“No!” Darcy Lewis exclaimed, kicking the steering consul above her feet for the third time in an hour. The AC only coughed, spewing out stale, dry air. Even with both the windows rolled down, it was boiling inside the car. Beneath her, the engine gave a suspicious rattling sound.
“No, no, no!” Despite Darcy’s pleas, Mew Mew began to slow. Black smoke spewed from beneath the hood. “Oh, you poor thing.” Darcy wasn’t sure if she was talking about the car or herself. She barely managed to pull onto the shoulder of the road before the engine gave one last gasp and died completely.
Darcy patted the wheel consolingly. It was like comforting an old friend. Mew Mew was a parting gift from Thor, one of Darcy’s closest friends. It had been his car up until a few days ago. Darcy had many fond memories of Mew Mew. She, Thor and his girlfriend Jane (Darcy’s best friend) had driven almost everywhere in it: campfires, road trips, and late night drive-throughs among many other destinations.
Mew Mew got old, however, so Thor had bought a newer model two years ago. Mew Mew had been sitting in his garage collecting dust ever since. Thor had even been considering scrapping the car, much to Darcy’s horror. Then Darcy had shown up on his doorstep looking for a getaway vehicle and now Mew Mew was her’s.
Now here Darcy was, stranded on a desert road with not so much as a spare tire. Not that a spare tire would help whatever was wrong with the engine.“It’s not your fault girl,” Darcy soothed. “You did your best.” Really, Darcy ought to have seen it coming with how old the car was. Especially given how shittily her year had been going.
When Darcy pulled her phone out of her back pocket, she was dismayed to find not a hint of cell service.
Darcy climbed out of the car, staring down either side of the road. The sun beat down on her shoulders. There wasn’t another car in sight, or much of anything for the matter, besides a few cacti. Darcy clamored back into the car. She refused to cry. She hadn’t survived as much as she had just to break down over a little car trouble.
Darcy leaned back in her seat and stared at herself in the rearview mirror. She was as thin and tired as a ghost. A week of sleeping in the back of a car and surviving off of gas station food would do that to a person. She probably smelled like sweat and air freshener. Trucker showers weren’t exactly the height of luxury. Her hair was practically a lost cause.
“We’ll wait for a car to come,” Darcy murmured to Mew Mew, knowing it would take a while. She was in the middle of the Nevada desert, away from booming Vegas and its drought-stricken burbs. Here it was just empty road, stretching on for miles.
As minute after minute passed, Darcy began to worry. She’d been hoping that a family on vacation would drive past and give her a ride to civilization, but nobody came. She popped open all four doors just so she didn’t feel like she was suffocating in the heat. Just when Darcy thought she’d boil to death, the distant sound of an engine sent her scrambling out of the car.
As she waved frantically at the approaching car, Darcy briefly considered the fact that she was a woman alone in the middle of nowhere, flagging down a stranger. In a floral romper that didn’t hide much of the girls, nonetheless. In Darcy’s defense, it was summer in Nevada.
Checking that her lucky taser was still in its place on the passenger seat, Darcy relaxed a little. After everything she’d gone through, she knew better than to travel without a weapon. She’d also attended several of her friend Nat’s self-defense classes.
The car came flying down the road, kicking up dust in its wake. It was a fairly nice car, promising air conditioning and perhaps reclinable seats. Darcy would have preferred it was a minivan full of children in front of which she couldn’t get murdered, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
The light of the windshield shone brightly in Darcy’s eyes as the car barreled toward… and then right past her.
Darcy’s mouth dropped open. “Hey!” She yelled after the departing vehicle. “I’m in the middle of nowhere, here! Come back you bastard!” It was no use. The vehicle was gone. Darcy slumped against the car door, then yelped when the hot metal singed her skin. She could not get back inside it. She’d sweat to death before another car came along.
It was time to stop waiting around and start taking action. Hadn’t Darcy seen a ‘gas station ahead sign’ a few miles back? There had to be one somewhere up the road. Or, at the very least, a cell tower from which she could call a tow truck.
Resolving herself to the necessity, Darcy slathered herself up in sunscreen and locked the car doors behind her. There was no telling how long she’d be walking and there was no need to turn into a lobster while she did it. Darcy hadn’t made it through years in the sunbelt without burning to give it all up now.
