Gypsy hit her brakes instinctively and swerved as the small brown rabbit darted across the road in front of her car. Satisfaction and relief at not hitting the creature were short-lived, however, as a sudden and savage jolt informed her that her already battered VW had been rear-ended.
Her head snapped back and then forward, banging into the steering wheel with enough force to give her a brief view of stars in broad daylight. She found herself fighting various laws of motion in an effort to bring the car and herself safely to the side of the road. Her heart lodged in her throat for one flashing instant, because the side of the road was a narrow strip of dirt bordering on a sheer drop. And, Gypsy thought, neither she nor the car had wings.
Sputtering, the VW's engine voiced an unmistakable death rattle and expired as the little blue car with its bright yellow daisy decals lurched onto the strip of dirt. Gypsy heard a more powerful engine rumble into silence behind her. Automatically and needlessly she pulled up the emergency brake and turned off the ignition switch.
Although her forehead throbbed painfully, and the sickening fear at her near-maiden flight over the cliff hadn't quite faded, Gypsy's thoughts were crystal-clear and crazily detached.
Not again. This could not be happening to her again. It was the third time in six months, and poor Daisy was certainly dead. Judging by the sound of the impact, not even the best body-and-fender man would be able to pound the dents out. And Daisy's engine had quite definitely been mortally wounded.
Gypsy abruptly became furious at whomever had murdered poor Daisy.
The sound of the other car's door slamming was followed swiftly by a startlingly deep and coldly controlled masculine voice. "Are you all right?" it demanded, and then added icily, "Don't you know that it's illegal as well as unsafe to drive a car without brake lights?"
Gypsy fumbled for Daisy's door handle and struggled out, letting her anger at Daisy's assassin have full rein. "You hit me, dammit, and Daisy did have a brake light--the left one! Now you've killed her--" She broke off abruptly as she got her first clear look at Daisy's assassin. He didn't look like a killer.
He was slightly under six feet tall, wide-shouldered but slender, and finely muscled. His burnished copper hair was thick and slightly shaggy, a bit longer than collar length. Eyes of an astoundingly intense shade of jade-green shot icicles at her. But his obvious anger couldn't hide the shrewdness behind his eyes, and the rigidly held expression only emphasized his marvelous bone structure.
Not a bit like a killer, Gypsy mused. . . .
Recovering from her initial surprise, Gypsy was just about to light into the handsome stranger when he aimed the first thrust.
"My God! I thought the last of the flower children grew up years ago!"
She automatically looked down at herself; there was nothing unusual. Faded, colorfully patched jeans, a tie-dyed T-shirt, ragged sneakers, and a silver peace sign dangling around her neck on a leather thong. She supposed that his description fit, but the thrust didn't go home. In the first place one did not normally dress neatly to perform the errand Gypsy had just completed, and in the second place she didn't much care how she looked--and this man's distaste did nothing to change that.
She rather pointedly eyed his neat, three-piece business suit, spending a long moment gazing at extremely shiny shoes. Then she let her gaze wander briefly to the gleaming silver-gray Mercedes before returning it to his face. Satisfied with his reaction--a slight reddening beneath the tan of his cheeks--she let the matter drop, refusing to correct his first impression.
Dropping the easily assumed dignity, she spoke heatedly. "You hit Daisy from behind, and that makes it your fault!"
He sent a faintly bewildered glance toward Daisy's crumpled rear end, but said shortly, "You had no brake lights."
"Big deal!" she snapped. "If you'd been watching where you were going, you would have seen me swerve to miss that rabbit, and-- Oh! Corsair!" Hastily she turned back to her car.
"Corsair?" the man muttered blankly, standing where she'd left him between their two cars and watching her open her car door and extract a bundle of cream-colored fur from inside. As she turned back toward him, he saw that the bundle was a large--a very large--Himalayan cat. Its face, paws, and tail were a dark chocolate color, and its broad face wore what seemed to be a permanently sulky expression.
"Just look at him!" she said angrily. "It's not enough that you killed poor Daisy; you nearly gave Corsair a heart attack!"
To the man's clear, jade eyes, Corsair didn't look as though he'd ever be--or had ever been--startled by anything short of a massive earthquake. He started to make that observation out loud, then realized that by participating in this ridiculous conversation, he'd only prolong it.
"Look--" he began, but she cut him off fiercely.
"This is all your fault!"
