Ian Grayson's priority is to protect the artifact which could be the answer to all his questions, but he has already been chased across Belize and Mexico by those who would take it from him by any means necessary and he is desperate to find a way to escape from them and get home to Chicago. When he persuades a trucker to give him a ride he has no idea that his life was about to take a whole new direction. When Mackenzie Wallace picks up an unlikely hitch-hiker he soon discovers one should never go by first appearances, Ian Grayson was certainly not what he expected from a Doctor of Archaeology
The young man kept out of sight at the edge of the building, watching the large parking lot of the truck stop in San Marcos. He had been dropped off in the centre of town just over an hour earlier and had made his way to the truckers' stop on highway I-35. His trip from Laredo had been made in fits and starts, and his last ride from San Antonio had been slower than he had hoped.
Ian had been waiting for a while now. He was still cautious even though he believed his time was limited; he wasn't sure how far behind him they were. It was quite a few years since Ian had hitch-hiked and he was nervous, but he couldn't afford to rush his choice. However, Ian was sure he would know the right man to approach; he'd always had a natural talent when it came to judging people.
Ian straightened when he saw the tall man with the silvering hair come out of the diner and move towards the large, dark blue, eighteen-wheeler with silver lettering topped by a pair of silver wings on the side. This man had caught his eye thirty minutes earlier when the rig had pulled in. He cut quite a figure, topping six feet with long, lean lines and an easy confident walk. He didn't look old enough to have hair that color, but Ian couldn't help but think it suited him anyway. This second look was enough to convince him and Ian moved forward to intersect the man's path just as he reached his rig.
"Excuse me," Ian said politely.
The man turned to him, glancing at Ian casually, but his eyes narrowed and the trucker studied him.
"Yeah?" the trucker answered in a deep voice with a touch of amusement.
Ian smiled, not unaware of the effect he could achieve when he needed to. "I need a ride going north and I wondered if you were going that way?"
"Might be," the trucker said warily. "Where north?" The young man looked about thirty, tall and slim, with light brown hair and bright blue eyes shining behind his glasses. He was wearing jeans and a dark blue tee with an open light blue checkered shirt over it. Slung over one shoulder he had a large backpack and he was carrying a jacket over his other arm.
"Anywhere north would help," Ian replied vaguely.
* * * *
Mac frowned and looked again at the young man. He looked clean, his clothes, while obviously not new, were well looked after. The hitch-hiker looked healthy and well fed and Mac got the impression of intelligence. He had long trusted his instincts when it came to people and he wasn't getting any bad vibes from this one, yet there was something.
"You in trouble?"
"No, nothing like that," the hitch-hiker said quickly, a little too quickly. "I just need to get to Chicago and I don't have enough money for such a long trip. Any help I can get would... well, help," he concluded with a smile.
Mac didn't quite believe him, but he wouldn't mind some company on the long drive ahead. "'Kay," he said, with a nod, "not going as far as Chicago though. We'll see how things work out but understand this, any problems and out you go."
The hitch-hiker nodded and Mac said, "Get in."
The young man hurried around to the passenger's side and climbed up as Mac opened the door for him. He clambered in, dropping his pack on the floor.
Mac raised an eyebrow at the heavy thump the pack made.
"What're you carrying in that thing, rocks?"
"Not this time," was the oblique reply. "It's books. My name is Ian Grayson and I'm an anthropologist," he said, holding out his hand.
Taking it in a firm grip, the trucker introduced himself, "Mackenzie Wallace, but I'm known as Mac." Turning his attention to his vehicle, Mac switched on the ignition and the engine powered into life, giving a deep roar like a predatory animal just about to make a kill. He deftly pulled the huge rig out of the parking lot, carefully watching his trailer make the turn through his mirrors as he moved off down the slip road to join Interstate 35 heading toward Austin.
* * * *
Ian surreptitiously glanced at the trucker as the man concentrated on joining the busy I-35. He liked the arch of the brow over the trucker's eyes and the way he stuck his chin out as if pointing the way. With a little smile he settled back into the comfortable seat only for his pleasant thoughts to be disturbed when he couldn't help but wonder how far behind him his pursuers were.
