LAURA HAD DREADED THE CLIMB up Smokey Mountain ever since she'd first sighted it, hazy blue in the distance, on her drive northward along the Cabot Trail. Down now into second gear, the overloaded Volkswagen struggled up the fifth switchback. At the harsh squeal of an alarm, her eyes darted to the instrument panel to discover the engine temperature indicator buried deeply into the red.
Oh, no! Please not now!" She groaned, as she tore her eyes from the dashboard tell-tale to search the road ahead. How much further before it levelled out again? Surely she must be close to the summit. But the grey asphalt continued steeply upward as it disappeared around the next curve.
To her right, there was barely enough space for the yellow guardrail posts that stood between the pavement and the edge of the sheer cliff that plunged to the angry Atlantic waves far below. There was no room to pull over. Both hands glued to the steering wheel, she stuck out her bottom lip and blew hard at a strand of blond hair that wavered in her view.
Hunched forward, she resisted an urge to push on the steering wheel to help move the car forward. But the little car kept going and dragged itself up the final few hundred metres to reach the crest and a spot where the road shoulder widened enough for her to stop.
Swiping a hand across her damp forehead, Laura slumped back in the car seat and wished Ray had agreed to come. Ray was good at fixing mechanical things and would know what to do next.
Pity he wasn't as good at understanding her emotions, or being more in tune with what she was thinking. If only he'd open up and talk more. It would be so much easier to sort out the little concerns that popped up -- or the one big one she was finding so worrisome.
All Ray seemed to think about was his work. That was his excuse for not coming -- almost his last words as he hugged her goodbye: "Sweetheart, I'm sorry. The plant is just too busy in July."
Yeah, right, the plant again. It was always the all-important plant. So here she was, Laura Parker -- all by herself with Dakota, stranded on the side of the road in the Nova Scotia wilderness, while her fiancé was managing his plant back in Ottawa.
The last house she remembered seeing was at least five kilometres back along the highway. But it was here that her dumb car had decided to act up -- here in what Grampa would have described as "the last end of nowhere." With a groan she reached for the door handle.
She yanked the release lever as she got out; then hurried to the front of the car and gingerly lifted the hood. Peering in, she was hit by a wave of intense heat and the pungent smell of the diesel engine. What should she look for? She recognized the radiator and the black hoses leading away from it. At least there wasn't any steam spurting out, and the fan was humming away busily. She sighed and wiped a spot of grime off her fingertips as she stared at the maze of mechanical stuff.
"Is everything okay?"
At the first sound of the husky male voice, Laura spun sideways, the small hairs on the back of her neck already bristling. "Who…?"
The voice had come from a man not ten metres from her at the edge of the roadside trees. He stood, hands on his hips, watching her from behind some type of instrument on a yellow tripod.
Why hadn't she noticed him before? Had she been so preoccupied with the car? Careless or what? He was even wearing an orange safety vest with florescent yellow stripes. Then she noticed two more orange-jacketed workers further along the ditch.
"Sorry," he called over, "I didn't mean to frighten you." He shook his head and grinned. "But I figured if you didn't see me here when you stopped, I had to catch your attention somehow."
Edging sideways, Laura glanced toward the car door. Should she make a dash for it? She stared at the man again. He hadn't moved and didn't look menacing. She held her ground.
"You scared the life out of me," she told him in a weak imitation of her stern teacher voice. "My mind was focused on the car. What are you doing out here anyway? I didn't expect someone lurking in the bushes in this wilderness." The words came easier as she calmed her initial panic. It appeared the guy was legitimate and part of a highway work crew.
"Oh, in this job we find ourselves in some out-of-the-way places." He laughed as he made his way up out of the ditch that separated them. "I'm Sandy Campbell. I'm a land surveyor with the Department of Natural Resources. Is there anything we can do to help?"
Help? Did she need help? She tensed again and edged toward the car door. Why hadn't she at least let the dog out when she stopped? Who knows what kind of an unsavoury character the guy might be, and here she was, vulnerable and far from help.
But he looked harmless enough up close. Beneath the mane of wavy golden-brown hair, his suntanned face had an appealing grin, and the devilish twinkle in those hazel eyes might have been a heart stopper under different circumstances.
Never mind the smiling eyes, she mentally rebuked herself, thinking again of Ray back in Ottawa. But this guy did have an easy-going openness about him that helped sooth her rattled nerves. In his friendly voice she detected the accent of a native born Nova Scotian. With some inner sense she found that reassuring.
"No, the car's okay I think, thank you. The engine was overheating coming up the mountain, so I pulled off to let it cool down. It seems fine now." She noticed his eyebrows twitch as he glanced at the car's Ontario license plate.
"That's a hefty load for the steep grade you've just climbed." He gave the packed Volkswagen a cursory once over, pausing to smile at the yellow Lab watching him from the passenger seat. "There's a difference of three hundred metres in elevation coming up Smokey. With that grade it's a hard pull for any car."
"Yes, but we made it." She gave the car a mental thank you.
"Well, it's pretty much all down hill from here to Ingonish. If you have a problem the car can probably coast most of the way."
"Really?" She snapped the hood shut. Hidden behind dark sunglasses, her gaze traveled the length of the lean muscular male body standing on the highway shoulder.
Rough and sturdy, the body matched his face, which also displayed a rugged strength of character. But what was it with the guy? Why did he seem so nervous? The way he acted it was almost like he thought she was a movie star or some famous person. She stifled a grin; maybe the guy had been out here in the woods too long.
He gestured at the car, his voice sounding more confident. "The engine seems to be running okay now. To be on the safe side though, I'd have the radiator coolant checked at a service station in Ingonish."
"Thanks, I will." She forced herself to smile, and then made a move to retreat. She didn't want to be rude, but now that the car was fine, why didn't he just get on with his work? She didn't feel in the mood to chat, even with a good-looking guy.
"I hope you'll spend some time in the Ingonish area," the surveyor stated, making no effort to move. "This is such a scenic part of the Province, with lots of neat things for visitors to see and do."
"Yes, I know. I've been here a number of times." Her right index finger rubbed the diamond ring Ray had given her last Christmas. She shook her head. It was time to get out of here, away from this character. He looked like he was all set for a long conversation.
"Well, I'd better be on my way again," she said, as she got into the car. "Thank you for the offer to help."
"No problem. Glad everything's okay." His hand came up in salute. "Enjoy your vacation here in Cape Breton."
She let out the clutch carefully, so as not to spin gravel and dust in his direction.