The walk seemed to stretch on forever. Heat glimmered at Darcy off the asphalt of a horizon that never seemed to draw any nearer. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She realized too late that she’d left her water bottle in the car and had been walking for far too long to go back for it. It would be boring if it weren’t so exhausting. Darcy at least had the presence of mind to write down the mile marker Mew Mew was parked at so she could tell the tow truck where to go.
Finally, in the distance, Darcy spotted an outcropping of buildings that she assumed was a rest stop. Ignoring the cramping in her legs, she picked up the pace. The gas station Darcy had seen was getting closer with every step. At least she wasn’t sweating anymore, though oddly the heat hadn’t lessened.
As she got closer, Darcy could see that there was a mechanic’s garage attached to the gas station. Thank the Gods . A few hundred feet away, behind a tall stucco fence, Darcy could see the upper stories of a house.
Breathing weakly, Darcy made her way up to the gas station door. Relief washed over her as she opened the door and was hit with a wave of AC. It felt like heaven. Darcy cleared her parched throat. The first thing she was doing was buying herself a water bottle. Maybe five.
The bell above the door chimed noisily and the cashier looked up at Darcy as she stepped inside. Darcy caught her breath as the man smiled at her. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting from the clerk, but it sure wasn’t eyes bluer than the desert sky attached to over six feet of pure muscle.
“Afternoon,” the man greeted. He spoke in a Northern dialect that Darcy couldn’t quite place, though it definitely wasn’t local. Darcy stood partway through the door, staring at him stupidly. She knew it was rude, but her head felt like it was full of cotton.
The clerk scanned Darcy again, frowning this time. When he stood up, Darcy could see that his name tag read ‘Steve’. He looks like a Steve. Very all American, Darcy thought. “Are you alright, miss?”
Darcy nodded, taking a shaky step into the store. “My car broke down a few miles back. I’m just a bit out of breath from the walk.” Out of breath and light headed. Now that she’d stopped walking, Darcy’s calves were starting to seize. She must be dehydrated. Walking that distance wouldn’t cause this level of strain otherwise.
Steve set down the book he’d been reading, looking concerned. Darcy realized with some mixture of admiration and amusement that it was Grapes of Wrath. Was that his idea of light reading? “That’s happened to a few folks before,” Steve said. “A few miles you said? Are you sure you’re okay? Maybe you should sit down.”
Darcy looked around the small convenience store. There was nowhere to sit beside the chair behind the counter. Seemingly realizing this, Steve sprang up out of his chair. “You can borrow mine, miss.” Oh lord, he was too sweet to handle.
Darcy waved him back down. He was as clean cut as he looked. If he had a Southern drawl, Darcy would peg him for a farmer’s kid. “Easy, dude. I appreciate the offer, but I’ll survive. I saw a mechanic shop next door. I don’t suppose they tow?”
“Of course,” Steve said. He was still hovering awkwardly in his seat, ready to give it up to Darcy at any moment. Darcy walked toward the row of refrigerators. They were the old kind, pastel in color and rounded at the corners. She grabbed a bottle of aspirin along the way. Her head had started to pound.
“My boyfriend is the mechanic here. He’s in the shower right now, but when he gets back he’ll tow your car out here and take a look.” He’s gay , Darcy realized, with no small amount of disappointment. Or at least taken. It was just her luck, really. She took a long drag of the water bottle and by the time she got it to the counter, it was empty.
In Darcy’s haste, some of the water had soaked the front of her (already damp) top. Steve, either because he truly was a gentleman or because he couldn’t care less what Darcy was packing, didn’t glance below her jaw even once. Darcy set the empty bottle on the counter with shaky hands.
“I would appreciate that.” Darcy fumbled for her wallet with fingers that wouldn’t seem to work. Gods, she was exhausted. “I’ll just wait… just wait… out here.” Before Darcy knew it, she was slumped against the counter.
Steve jumped over the barrier in an instant, catching her deftly. His skin was cool against her own and Darcy sighed dazedly. Steve cursed quietly to himself and Darcy got the feeling it wasn’t an indulgence he allowed himself often.