They had been on his trail since he'd crossed the border into Mexico from Guatemala and he had only just managed to keep a few steps ahead of them. He had thought he'd lost them in Cuidad Victoria, but his room had been ransacked in Monterrey, and most of his money and identification had been stolen. He couldn't prove it was them, of course, but he knew. All he'd been left with was what he was carrying with him in his backpack and the few books they'd left strewn about his room.
He hadn't liked lying to Mac, but he had no way of knowing if he could trust him. He had faith in his instincts, but there was too much at stake to risk on just feelings. He had learned to be self-reliant long ago, and though he wished he could offload the responsibility onto someone else from time to time, he didn't have that option. With a tightening of his gut he remembered the last time he'd allowed himself to develop that kind of trust in another person and how he had been betrayed. It would take a lot, an awful lot, for him ever to feel that secure with someone again.
He wasn't quite as destitute as he led Mac to believe. He had some cash left and he did have one of his credit cards, but he was loath to use it just in case Simon had some way to track him from its use. He knew he was getting paranoid about the man, but his pursuer had contacts and wasn't afraid to use them. No, it was safer to hitch and keep his credit card in his pocket. As long as he kept his pack safe it would all be worth it in the end. He just had to get to Chicago.
Mac was aware that Ian was pensive, more than he would have expected now that the man had a ride. As if aware that he was under scrutiny, Ian made a show of looking around the cab.
Glancing at his passenger, Mac said, "Now, why would an anthropologist need to hitch-hike? Doesn't that make you a graduate of some kind? Shouldn't you be sitting in an ivory tower raking it in?"
Ian smiled ruefully. "Yeah, if you want to be precise I'm a Doctor and I know of some academics that do just that." There was an edge to his voice that Mac didn't miss, probably a story there, he thought. Ian was still talking, "I've been on a field trip in Central America and was unfortunate enough to get robbed on my way back through Mexico. I have little more than what I'm carrying, so I'm forced to hitch. What little money I have I need for food."
"Can't you go to the bank?" queried Mac, a hint of irritation in his voice. He was no fool and didn't like to be taken for one.
Ian flushed before saying, "They took everything, my wallet with all my identity, cards, everything. I've tried the bank, but without ID..." he trailed off.
Mac didn't believe him. He believed that he had been robbed sure enough, but doubted about being unable to get the funds. There were ways the bank could have checked up on him. The man was lying and he was not very good at it. However, he knew it was too soon to push him for answers, and he wasn't even sure yet he wanted to know.
He found it too easy to get caught up in other peoples' lives, which was one reason why he rarely picked up hitch-hikers anymore. However, there was just something about this man that drew him in, and Mac wasn't just thinking of his looks, attractive as they were. Perhaps it had been something in those eyes when he studied him, something that reeled him in. He may come to regret it but he had never been one to ignore that inner voice.
"This is quite some rig... Mac?" Ian ended his comment with a question as if to confirm he could use Mac's given name.
He's trying to change the subject, Mac realized. However, he nodded his assent, deciding to let it ride for now.
"What do the initials on the side stand for, TFL?"
"Tomcat Freight Line."
"Tomcat? Then why the wings as an icon?" asked a frowning Ian.
Mac laughed. "'Cause the Tomcat is a jet. The boss is ex-Navy. A lot of his drivers are; he likes to give old friends a new start if they want one."
"So you were in the Navy too? A pilot?" For a moment Ian was surprised then he realized he could easily see this man in uniform. Damn it, he wanted to see Mac in his uniform!
"Yep, amongst other things," Mac answered cryptically. "Served for twenty years; retired a few years ago on health grounds. Enjoyed the Service and now I enjoy the freedom of life on the road."
"It's quite amazing what they get inside these things," Ian commented looking behind him through the open curtain into the living area. "Last time I hitched, when I was a student, it wasn't even remotely like this. â€˜Course that was around fifteen years ago."
