Cass left the Alaska Highway behind at Dawson Creek. Less than nine hours to go before reaching Calgary.
“Hang on, honey,” she murmured. “I’m coming.”
In the long shadows of the late November mid-afternoon, Highway 97 stretched ahead of her, an endless panorama of dark green spruce trees, gray pavement and white snow. It was hypnotic.
Shaking her head to clear it, she pushed the Abba CD into the player slot and turned the volume up. Take a Chance on Me would keep her awake.
She didn’t hear her cell phone ding, but the screen lit up, warning her she had a text. She kept the phone in a holder angled over her dashboard so she could see it easily. She had stopped pulling over every time she got an update from Carter. She hadn’t seen another car in the last half hour. She did slow down, however, because she had seen moose on the highway. Yesterday, bison had loomed out of gloaming, so close the damned things almost gave her a heart attack.
“THEY STARTED INDUCING HER. DILATED TO 2 CM.”
Hell and damnation.
Lauren had warned her they might induce her, since the doctors were worried about her high blood pressure. It was two weeks before her due date.
Cass already had her ticket to fly to Calgary next week. She would have been there in plenty of time for the birth. But with the change in plans, the soonest she would have been able to fly out was on Wednesday, four days from now.
She couldn’t risk it. So she had packed, made sandwiches, and begun the long drive south from Whitehorse. The trip would have taken three days if she stopped at night, less than two if she drove straight through. She had driven through the night, and now was set to drive through the night again.
Maybe not the smartest move, but Lauren was scared, even if she wouldn’t admit it. So was Carter. He was a good man, that one. Lauren had chosen well.
The figure jumped out of the long shadows at the side of the highway and Cass swerved in a surge of adrenaline. Thank God the road was dry. Hands clamped on the steering wheel, she glanced at her rearview mirror and saw a girl, her pale hair gleaming in the fading light.
Cass took her foot off the gas pedal as she worked out what was happening. The girl was staring after Cass’s car, her figure growing smaller as Cass’s Outback got farther and farther away.
Before she knew she was going to do it, Cass braked and started backing up on the empty highway. She stopped next to the slight figure and pressed the button that rolled the window down. Cold air invaded the interior, making her shiver.
“Hi,” she said, leaning over to look at the girl. And she was a girl, definitely no older than nineteen or twenty. Lauren was only a few years older. “Do you need a ride?”
What are you doing, her more cautious side warned in alarm. Every single hitchhiker story she had ever heard of or read about flitted through her mind as she waited for the girl to respond. She resisted the urge to feel between her seat and the door frame for the two-foot-long maple dowel she kept there. Just in case.
The kid leaned over cautiously and glanced inside the car before nodding.
“Yes, please,” she said. Her voice sounded funny, as if her lips were too stiff to talk properly. She fumbled with the door handle for a moment before opening the passenger side door and sliding inside carefully. As if her body hurt.
For the first time, Cass realized that the girl had no hat, no mitts and only a thin jacket that looked like it had a wholly inadequate layer of down in it.
What the hell was she doing out in this weather? She was so clearly not dressed for it. Cass glanced at the temperature gauge on the dashboard. Minus twenty-three Celsius. Without a word, she rolled the window up and turned up the heat. Then she turned on the heating in the passenger seat. She pulled off the pashmina scarf she’d wrapped around her neck and handed it to the girl.
“Put that around your head,” she said. “It’ll help warm you up.” She took off her fur-lined gloves and handed them to the girl. “And put these on.” She glanced down at the girl’s feet. Boots. Well, at least there was that.
“Thank you,” whispered the girl. She was crying.
Cass smothered a sigh. Honestly. It was a wonder young people survived long enough to procreate.