Steve placed a cold hand against Darcy’s forehead. “You’re burning up.” Darcy tried to tell him everything was fine, but the words were hard to get out. “Heat exhaustion, probably. I should have realized earlier.”
Darcy shook her head at the handsome stranger. It wasn’t his fault that she got herself stranded in the desert and collapsed into his arms. His very unavailable arms. “What’s your name, Miss?”
“Darcy Lewis,” Darcy slurred.
“That’s a nice name.” Steve shifted his stance so that he could swing Darcy’s arm over his shoulder. When it became clear that wasn’t going to work, he simply swept Darcy into his arms. It was like a romance novel, except he was probably gay and Darcy was pretty sure her head was going to explode.
Steve began to walk toward the back door. “Come on, Darcy, you need to lie down. I’ll take you to my house.” Even in her delirium, Darcy tensed a little at this.
“What if you try and murder serial me? I mean serial murder me?” She hadn’t even brought her taser. Instead of laughing at Darcy’s stumble, Steve only looked more concerned.
“Darcy, you need medical care. You’re already stranded in the middle of nowhere without a car. If I wanted to hurt you or murder you, I would have done it already.” Darcy nodded slowly at this. It made sense. Still, she leveled a warning gaze at Steve as he carried her out the door and toward the house.
“If you murder and cannibalize me, there will be a Netflix documentary about you! And it will make you look really, really creepy.” Finally, Steve chuckled, though his arms around her were still tight.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Somehow, Steve managed to maneuver open the gate and the front door while still holding Darcy. The gate had an electronic keypad and there were security cameras on the porch and several deadbolts on the door.
Either Steve and his boyfriend were actually serial killers, or they just valued their security a lot. Darcy couldn’t say she blamed them.
As soon as the door opened, a tiny ball of fur came running up to Steve and started winding through his legs. Darcy cooed at the cat delightedly. Its patterning made it look like a bowl of Rocky Road ice cream. “Bucky!” Steve called into the depths of the house.
There was a moment of silence before Bucky, who Darcy presumed was Steve’s boyfriend, yelled back. “Yeah, Stevie?”
“Are you still in the shower?” Miraculously, Steve managed to maneuver his way around the affectionate cat without tripping or dropping Darcy.
“Just got out, why?” Darcy could hear things clattering against a countertop.
“We have company.” The clattering stopped. “The friendly kind. Come down when you get a moment.” Bucky yelled an affirmation and the clattering resumed. Darcy wondered what ‘unfriendly’ visitors these men had dealt with in the past.
Steve carried Darcy toward a room but paused outside the door. “Would you be more comfortable in the guest bed or--” Darcy shook her head immediately. Sleeping in a stranger’s bed, even while she was ill, even if it was just a guest bed, felt like a definite overstep. She already felt uncomfortable enough.
“Can I just lay on the couch?” Darcy asked hopefully. Steve nodded reluctantly.
“If that’s how you’d be most comfortable.” He looked like he’d been about to offer her the entire house if she wanted it. Darcy didn’t think men like this existed. Outside of Thor, at least.
The couch was a massive, leather sectional that Darcy sunk into with a happy sigh as soon as Steve set her on it. It was the comfiest sofa she had ever been on. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get some water and a cold cloth.”
Steve hurried out of the room like he was worried Darcy would die in his absence. Darcy chuckled weakly. He was about as calm a caretaker as Jane was. A moment after Steve left, a tiny ball of fur leaped onto Darcy's chest and began to knead at her romper.
“Careful,” Darcy chuckled, as tiny claws skirted her collar bone. “I don’t have fur to protect my skin like you do.” After a moment, the cat curled up against Darcy's chest and began to purr.
Darcy petted the creature weakly behind the ears. “Dutch,” a raspy voice scolded from behind her. “Don’t scratch the lady.” Darcy crammed her neck backward and found herself staring up at another gorgeous man.
His eyes bore into her like blue fire and his dark hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail from his face. One of his arms was missing. He had a prosthetic one, possibly bionic, in its place. This must be Bucky. “Hi,” Darcy whispered.