"Fifteen years?" Mac was surprised. "You sure don't look old enough to have been a student fifteen years ago. That makes you, what? Thirty-five?"
Mac nodded. "Well to answer your question, the boss likes to give his truckers the best. Thinks it makes for better drivers. This is one of the latest rigs. Got just about everything." He grinned. "Can comfortably sleep two if you pull down the top bunk, even got a microwave and, of course," he added, his voice giving the words a final flourish, "a TV and a fridge so I can watch hockey while in bed."
Ian smiled. "Ah, a sports fan. Have to admit I have never really seen the attraction. I'm not particularly into violence."
"You have to admit that hockey and football are violent sports. Then there's boxing, if ever there was a misnomer, it's calling boxing a sport."
"The sport of Kings," Mac said smugly.
"Horse racing?" asked Ian puzzled.
"Boxing!" declared Mac.
"No, the sport of Kings is horse racing. Has been for centuries."
Mac frowned. "You sure?"
Ian laughed. "Yes, I'm sure."
Mac harrumphed and lapsed into silence for a while. After a few minutes, Mac switched on the radio and Ian was pleasantly surprised to hear opera filling the cab. A minute later he grinned as Mac joined in. The trucker might know the words but his voice wasn't that good, though it was obvious he didn't care. He simply enjoyed the music so much he had to join in. His face lit up.
Ian smiled to himself deciding he definitely liked this man. He glanced into the side mirror and looked at the following traffic. He stiffened for a moment when he thought he recognized a dark grey sedan a few cars back. His paranoia was surfacing again. It was a common enough car, the odds on it being theirs... Still, he looked again and it was still there but no nearer. He watched for a few minutes longer, but it stayed in the traffic flow.
Deciding it was just another vehicle going in the same direction; he opened his backpack and pulled out the book on top then settled back to read for a while.
Mac squinted trying to read the title. He stopped singing to ask, "What're you reading?"
"The Sphinx in Ancient Greek Art," Ian quoted.
Mac frowned. "That's history... archaeology? Thought you said you were an anthropologist."
"Err, yes I am a cultural anthropologist. I'm also an archaeologist."
"And a linguist. They are all linked. Most of my languages are archaic and well, archaeology is a study subject under anthropology."
"You've got more than one degree then?"
"Yes," Ian said, but with no sign of conceit.
"Confused here," Mac said frowning. "The Sphinx is in Egypt right? So what's it got to do with Greek art?"
"The famous Sphinx is in Egypt near the Great Pyramid. However, there is also a legend from Greece about the monster, half human and half lion, which is similar. The Egyptian sphinx is male while the Greek one is based on a female figure. However, there are sphinxes found in many countries, Assyria, Asia Minor..."
"Yep, you really are a teacher," Mac interrupted with a grin, taking a quick glance at his passenger.
"Oh, sorry. I do enjoy my subject," Ian said sheepishly.
Mac smiled at his enthusiasm. He never thought he would feel so much pleasure at seeing an academic so wrapped up in his subject. He glanced at him again, taken aback at the sparkle in Ian's eyes as he turned to look at Mac and their eyes met for an instant. Mac quickly turned back to the road, his insides churning at his reaction.
He took a breath and said, "I seem to be learning about you in dribs and drabs. We've got a long way to go, perhaps... if you want; I mean... perhaps you might like to tell me about yourself."
Ian didn't answer and Mac took a quick sideways look. "You really going to Chicago?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, Mac, I really am. Why?"
"Just north, you originally said, and then suddenly it was Chicago."
With a sigh, Ian said, "I teach at the University there."
"Ah! Why the hedging then, Ian? You could have simply asked for a ride north to Chicago."
"I... I..." Ian hesitated staring at Mac's profile. Why did he feel that perhaps this man could be trusted? Ian had no reason to. Ian had known him such a short time, in fact he didn't really know him at all.
Before he could even decide what to say, or if he should say anything at all, Mac spoke again. "You're not obliged to tell me. I'm only giving you a ride; you don't know me, have no cause to trust me. We can drive on in silence if you want, but I am a good listener."
