-half-hour trip one way, but he didn’t mind the drive. Plus, he was watching his pennies. The success of his store meant he pulled in a decent salary, but he didn’t like to splurge on needless luxuries. The biannual conference had gone well, and he’d made some good contacts with manufacturers and suppliers who were looking to expand their product lines into the growing market of West Texas. But he wasn’t much for small talk, and the endless rounds of after-hours socializing had taken their toll on his energy level. He was more than ready to go home and get back to his daily routine.
“David, you’re so booooring,” an old boyfriend had told him. He couldn’t deny the claim, but boring or not, he was content with his drama-free life. He’d left Oklahoma to avoid his father’s not-so-silent condemnation once he’d finally confessed to liking boys more than girls. He hadn’t been sure about staying in Texas after finishing college, but when he was offered the chance to buy into the franchise, he’d jumped on it. David liked the simple, productive life he’d made for himself, and it didn’t particularly bother him that he’d ended up spending much of it alone. The last thing he wanted was anything to disrupt the oasis of calm he’d so painstakingly cultivated around himself.
Keeping a habitual eye out for state troopers as he sped toward the state line, David glanced over at the fries remaining in the greasy bag lying on the passenger’s seat. He reached out to snag a few and almost missed the lonely figure standing on the side of the road, arm extended and thumb raised.
“What the hell?”
He told himself not to stop. That would be really stupid. Who in the hell picked up hitchhikers in this day and age? Though he knew it was a bad idea, he slammed on the brakes, his brand-new pads proving up to the task of slowing him to a stop in less than fifty yards. He shook his head, disgusted with himself, as he pulled over onto the shoulder.
You’re a sweet boy, David, but it’s going to get you into trouble someday.
“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled, annoyed as his mother’s oft-repeated words of caution intruded into his thoughts. He looked into his rearview mirror and watched the figure jog toward his car. A guy, his brain identified. A kid, it clarified a moment later. David turned away from the reflection and groaned.
A perky nose thrust through the passenger’s side window, and a pair of big brown eyes blinked adorably at him. Adorably?
“Hi,” the kid said. His voice was throaty and uncertain, caught on the cusp between lingering youth and full manhood.
“Hey,” David responded. “You need a lift?” Stupid question. He would have been embarrassed, but he forgave himself for the brain glitch as he studied the gorgeous young man standing beside his car.
The kid looked to be about eighteen, no more than nineteen, though the way he was nervously clutching the strap of his small backpack tempted David to revise down his estimate. The kid had neatly trimmed, wavy black hair and was on the short side of tall, his slim, athletic build all too easy to see with the way he was dressed. Cutoff denim shorts rode high on his thighs, and a tight, sleeveless tank top didn’t quite meet the waistband of his shorts, revealing a strip of olive-toned skin. He looked Hispanic. Or maybe he was Apache or Navajo, though they didn’t usually live this far east.
David wondered if the young man was aware of the provocative image he presented, or if, perhaps, that was the point. Shit. Is the kid a hooker? Reassessing his previous opinion from bad idea to fucking bad idea, David realized he was staring at the gap between the kid’s shirt and shorts, hoping to catch another glimpse of that bare midriff. Dragging his gaze upward toward the hopeful face, David tried to distract himself by once again guessing where the kid might hail from. Asian? Mediterranean? None of the kid’s features definitively suggested his ancestry. The only thing David was certain of was his initial appraisal. Adorable.
“Yes. Where are you headed?” The young man’s accent was as nonspecific as the rest of him.
“Lubbock,” David answered, mentally kicking himself as he spoke. He didn’t need this. The best thing he could do would be to tell the kid, sorry, he couldn’t help, and drive off. But his foot stayed stubbornly on the brake when the kid’s fluttering lashes—ridiculously long and a half-shade lighter than the hair on his head—temporarily shielded the eyes silently begging him for assistance. The kid braced his hands on top of the car, the move causing his shirt to ride up, finally revealing a flat, toned stomach. David tightened his grip on the steering wheel as he surreptitiously attempted to adjust the suddenly tight fit of his jeans. After clearing his throat, he asked, “Is that where you want to go?”
“Sure,” the hitchhiker replied. “If that’s where you’re headed.”
It had been a long time since he’d heard that particular tone in a man’s voice, but for a second David could have sworn the kid was flirting with him. His gaze narrowed warily as he studied the kid’s face, but he couldn’t detect anything but innocence in those guileless eyes. Resigning himself to his idiocy, David raked the fingers of his right hand through his hair in frustration as he hit the switch at his left elbow to unlock the car doors. A shy smile was his reward, and he cursed as his jeans shrank even more in the vicinity of his groin. He moved the fries out of the way as the hitchhiker settled his bare, tanned limbs onto the passenger seat. The kid’s legs seemed to go on for miles before ending at a smallish pair of sandaled feet.