Bucky said nothing. He watched her suspiciously. Not to be caught staring at his arm or his broodingly handsome face, Darcy looked back down at the cat, Dutch, apparently. “How old is he?”
“She’s six. Dutch is short for Dutchess.”
Darcy scratched the cat under the chin and received a sandpapery kiss for her troubles. “She’s small for six.”
“She was the runt of the litter,” Bucky said simply. He seemed to be a man of few words. At least around strangers.
“You must be wondering why I’m in your house, huh? Funny story. I was in your gas station, just feeling a bit tired” Darcy explained. “Steve is being nice, so he offered me a place to rest, but I’m okay really. I’ll be gone before you know it.”
“You’re more than ‘a bit tired.” Steve had re-emerged with a handful of damp cloths and a glass of ice water. He turned to Bucky. “She has heat exhaustion. Her car broke down so she had to walk here. She practically collapsed in the store.”
“Why didn’t you call a tow?” Bucky asked, not unkindly, as Steve helped Darcy sit up to drink. Darcy glared at him and mumbled into the cup, “because there’s no cellular out here, grumpy. My name is Darcy, by the way. Since you didn’t bother to ask.”
A surprised guaff left Steve. Bucky raised an eyebrow. “How far did you walk, Darcy ?”
“My car’s at mile marker 132.” At this, both Steve and Bucky seemed surprised. It was the first glimpse of actual emotion she had seen out of the later.
“That’s a long walk, Darcy. No wonder you’re suffering from the heat.” Satisfied that she’d drunk enough water, Steve let Darcy return to the soft couch. When he put a cool cloth over her forehead, Darcy actually moaned.
Shifting awkwardly, Steve took a step back. “You were pretty out of it a few minutes ago. You nearly fainted. I should call a doctor.
Darcy tensed, opening her eyes from where they had drifted shut. “No doctors, please.” Steve and Bucky traded looks.
Darcy reached out and grasped Bucky’s metal hand. It was stupid since he seemed to dislike her, but he was the only one in reach. He flinched for a moment, then looked down at where their limbs met in shock.“I’ll be okay. Pinky promise.”
After staring her down for a moment, Bucky nodded slowly. When Darcy released his hand, he shoved it abruptly back into his pocket. Had she not been completely out of it, Darcy would have been hurt. Which was stupid. Why did she care if this near stranger didn’t want her touch?
“Alright. I’ll hold off for now, but if your condition gets any worse, I’m calling a doctor.” Steve’s tone was stern and Darcy could almost picture a ‘young lady’ tacked on at the end. She shivered.
“Okie dokie.” Darcy let her eyes close again. Dutch was still purring away happily on top of her. Before she knew it, Darcy was asleep.
When Darcy woke, the cat was gone, but Steve was still sitting by her side. He had what Darcy thought was a sketchbook cradled in his lap and he was staring down at it intently. Darcy found that her mind was clear and the cloth felt uncomfortably sticky against her skin.
Steve looked over at her as Darcy sat up slowly. “How are you feeling?” Darcy wrapped her arms around herself, feeling embarrassed.
“Much better, thank you. How long have I been asleep?” Darcy realized with horror that it was dark outside. At least she hadn’t woken up chained in the basement.
“About six hours. Bucky towed your car here.”
Darcy’s breath left her in a shocked huff. “Six hours? I’m so sorry for crashing on your couch and for falling asleep. Shit, I didn’t even pay you for the water bottle!” Steve held up a hand to calm her, smiling gently.
“It’s alright, Miss Lewis. I’m just glad you’re okay. The water is on us.” Darcy brushed her sweat-damp hair back from her forehead. She felt disgusting, but she wasn’t about to ask to shower in Steve and Bucky’s house. They’d been kind enough to her already.
“Thank you, and please, just Darcy. Is Bucky around? I’d like to thank him too.” Even though the best thanks Darcy could give him was probably just to get gone sooner rather than later.
“He’s in the garage. Probably taking a look at your car. He should be able to tell you what’s wrong with it by now.” Steve helped Darcy to her feet, only letting go when he’d assured himself that she could walk on her own without falling. Darcy assured him that she really did feel much better.