"No, I don't know you which is why I don't understand how I can feel so at ease in your company so quickly," Ian said quietly.
Mac glanced at him, a pleased expression on his face. "Look, I need to pull in for fuel a little way ahead..."
"Why now?" Ian interrupted. "Why didn't you get gas at that last place?" A hint of suspicion filled Ian's voice.
With a rueful smile, Mac answered, "Simple, the boss has an arrangement with this chain of gas stations. I just sign a piece of paper, no cash, no cards. Nice and simple. Fill up here and that should get us where we're going."
Ian noticed the â€˜us' and wondered if Mac meant that literally.
"Anyhow, think over what I said. I would like to know more about you."
After a moment's thought, Ian frowned and asked, "Are you saying that if I don't want to talk, you'll let me out?"
With an exasperated sigh, Mac answered, "No, I'm not pressuring you. We never agreed on a destination. I told you I wasn't going as far as Chicago, never said how far I was going," Mac grinned. "Like to hedge my bets."
Ian stared ahead through the windscreen, glancing at Mac out of the corner of his eye. He wanted to tell someone, but was it safe? Would it make more sense to cut his losses and try and get a ride with another trucker? Mac certainly was curious and he liked to talk, it was doubtful if Ian could continue to ride with him unless he was prepared to talk. Perhaps it was Mac's way of being paid back for the ride, he wanted to be entertained. Of course, he had no idea that Ian's tale was more akin to the mysterious, and he suspected more dangerous than that of any other hitch-hiker Mac had picked up.
Ian admitted his... attraction to the man wasn't exactly helping him to make a judicious choice; he was too influenced by his emotions.
He was getting nowhere and to distract himself from his confused thoughts, he glanced out of the side mirror again. The grey sedan had disappeared. A good sign, surely?
They drove for the next few miles in silence. Mac hadn't pressed his request, leaving it for Ian to think about it until they reached the gas station up ahead. Ian returned to reading his book, but wasn't really able to concentrate. Besides considering Mac's invitation, every so often he glanced at the side mirror to check the traffic behind them. Ian saw innumerable sedans of every hue and decided he was worrying unnecessarily. He had taken special care since leaving Laredo and that was now many miles behind.
It would have been easier if Simon always used the same vehicle, then he would have been certain what to look for, but using rented cars and changing them randomly was a clever ploy. Invariably they were nondescript sedans but unless he saw the occupants, Ian would never know if a vehicle carried a threat.
After a while Mac turned his radio back on, the strains of Madame Butterfly filled the cab and Ian welcomed the distraction. Thankfully, this time Mac didn't attempt to join in with her singing. Ian smiled at the sudden unbidden image of Mac in a kimono.
"What?" Mac said, puzzled as a low giggle emanated from his companion.
"Ah, sorry, nothing," Ian said, a faint flush staining his cheeks.
"Come on, something made you giggle." Which Mac found rather touching.
"Err, you might get mad," Ian said, his tone belying any real concern.
"Okay, I do have an ego, but I hope I'm not that sensitive!"
"I had a vision of you in a kimono and it wasn't very flattering."
Mac guffawed. "I should fucking well hope not. But why would... Ah, the opera," he said with understanding. "Pleased I didn't join in this time, eh? Probably would've if you weren't here."
Ian laughed. "I could probably just about take hearing you sing Pinkerton, but you don't have the voice for Butterfly."
Mac grinned at the implied slight and then said thoughtfully, "You know anything about opera?"
"Not really," Ian answered with a rueful smile, "just what the layman picks up. Less than you certainly."
"Perhaps you can teach me something about archaeology and I can teach you about opera," he smiled.
Fifteen minutes later Mac wondered what had possessed him to ask Ian to tell him about archaeology. He didn't know what half the words meant and he was so out of his depth. At the moment Ian was explaining something about frottage and so far Mac had no idea what that... Whoa! So that's what it meant â€” to take a rubbing of some artifact to reveal its form. Thinking of rubbing and Ian in the same sentence was doing things to his libido. Oh, God! That was too much. Now he had this vision of Ian lying flat on his stomach, stretched out and rubbing! Geez, he could almost see that taut ass squirming. He now had some delicious images for his fantasies.