Jade eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. "You're certainly hell-bent to prove this was my fault, aren't you? I'll bet you don't even-- How old are you?" he demanded abruptly.
Gypsy drew herself up to her full height of five nothing and deepened her glare. "You should never ask a woman her age! Where did you learn your manners?"
"Where you learned yours!" he retorted irritably.
Into that tense confrontation came a slow, grinding thunk, and Daisy's entire engine hit the ground in a little puff of dust.
Gypsy stared rather blankly for a moment and then began to giggle. "Poor Daisy," she murmured.
The man was leaning back against the low hood of his car chuckling quietly, his icy temper apparently gone. "Why don't we start over?" he suggested wryly. "Hello, I'm Chase Mitchell."
"Gypsy Taylor," she returned solemnly.
"Gypsy? Now, why doesn't that surprise me?"
"No reason at all, I'm sure." Gypsy sighed, her amusement brief. "How am I going to get home? Daisy isn't going anywhere without the aid of a tow truck."
"I'll take you. We have to exchange insurance information anyway." He was looking down disgustedly at the slightly crumpled hood that he'd just stopped leaning against, then looked up quickly as a thought apparently occurred to him. "You are insured?" he asked carefully.
Knowing full well that Daisy's lack of brake lights made her at least partially to blame for the accident, Gypsy had stopped protesting. "Certainly I'm insured," she responded with dignity. After a beat she added, "At least . . . well, I think I am."
"How can you not be sure?"
"Well, I move around a lot." Unconsciously Gypsy had gravitated closer to the dented Mercedes. "Sometimes the notices from the insurance company get lost in the mail or--" She broke off hastily as she noted a disconcertingly icy storm gathering in his jade eyes. Gypsy loved a good storm, but she wasn't an idiot. "I'm insured. I know I'm insured."
"Right." As pointedly as she had done before, Chase looked from the top of her short black curls to the toes of her sneaker-clad feet. In between he noted a petite but nicely curved figure that in no way belonged to a teenager, and a face that was lovely--with fine bone structure and wide, dreamy gray eyes. "I thought you were about fifteen," he murmured almost to himself, "but I think I was wrong."
Gypsy blinked. "You certainly were." She was neither flattered nor insulted. "By about thirteen years. I'm twenty-eight." She blinked again, and added in a scolding voice, "And that was a sneaky way to find out!"
He grinned suddenly, and Gypsy was astonished at the change it wrought in his stern face. The jade eyes gleamed with amused satisfaction, laugh lines appearing at their corners, and white teeth flashed in a purely charming and surprisingly boyish smile.
"Well, I had to find out," he said. Before she could ask why, he was going on briskly. "Hop in and I'll take you home."
Having always relied on her instincts about people, Gypsy didn't worry about getting into a car with a stranger. Not this stranger. For some reason she instinctively trusted him. With a sigh and a last lingering glance toward the fallen Daisy, she started around to the passenger side of the Mercedes. Then she hesitated and went back to her car long enough to pull the keys from the ignition.
"Shouldn't you lock it up?"
"Why?" Gypsy asked wryly, heading back to the Mercedes. "Daisy isn't going anywhere."
Conceding the point, he got in the driver's side of his car, shut the door, and started it up. "Where to?"
Gypsy pointed along the winding, steadily uphill road. "Thataway. Follow the yellow brick road."
As the Mercedes pulled onto the road and began to climb smoothly, Chase distinctly felt baleful eyes on him. He risked a glance sideways, and found that it was the cat's gaze he was feeling.
Because of a childhood allergy--and no inclination since then--he'd had little experience with cats. But he recognized the expression on this one's face. Only cats and camels could stare through supposedly superior human beings with such utter and complete disdain. It gave him a disconcertingly invisible feeling.
Caused by a cat, it was a hell of a reaction, Chase thought.
"Your cat doesn't like me," he observed, eyes firmly back on the tricky business of negotiating the road's hairpin curves.
Gypsy looked at him in surprise, and then glanced down at the cat resting calmly in her lap. Corsair was fixedly regarding one chocolate paw. "You're imagining things," she scoffed lightly. "Corsair's never met anybody he didn't like."
Chase risked another glance, and then wished he hadn't. "Uh-huh. So why is he glaring at me?"
Gypsy glanced down again. "He isn't. He's looking at his paw." Her voice was mildly impatient.