As they walked into the garage attached to the store, Darcy saw Bucky’s boots sticking out from underneath a lofted car. It looked vintage, a cherry red Ford straight out of the 40s. Darcy wondered if it was a commission or a pet project. To its left was Mew Mew.
At the sound of the approaching footsteps, he slid out from underneath the car. Darcy caught her breath at the sight of him again. He looked even more dashing with grease smeared across his cheek. Which was ridiculous, because he was even more off limits than Steve.
“How is Mew Mew?” Darcy asked, anxiously. Bucky gave her a blank look.
“Lady, I speak five languages and that’s not any of them.” Five languages, huh? Darcy wondered why. She barely spoke one herself.
“Well, gentleman,” Darcy said hotly. If he refused to call her by her actual name, she’d return the favor. “It’s Old Norse. Well, sort of anyway. My friend Thor named her something in Norse and I can’t pronounce it. Mew Mew is as close as I get.”
“Well, Mew Mew,” Darcy could have sworn she saw Bucky’s lips twitch and counted it as a small victory, “has a cracked cylinder head. You were leaking coolant all over the place. Your engine overheated because of it, and that’s why your car broke down.”
He may as well have been talking Greek, but Darcy nodded along politely. She glanced at Mew Mew again. A cracked-whatever sounded pricey. “What’s the damage?”
“It’ll set you back around $700.” Darcy’s chest seized. She didn’t have that kind of cash lying around. Most of her money was still tied up in Alex’s bank account, which she’d had no control over even when they were together. She couldn’t risk accessing it now because she had to stay off the grid. Even her phone was a burner.
What Darcy was living off of right now was the money from pawning her old phone and selling the watch she’d nabbed from her ex’s nightstand on her way out of their apartment. It was only supposed to last her until she could settle down and get a job, but Darcy wanted to get as far away from New Mexico as possible first.
Darcy was down to a couple hundred bucks, which not only wouldn’t cover it, but would also leave her with nothing. She was so caught up in her panic, Darcy almost didn't see Steve approach. Immediately reading the panic on Darcy’s face, Steve asked: “Buck, how much does the part cost?”
“About $500 bucks. Be cheaper if it was aluminum, but the car is old so I need an iron one.” Steve put a consoling hand on Darcy’s shoulder.
“How about we just charge you for the parts? I don’t want to leave you stranded.” It was so sweet of him that Darcy nearly cried. It only made the fact that she didn’t have $500 even more humiliating. She was almost 30 years old and couldn’t scrape together half a grand.
Darcy had been so careful with her savings before she met Alex. Retirement fund, rainy day fund, CDS, stocks, even. Lewis women were nothing if not thrifty.
Working in Jane’s lab didn’t pay the best, but Darcy loved it too much to quit. Plus, she had a poli-sci degree if she ever wanted to go into something more lucrative like campaign management. But of course, nothing so high profile was a possibility now.
Then she’d been stupid enough to merge her accounts with her ex and he’d cut Darcy’s finances off at the knees. Now I’m too afraid to use my own bank account. “I don’t have the money at the moment, but I can have someone wire it to me.” Even as she said it, Darcy began to doubt herself.
Of course, Jane or Thor would send her the money in a heartbeat if she asked. As would Nat and several other of Darcy’s friends. But could a wire be traced? Venmo? Paypal? If anyone could trace such a thing, it was Alex. Darcy couldn’t risk it. Besides, she hadn’t been in contact with anyone since she’d left.
“You don’t look so sure of that,” Bucky said quietly. Once again, Darcy found herself trying not to cry. She wanted to call Jane or her mom, but it was too risky to do either. Her mom didn’t even know what was going on.
Jane had agreed to maintain the elaborate hoax that she and Darcy were on a science trip to Siberia where there was no cell service or internet. Darcy’s mom was too tech-clueless to question it. If Darcy didn’t already feel enough like shit, lying to her mother only made it worse, even if it was to protect her.
“I’m sorry. I- I can work for the money.” Darcy seized on the opportunity immediately. “I’ll work in the gas station or the clinic or whatever. I’ll even clean your house. And you can just substitute the wage for paying back the car.”
The lovers traded uneasy looks. Darcy felt her desperation swell. “Please. You won’t even know I’m here. I’ll sleep in my car. I have enough granola bars and jerky to last me for a week.” If she rationed them, anyway. “I’m a fast learner, I swear it.”