He took a quick look at Ian and found the younger man was looking in his direction. Mac was intrigued to see the glint in his eyes. Did the man know what he doing? Was he doing it on purpose or was Mac seeing what he wanted?
"Do you want to know about opera?" Mac asked casually, while wondering if there was a way of finding out what Ian wanted.
"Large subject too," Ian said thoughtfully, glancing at Mac just as the trucker caught his eye and suddenly the word large had other connotations associated with Mac etched firmly in Ian's libido. Oh, God, if he could read my mind right now! Ian knew what he would like Mac's reaction to be, but the chances were the trucker would knock his teeth down his throat.
"Yeah, so let's take something central to the subject," Mac said and began to talk about singing. Mac freely admitted he was no singer himself, but he did know a good singer when he heard one. Mac explained to Ian that one of the most important things for a singer to master was breath control. He began to demonstrate, his lips forming various shapes as he inhaled and exhaled. Ian had to lean forward in his seat to get a proper look at Mac as he had to keep his eyes on the road ahead.
Ian felt his temperature rise as he watched Mac's chest swell and his nipples strain against his dark tee shirt. His groin swelled in response and he was grateful that Mac wasn't looking at him as he felt sweat bead on his forehead. Mac suddenly licked his lips and Ian found himself copying the action wishing it were Mac's lips he was tasting... just as Mac turned in his direction.
Mac smiled at him and Ian felt his face heat up. He just prayed Mac hadn't noticed anything amiss. Still smiling, Mac turned back, concentrating on his driving.
A little while later Mac said they were approaching the gas station not far from Hillsboro. They had made good time and he was debating whether to take a break there for the night or carry on a little further.
Mac decided Ian was good company, whether talking excitedly about his passion for his chosen career, listening avidly as he soaked up new information, or quietly reading as Mac drove the huge rig. Mac was headed to Illinois; in fact his load was due in Springfield in two days. There was nothing to stop Mac taking Ian onto Chicago if he wanted. Was that what he wanted? To get to know this man better? He knew he liked his looks, God who wouldn't. Those eyes, he was glad he had to keep his own eyes on the road or he could fall into them and not care where he landed. His smile, Mac wanted to put that smile on Ian's face. Hair, just long enough to wind his fingers in as he... Well, he couldn't deny the lust.
He was just a little afraid that it could be more; which wasn't exactly sensible when he had no way of knowing what the man's... proclivities were, his little experiment in flirting earlier notwithstanding. Mac could hardly come out and ask the man what his sexual orientation was. He personally had never experienced the so-called â€˜gaydar' that seemed a popular myth in some circles.
The sign for the gas station came up and Mac signaled his turn. Ian put his book away in his backpack, looking around with interest. There was a small diner attached to the gas station with a few cars parked in front. Other than Mac's rig there were only a station wagon and an SUV filling up.
"While you fill up I'll make a trip to the men's room," Ian told him, climbing down with his pack slung over his shoulder. He was only wearing his tee; he'd removed his overshirt earlier.
"You can leave the pack; it'll be safe in the cab."
"Thanks, but everything I have is in here and after what happened I'd rather keep it with me."
Mac frowned but didn't question his decision.
As Ian moved away, Mac called after him, "Hungry or shall we go a little further on?"
Ian looked back over his shoulder to say, "I could eat but I'll leave the travel plans to you."
"'Kay," Mac said, watching as Ian walked, enjoying the movement of his buttocks inside those tight jeans.
Mac signed for the fuel. He decided to skip the diner after having a look at the menu and glancing through the window. He had seen enough good diners to recognize a bad one when he saw it. He was walking back to his rig when he decided he should probably pay a call to the men's room himself while he was here. He changed direction and was approaching the door when heard a noise, a yell that sounded remarkably like Ian's voice, followed by sounds he recognized all too well. The sounds of flesh hitting flesh that tightened his gut and made him pick up his pace.