“What’s your name?” David asked, pointedly ignoring the temptation of those long legs.
There was the slightest beat of hesitation. “Um, Tim.”
David glanced at his new companion. “Are you sure?” He laughed, attempting to distract himself from the fact there was a hot guy in his car and it had been way too long since he’d last had sex. Telling himself he’d wanted it that way wasn’t helping even a little.
The kid frowned for a moment as though he was unsure of the joke. Suddenly his face cleared and he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Tim Paul.”
David hadn’t shifted out of Drive, so he only had to lift his foot from the brake pedal to set the car in motion. Glancing over his left shoulder to check for traffic, he angled back onto the road. “Nice name. It’s unusual to have two first names, but it’s nice.” Well, that sounded dumb, he groused silently to himself in disgust. “David Conley,” he said by way of introduction. Tim reached out and took hold of his right hand, which had been resting on the gearshift, pumping it up and down firmly in a proper, if overly fervent, handshake. A warm tingle seemed to travel up David’s arm from the spot where their hands met, and he was alarmingly disappointed when the kid let go. David wrapped both hands tightly around the steering wheel, trying to rid himself of the lingering sensation.
“Thank you,” Tim said. “I really appreciate it. I’ve been walking for hours and didn’t think anyone would ever stop.”
David blinked, bemused at the deadpan tone, like Tim was giving him a situation report. He had never been particularly talkative himself, but since he was, in effect, the kid’s host during the remainder of their trip, he figured he should at least make an effort. “Where are you coming from?” From of the corner of his eye, David saw Tim turn his head to gaze out the side window.
The answer was vague, but David didn’t feel he had a right to press, seeing as how they’d just met. “How old are you?” he asked instead, going for a more innocuous, but important, piece of information. Again there was an almost imperceptible pause.
Shit. He was a full twelve years older than his passenger. David tried not to think about it, but he couldn’t stop his brain from doing the math. He tried to dredge up the fuzzy memories of the prelaw class he’d taken in college, back when he’d entertained delusions of becoming an attorney. Mental exhaustion and financial reality had put an end to those dreams, but he did remember a lecture about statutory rape laws and was mildly relieved when he realized Tim was well over the age of consent in Texas. Not that he was planning to do anything with the kid other than drop him off somewhere in Lubbock.
David pointedly ignored his doubting inner voice. He might not end up in jail over this, but the kid was still young and had no business being out hitching rides from strangers. David was just glad he’d found Tim before someone with a lesser sense of ethics picked him up.
Fighting against his natural reticence, he kept the conversation banal, though he tried to work in questions that might lead him to where Tim was really from among mostly one-sided discussions of the weather and the declining state of college basketball. By the time they reached the Texas border, David had learned that Tim had been on the road for a little over a week and had managed to get this far by hitching with a trucker. Some avoidance about the topic led David to the conclusion Tim hadn’t been left in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico by choice. The kid didn’t seem traumatized, however, so David didn’t think—or rather, hoped—he hadn’t been assaulted.
“So you’re from California?”
David had decided he might as well try the direct approach, but he received only a noncommittal “hmm” for his trouble. Whether he’d guessed right or was way off, Tim apparently wasn’t going to be any more forthcoming on the subject. When a growling sound issued from Tim’s stomach, David gave up his attempt at playing detective and pulled off the highway at Farwell. He drove to a local diner he’d stopped at on previous trips back from the conference. Although he was more than ready to get home and sleep in his own bed, he couldn’t blame the kid for needing food. Who knew when he’d last had a decent meal?
“You’ll like this place,” he said as he pulled into a parking space in the lot next to the diner. “They serve up the best hamburgers this side of Austin.”
Tim got out of the car without comment, and David sighed in mild consternation at his lack of reaction to the prospect of delicious greasy food. What kid his age didn’t like hamburgers? David lost track of the idle thought as he followed Tim into the diner, making a conscious effort not to notice the snug fit of the kid’s overly short cutoffs. Forcing his gaze to less dangerous territory, he smiled at the familiar woman standing behind the lunch counter.
“David! Good to see you again.” He hadn’t seen Mabel since last December, but she’d told him once that she prided herself on remembering the name of every repeat customer, no matter how infrequent the visits. She winked at him flirtatiously like she always did, though she was old enough to be his mother. “I see you brought a friend with you?”
He chuckled at her unsubtle nosiness but avoided answering by glancing at his companion. Tim was staring up at the menu board hanging over the counter like it was written in Martian. David was puzzled. There wasn’t anything particularly unusual on offer, just the regular fare of burgers, fries, onion rings, and malts.
