HER COWBOY DEFENDER
This can’t be happening.
Piper stared in disbelief at the black smoke billowing from the engine of the rental car. She’d barely managed to pull over to the side of the road before the giant plume erupted from beneath the hood, along with a crackling she suspected might be outright fire. Any hope the car would manage to keep running long enough to make it to her destination evaporated into the air much faster than the smoke.
She shot a glance at the clock on the dashboard. The digits glared back, relentless, unforgiving.
Thirty-four minutes. She had thirty-four minutes to be at the rendezvous point. If she wasn’t—
She cut off the thought before it could form. She couldn’t afford to think about that, couldn’t think about anything but what she was going to do now, how she was going to make the rendezvous.
But when she tried to come up with a solution to this latest hurdle, her mind remained stubbornly blank except for the words that had been running through her head nonstop for the past two days.
This can’t be happening.
The words raced together in a constant loop, picking up speed along with her pulse, her heart pounding so fast and so hard in her chest she found it tougher and tougher to breathe.
It couldn’t end like this. She couldn’t come this close only to fail.
This can’t be happening.
Beneath the shock clouding her brain, some preservation instinct forced her limbs into motion, recognizing the fact that it wasn’t safe to remain in the car. For all she knew, the engine could be explode at any moment. She had to get out of there.
Numbly, she shut off the engine, then grabbed for her bag and the map. Lurching from the vehicle, she slammed the door shut behind her. It was all she could do not to give the door an angry kick. She’d known as soon as the engine started making a knocking sound some time ago that something was wrong, but couldn’t stop. Even if time wasn’t an issue, she knew nothing about cars. She had no choice but to keep pushing on and hope the car made it to her destination.
So much for that.
Which just left what she was going to do now.
The sun beat down from directly overhead, her fair skin already beginning to tingle from its unrelenting beams. Raising a hand to shade her eyes, she glanced around herself. The desert road stretched endlessly in either direction, disappearing into the horizon on both sides with no indication where it stopped. She had no idea where she was, other than that it was somewhere in New Mexico. She’d been following the map that had been sent to her, having no other choice. She hadn’t passed a single vehicle or building on the road in at least a half hour, had no reason to believe she would find any the same distance up ahead if she started walking. She’d known that she was being sent to the middle of nowhere, but she was more aware of that fact now than ever before.
She checked her watch, already knowing what it would show, painfully aware of how quickly time was slipping away.
The back of her eyes began to burn, and she immediately squeezed her eyelids together to keep the tears that threatened from falling. She wasn’t going to cry. She refused to. She hadn’t one bit since this ordeal had begun. She hadn’t cried when she’d learned of Pam’s accident. She hadn’t cried when she’d received the horrible call two days ago. She hadn’t cried during the long journey, even knowing what awaited her at the end.
But never had she been as close to giving in to the tears as she was right now.
A sob rose in her throat.
This can’t be happening.
With her eyes shut, it was the sound of an engine that reached her first, the sound so faint she didn’t immediately recognize it. When she did, she froze in disbelief, afraid to open her eyes, afraid she was hallucinating. It seemed too much to hope for, too much to believe possible, that a vehicle could pass by at this particular moment when she needed it most.
Her heart pounding anew, she slowly opened her eyes and turned toward the sound.
The vehicle was still far enough away she could barely make it out, its shape shimmering in the sun, almost like a mirage. She held her breath as it approached, gradually gaining enough substance to confirm that it was very real. It was a pickup truck. Red, she guessed, though it hardly mattered. All that did was that it was here.
The black cloud rising from the hood made her car pretty hard to ignore, but she still stepped out into the road, waving her arms above her head to grab the driver’s attention. She couldn’t risk that the driver was the kind of person to ignore someone in trouble. A breath of relief worked its way from her lungs when the truck began to slow long before it reached her, easing onto the shoulder behind the rental car.
Now she just had to figure out what to do.
Thinking quickly, she watched as the driver’s door slowly opened. Moments later, two boots hit the dirt beneath the bottom edge of the door, one after the other. Then a hat appeared as the driver ducked his head out of the truck. It was a Stetson, the shape unmistakable and instantly recognizable.
It was a cowboy. A genuine cowboy. A near-hysterical laugh bubbled in her throat. She didn’t exactly come across too many of them back in Boston, though they were probably fairly common around these parts. And here he was, coming to her rescue like something out of the Old West, except that instead of horseback, he was arriving in a truck.
Her eyes slid past him, narrowing on his vehicle, the burst of humor instantly forgotten.
Cold, hard resolve settled over her, and she slowly lowered her hand into her bag, closing her fingers around the object there.
And suddenly she knew exactly what she had to do.
CADE MCCLAIN SWALLOWED an impatient sigh as he climbed out of the cab of the truck. He really didn’t have time for this. The trip to Albuquerque had taken longer than he’d expected, and he’d wanted to get back to the ranch as early as possible. There was too much he had to do. There always was.
But as soon as he’d spotted the smoke on the road up ahead and seen the car, he’d known he would have to pull over. Even if the woman hadn’t flagged him down, he couldn’t have simply driven past a smoking car without stopping. Not only would it have been a lousy thing to do, but there was no telling when someone else might have come along to help. This desert road didn’t see much traffic. He wondered how long she’d been here, or what she was even doing here for that matter.
She’d moved out of the road to stand behind her car. He gave her a quick glance-over. She was a slim woman with short black hair, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. She carried a bag of some kind, the strap slung crosswise over her body from one shoulder to the opposite hip so the bag itself was almost entirely out of view. She didn’t look familiar. Probably just a lost tourist who’d made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up far down a road she had no business being on.
He did his best to keep his annoyance from showing. It wasn’t her fault she was having car trouble. It had to be a lot tougher on her than it was on him.
“You okay?” he called, stepping around the door without closing it.
After a moment, she gave her head a shaky nod. “Yeah, I’m fine. I don’t know what happened. The engine started making this noise, and then all this smoke started coming out of it…”
Her voice quivered, almost like she was about to start crying or something, and he nearly groaned.
Oh, God. Please don’t let her burst into tears. The car he might be able to handle, but the last thing he knew how to deal with was a crying female.
He took a deep breath, hoping if he remained calm his coolness would have an effect on her. “Do you have a phone? Did you call anybody?”
“N-no,” she said slowly, taking a step toward him. “My battery’s dead.” She chuckled, the sound ringing false. “Just my luck.”
“Well, you can borrow mine. Let me get it out of the cab.” He turned away to do just that.
“I have a better idea.”
Her tone immediately put him on edge, the hardness in her voice completely different from how she’d sounded just moments before. He froze, knowing before he looked at her that something was wrong.
He slowly turned back to face her.
She was standing in exactly the same place.
Except now she held a pistol in her hands.
Aimed square at his chest.
Copyright © 2012 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.