He shoved open the door to find two men struggling with Ian, apparently trying to take his pack from him. One man was attempting to hold him in place with an arm around his neck and the other arm around Ian's shoulders, while the second man was pulling the pack from Ian who was valiantly trying to hold on to it. It took less than a second for Mac to register the bruise on Ian's face, the long scratches down one arm, and that his tee was torn from the neck on the shoulder where his pack had been.
Ian and the man wrestling with him over the pack were yelling at each other in a language Mac didn't understand. Ian was struggling hard, gasping as the arm around his neck tightened, cutting off his air. The man struggling with Ian over the pack aimed a kick at Ian which connected with his ankle and Ian cried out.
In the commotion no one noticed Mac as he quietly moved behind the guy holding onto Ian. With a swift movement he dislodged the arm from around Ian's neck, twisting the man away so he was forced to release his captive, before landing a punch that sent the man sprawling. Swiftly he turned to face the second man.
Ian, taking advantage of the distraction, yanked hard on the strap of his backpack which the other man was still holding, pulling it from his grasp. The stranger, having lost his prize and taking one look at the anger on Mac's face quickly turned and fled. Mac ran after him with Ian hot on his heels, at least as fast as he could with a hurt ankle.
"Mac, don't please!" Ian called out.
Mac paused at the desperation in Ian's voice, turned to look at him, and frowning he asked, "What the hell?" Then he pointed behind Ian as the second man fled from the men's room, adding, "We've gotta stop him!"
It was only then that Mac noticed Ian was favoring his right leg.
"Ian, you all right?"
"I'll live," he replied ruefully.
"I'll call the police, then we'd better get you checked out," Mac said, moving to take a better look at Ian's injuries. He wasn't comfortable involving the police, but he didn't really have a choice.
"No, Mac, please don't do that," Ian pleaded in a quiet voice.
Mac stared at him and Ian dropped his eyes. "Don't do what?" asked Mac, an edge to his voice.
"Don't call the police. I'm okay. I can look after myself." He didn't look up.
"Right, that's it," Mac said in a softly spoken voice but no less resolute for it. "Look at me, Ian." Slowly the younger man lifted his head and met Mac's gaze. He licked his lips at the hard look in the normally warm brown eyes. "You tell me everything right now or I leave you here."
"I mean it, Ian. I like you and I want to help you, but to do that I have to know... everything. If you can't, or won't, trust me then it ends here. I'm sorry but those are my terms."
Ian looked at Mac and knew it was more than attraction that made him want to stay in the man's company. For the first time in weeks he felt safe. He knew he had no reason for the feeling. He'd only known Mac, in the loosest sense, for a few hours and yet he couldn't help the sense of safety, of security he felt with the man. To put it in the simplest terms, he trusted Mac.
With a slight shrug at his own perception, he said. "Can we talk in your cab, preferably away from here if you don't object?"
"Okay," Mac said gently, placing a hand on Ian's back and leading him to the rig, "There's a truck stop, Knox's, just this side of Hillsboro, where we can hole up for the night. I'll help clean and dress your injuries now then we can talk later. You can tell me the truth this time, all of it."
"I've not lied to you, Mac." Ian glanced at his new friend, a sheepish smile gracing his full lips. "Unless you want to accuse me of being economical with the truth." He hesitated a moment, dropped his eyes, and then lifted them again to meet Mac's gaze head on. "But can we just go now? I'm not hurt too bad; let's just get out of here, please."
Mac wasn't happy, but realized Ian needed to put some space between himself and whatever was going on. "Okay, it's only about twenty minutes further on."
Even though he was concerned about whatever it was that Ian was going to tell him, Mac acknowledged that he'd been afraid Ian wouldn't be able to trust him and he would be forced to stick to his word and leave him to his own devices. Mac felt a flush of relief, and pleasure, that Ian wanted to stay. Mac had no desire to see a headline the next morning involving the young archaeologist being hurt... or worse.