Chase decided not to look again. He also decided that Corsair was a sneaky cat. "Never mind. Tell me, Miss Taylor--"
"Gypsy," she interrupted.
"As long as you'll return the favor."
"Fine. I hate formality."
"Gypsy, then. Where exactly do you live? I know this road, and it dead-ends a mile or so further up. There are two houses--"
"One of them's mine," she interrupted again.
"Yours?" He sounded a bit startled.
"I'm house-sitting," she explained absently, looking out the window and thinking as she always did, that it was nice to have the Pacific for a backyard. "The owners were temporarily transferred to Europe--six months. I'll be sitting for them another four months."
He sounded rather faint, and Gypsy looked over at him in amusement. "I'm not quite as disreputable as I look," she said gently. "I'm dressed like this because I had to take Corsair to the vet."
"And the peace sign?"
His mind obviously wasn't on the conversation, and Gypsy wondered why. "It was a gift from some friends. Sort of a private joke," she explained automatically, gazing at him searchingly. She thought that he had the look of a man who had bitten down on something and wasn't quite sure what it was. Odd. Before she could attempt to probe the cause of his strange expression--Gypsy wasn't at all shy--he was speaking again.
"Do you live around here? When you're not house-sitting, I mean."
"I live wherever I happen to be house-sitting. Before this, I was in Florida for three months, and before that was New England. I like to move around."
"Not your favorite life-style, I see," she said wryly.
"No." Abruptly, he asked, "Do you live alone?"
Gypsy thought briefly of all the bits of information a single woman generally didn't reveal to strange men--like whether she lived alone. However, if she was any judge of character, this man hardly had rape or robbery on his mind. "Usually I don't. A housekeeper usually lives with me; she's a good friend and practically raised me. But she's visiting relatives right now, so I'm on my own. Why do you ask?"
"Just wondering." He sent a sidelong glance her way. "You aren't wearing a ring, but these days asking a woman if she's single doesn't automatically preclude a live-in 'friend.' "
Gypsy looked at him thoughtfully and tried to ignore the sudden bump her heart had given. She'd been on the receiving end of enough male questions to know what that one was pointing to, and it was not a direction she wanted to explore. As handsome as Chase Mitchell undoubtedly was, Gypsy nonetheless told herself firmly that she wasn't interested. At this point in her life, a man was a complication she hardly needed.
And Chase Mitchell would prove to be more of a complication than most, she decided shrewdly. They obviously had nothing in common, and he wouldn't be the sort of man who could fit in with her offbeat life-style.
Frowning, Gypsy wondered at the trend of her own thoughts. Why on earth was she hesitating? Usually she disclaimed interest immediately in order to avoid complications before they arose.
Before she could further explore her inexplicable hesitation, Chase was going on in a smooth voice.
"Of course, you could have a 'friend' who doesn't live with you." It was definitely a question, she thought.
Gypsy answered wryly, "The way I move around?"
"Some men would consider plane tickets a small price to pay," he murmured.
She wondered if that was a compliment, but decided not to ask. With that kind of fishing she was half afraid of what she might catch. Instead, she chose a nice, safe, innocuous topic. "Do you live around here?" she asked casually.
He nodded, his eyes again on the road. The road was still both winding and tricky, but it no longer bordered on the cliffs. Trees hid the ocean now as they progressed further inland. "I've always lived on the West Coast," he said. "Apart from school years, that is."
Gypsy nodded and sought about for more safe topics. "Nice car," she finally managed inanely.
"It was," he agreed affably.
She shot him a goaded glare and immediately became more irritated when she noted that he wasn't even looking at her. "I didn't mean to wreck your nice car," she said with dignity. "And if it comes to that, you didn't exactly leave Daisy in great shape, you know!"
"If I were you," he suggested, ignoring the larger part of her accusation, "I'd get another car."
"Well, you're not me. I've had Daisy since I was seventeen; she's a classic. She's also my good-luck charm."
"Judging by the number of dents in her that I can't claim credit for," Chase said dryly, "she doesn't seem to have been very lucky." He was completely unconscious of following Gypsy's lead in using the feminine pronoun to describe Daisy.
Uncomfortably aware of her accident-prone nature, she didn't dispute his point. And she was enormously relieved to see her house as they finally completed the long climb and the road leveled off. She pointed and Chase nodded, slowing the Mercedes for the turn into her driveway.