“See anything you want? How about the number one combo?” he added after half a minute of uncomfortable silence.
Tim batted long eyelashes at him before nodding. “Yes, that’s fine.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out what amounted to no more than a few dollars and some change. “Is this enough?”
It wasn’t, so over the kid’s protests, David bought him the hamburger, fries, and drink combo, getting the same thing for himself, though he substituted a lemonade for the soft drink. He led the way over to his favorite booth, which was next to the front window and offered a clear view of the highway. The diner catered to people on the go, and it wasn’t long before Mabel was bringing over their order. With a smile and a swish of her broad hips, she left them to their meal. David sipped on his lemonade as he watched Tim inhale his food, starting with the massive burger. He waited until only three fries and bit of soda remained before broaching the subject that had been worrying him for the past two hours.
“Do you have some place to go when we reach Lubbock?” He sighed when Tim merely stared down at the smear of ketchup decorating his nearly empty plate. “Hell, kid. I wouldn’t feel right if I simply let you go off without knowing you’re okay.” Tim refused to look up, but David pressed on, knowing the issue needed to be confronted. “I mean,” he continued as sternly as he could, “you should be home with your folks or in school or something, not traipsing across the country by yourself.”
“Father Paul is dead.”
The sentence was spoken quietly, as though the kid was afraid to say it out loud. David wasn’t sure whether this Father Paul was really Tim’s parent or a priest, but it was clear the man was someone important to him.
“I’m sorry,” he said reflexively. “Um, what about your mom?”
Narrow shoulders answered him with a shrug.
David figured she must be deceased as well, or was otherwise missing in action. Without asking, he guessed there weren’t any other relatives waiting in the wings to give the kid a hand. Sympathy filled him at the thought of Tim being all alone in the world. He knew what that was like. When he’d left home for college, his father had told him in no uncertain terms he would have to make his own way from then on. He’d done it, but it hadn’t been easy. Feeling the kid’s pain made him want to help, but he wasn’t convinced he should get any more involved than he already had. David steeled himself to say what he knew he must.
“I know you’re technically a grown man and all, but even so, I can’t let you wander the streets with nowhere to go. Why don’t I take you to a police station when we reach Lubbock? Surely there’s someone you can call—”
Tim’s reaction was immediate and startling. David left off in midsentence when the kid abruptly jumped to his feet, drawing several stares from the other patrons. He was halfway out of the booth before David’s surprise wore off enough for him to grab a thin wrist.
“Hey, hey! Calm down.”
David held on until Tim acknowledged him with a gaze darkened by some emotion he struggled to name. He glanced nervously at the other people in the diner, hoping no one thought he was some sort of kidnapper or child molester. While the kid had said he was nineteen, it was unlikely the casual onlooker would place him at much over seventeen. Tim’s skimpy outfit called particular attention to the slimness of his frame, and David, who was a slightly overweight six feet, felt like a hulking giant by comparison. A couple of the other patrons stared at him with growing suspicion as he tugged gently at Tim’s arm. The kid might have been a buck forty-five soaking wet, but David quickly became aware that his pulling hadn’t budged Tim so much as an inch. Confusion brushed over his mind, but he set it aside in the face of the more immediate problem.
“Please, sit down.” He didn’t let go until Tim relented and was, once again, seated across from him.
“No police. Please. I don’t want to go to the police.”
Tim spoke in a monotone, but David suspected he was trying desperately to hide his fear. He had no clue why the kid seemed so reluctant to seek help, but his primary concern was making sure he was safe.
You’re a sweet boy, David—
“Shut up, Ma,” he mumbled beneath his breath. Tim looked at him strangely as if he’d heard the cryptic comment, but David knew he had barely been audible to his own ears. “Look, kid,” he pressed, “it really would be the best thing.”
A soft dark curl fell against Tim’s forehead as he vehemently shook his head, his face a study in obstinacy. David sighed in defeat, recognizing that option was effectively closed.
“Okay, no cops.”
Tim instantly relaxed, his body language one of extreme relief as he slumped back onto the cheap faux leather covering the diner’s booths.
“So, what do you want to do?” David asked.
Tim gazed up at him from beneath thick black lashes and wetted his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. Whether the look was intended to be so outrageously suggestive, David couldn’t be sure, but he groaned silently as his wayward body reacted in a shamefully predictable manner.
“Can’t I go home with you?”
Store owner disgraced after dalliance with teenaged runaway. David could see the headline in his mind clear as day. Even though technically the kid was legal, David still felt like a dirty old man when he grew instantly hard at the ostensibly innocent request. He shook his head, determined to kindly but firmly refuse the entreaty, but when hesitant fingers settled lightly on the back of his hand, he felt his resolve vanish faster than a twenty dollar bill in Vegas.