“Darcy, slow down.” Darcy hadn’t even realized she was hyperventilating until Steve’s words forced her to even out her breathing. She reacted to his gentle, but stern tone without having to think. Her shoulders slumped. “We’ll figure something out. Working in the shop is a good idea. Can you cook?” Darcy nodded mutely. “Tell you what, if you cook dinner and do some chores around the house, we’ll throw in room and board.”
Darcy opened her mouth to protest. “That’s not up for debate. We aren’t letting you sleep in a car. Right, Bucky?” Bucky only grunted.
“I’ve been sleeping in my car for a week just fine,” Darcy grumbled. Darcy could tell by the look on both of their faces that it was the wrong thing to say.
“I’m this close to paying off the repairs myself,” Steve joked, but Darcy could tell there was an element of seriousness there. It seemed he was just that kind of man. “But I have a feeling you’d be upset if I did that.”
“Of course I would” Darcy erupted. “I can pay for it myself!”
Steve laughed. “Thought so. So you agree that you’ll stay in the guest bed and eat real, proper food? No sleeping in cars and no beef jerky.” He said the word like it left a foul taste in his mouth. Darcy was a bit offended. She loved beef jerky.
Slowly, reluctantly, Darcy nodded. Working to pay it off was better than charity, and she didn’t exactly love crashing in the backseat of her car. Still, it was a hard agreement to make.
Darcy had a hard time trusting men, especially the charming ones. Past experiences had taught her to be wary of Steve’s type: the type who seemed too good to be true. Yet, there was something about these two, even the coarse Bucky, that made Darcy feel safe.
Steve turned to his boyfriend and Darcy turned away as they had a silent conversation with their eyes. As nice as Steve and Bucky had been, they were still just strangers to Darcy. Nothing had changed. She was still alone in this.
“Are you okay with this, Buck?” Steve whispered. Darcy tensed, ready for Bucky to kick her out. He didn’t seem cruel; he had even seemed worried about Darcy a few times, but he was closed off to her in a way that Steve wasn’t.
Bucky shrugged. Darcy couldn’t discern what he was feeling. His face was carefully blank. “The part will take a week to get here, anyway. I don’t stock the iron ones anymore because all the new cars have aluminum. I wouldn’t feel comfortable turning a dame out on the street, either.”
“Well that settles it,” Steve said cheerily. “Darcy, are you hungry? I grilled earlier. Any allergies or dietary needs?” Darcy shook her head. She was admittedly starving and whatever ‘grilled’ meant sounded like heaven. “Dutch will be pleased. She doesn’t get a lot of visitors.
“After dinner, we should set a schedule,” Darcy insisted, grabbing her bag from the car before following them out of the garage and back toward the house. She planned to ask for a shower as soon as they finished eating. It didn’t feel as weird if she was technically paying rent, at least in some form. Plus, she felt utterly gross.
“Schedule?” Surprisingly, it was Bucky he asked. He held the gate open for Darcy, standing as far from her as possible as she squeezed by. Just great, Darcy thought glumly: Another hot guy who hates me. At least he was willing to talk to her.
“For what my hypothetical wage is per hour, so I don’t short stiff you on time worked. I won’t count any household things because that’s for room and board. Also, I’m paying you the $800 because your time and labor are valuable too. Believe me, I’ve worked all kinds of shitty jobs. I know how much labor is undervalued. Retail, food service you name it and I’ve worked there. One time in college--”
“Darcy,” one faint smirk from Bucky was enough to freeze the words right in Darcy’s mouth and send her heart careening into her throat. “What did Steve say about slowing down?” Steve himself had already vanished inside the house. It was just Bucky and Darcy on the porch.
“To… do that?” Darcy squeaked. For a moment, they held one another’s gaze. Then, like a rubber band snapping back into place, Bucky’s eyes went cold again and he jerked back from Darcy as if that whole conversation had never happened.
Well, Darcy thought, as she watched Bucky disappear into the house. I’m not sure if this is a refuge or a trap. Not like I have a choice, either way. With that ominous thought on her mind, she followed them inside.