Read an Excerpt
Along Came JonesA Novel
By LINDA WINDSOR
Multnomah Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Windsor Enterprises, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEasy, ma'am! Are you all right?"
Someone squeezed Deanna's shoulder, drawing her from the numb shock that suspended her somewhere between awareness and unconsciousness. What had happened? The question floated in her mind, calling her dazed senses into a defensive formation until she knew if the warm hand thawing the ice encasing her awareness belonged to a rescuer or a captor.
One minute she was making good time down this road to nowhere, and the next-this. Through the blur of confusion, she made out a ditch bank beyond the crinkled hood of her car. A sharp pain reported in from the side of her head. Her car had careened off the road, but why? Had she blacked out?
A large face edged into her line of vision. Deanna squinted through the glare on the dirt-spattered windshield to see a one-eyed horse staring back at her. Wait, it was white splotched with a black patch obscuring the missing eye. She closed her eyes, trying to separate whimsy from reality.
A memory clip of a horse dashing across the road in front of her played for her. She hadn't blacked out! The beast bolted across the road like a streak of fire against the Big Sky landscape. Not the ordinary animal staring at her through herwindshield, but a magnificent red with a golden mane and tail-truly worthy of any silver screen hero.
Or were they both hallucinations? Had the same people who'd killed her boss caught up with her as well? Of late, reality and nightmare were impossible to separate. Deanna took a deep breath, fighting a wave of dizziness, and peeked again through the windshield. Old One Eye was still there, but dare she trust her senses yet? It had been three days since she'd had a decent meal. Maybe she had blacked out and was still dreaming. Maybe ...
"Ma'am, where are you hurt?" The voice aggravated her aching head, invading her surreal world.
Deanna groaned. She hurt, and pain had no business in this hallucination ... if indeed that's what it was. And hallucinations didn't talk either. She turned her head in the direction of an alarmed masculine voice. Like shaken snow in a glass dome, her senses began to settle. She wasn't alone with a one-eyed horse. There was a man as well-or a man and a half. Gradually the images of her faceless companion merged into one against the blue sky beyond him.
Straight from one of those backwoods horror films was a character as unsettling in appearance as her circumstances-scruffy beard, dusty leather and denim, even his horse was patched. Whatever happened to those clean-cut, pistol-wielding heroes in the Westerns she'd watched with her dad as a child in Brooklyn? That was what she needed now, not some backwoods nature freak in a beat-up Stetson-or someone even worse. She noted the lethal-looking knife sheathed on his thigh. Serial killer came to mind.
Get a grip, girl. You've watched one too many horror films.
"Ma'am?" Although he seemed to be a polite serial killer. The concern etched on his shaded forehead by two arched brows seemed genuine. But were those rusty-looking stains on his worn jeans and shirt blood?
Deanna's voice squeaked through the noose of anxiety constricting her throat. "I ... I'm fine."
This was not what she'd come west to find. But then, nothing in the seemingly green pastures of Montana's Big Sky country had been what a city born marketing exec once dreamed of from her office. Certainly not the smooth-talking weasel in an Armani suit and flawlessly shaped Stetson who'd lured her like a sheep to the slaughter from Manhattan to his Great Falls business with promises of advancement mixed with romantic innuendo. But if C. R. Majors had been a weasel, what kind of homegrown varmint had she stumbled across now?
"Can you move?"
Deanna shook her head. She wasn't moving anywhere with him. She glanced beyond the man to where his ink-blotched horse nuzzled him from behind. Hanging from a sling on its saddle was a gun, a high-powered looking thing that ... She closed her eyes to still the alarm unsettling the tentative balance in her stomach. Was he one of those gun-hoarding militia fanatics with six wives and three dozen children? Where was the ATF when a gal needed it?
At the touch of his fingers over her eyelids, Deanna bolted toward the passenger side of her small car, but her seat belt cut off her startled gasp.
"Hey, take it easy. I'm not gonna hurt you. I thought you'd passed out on me."
"Not a chance." Deanna summoned what reserve she had left and settled in the driver's seat, loosening the nylon garrote. "I'm okay, just a little stunned. You wouldn't have a cell phone, would you?"
He grinned, nodding toward his horse. "Nope, Patch here didn't come equipped with one."
Duh. Why would a guy whose transportation was a horse have a cell phone? At least he had all his teeth. And on closer look, his eyes twinkled beneath the dusty brown bush of his brow. The effect was disarming. Serial killers didn't have twinkling eyes, did they? Criminals leaned toward those wild, elevator-doesn't-go-all-the-way-to-the-top eyes. And their hair didn't lie in rakish curls around their collars.
"I'd feel a whole lot better," he said, taking advantage of her confusion and tilting her face toward him for further study, "if you'd just step out of the car. I'd like to see you stand on your own. Think you can get out? Or do you want me to unload my guns first?"
"Like in more-than-that-one-hanging-on-the-saddle guns?" she quipped before she could catch herself. The same wry wit and ready tongue that had propelled her up the corporate ladder could be a curse on occasion.
To Deanna's embarrassment, the cowboy-extremist-serial killer, or just plain ordinary Joe, roared with laughter. Her blood rushed warm and ebbed cold at the same time as he drew a pistol from beneath his vest and ejected the cartridge. With a patronizing smirk surrounded by a week's worth of stubble, he laid it on the hood of her car. White teeth flashing as he untied the leather thong of his hunting knife, he put her in mind of a young Clint Eastwood-before a bath, shave, and a much needed curbing of his swagger.
Galled into action, Deanna swung her legs around to get out. Bloodstains or not, she hadn't gotten where she was-or rather, where she'd been until three days ago-by cowering. He might strangle her, or heaven knew what, but she was not going to be laughed at. Just short of her feet reaching the ground, she was jerked back into her seat by the belt she'd forgotten in her addled state.
"It helps to unfasten this," her rescuer drawled, reaching in and releasing the restraint with annoying amusement.
Deanna endured his ministration, her abdominal muscles contracting in further retreat as the back of his work-roughened fingers pricked warm against the thin silk of her blouse. As he helped her out of the vehicle, whatever bravado she'd accumulated in her once bright career had abandoned her like everything else she once depended upon.
Even if this man had been clad in a police uniform, she had every right to be rattled. She'd just been run off the road by a run-away horse and wrecked her car in a ditch. The crumpled, blue hood of the import looked as if it had taken a giant bite out of the dirt bank that had stopped it. The fact that she still owed money on the indulgence rolled her stomach.
"This is all I need," she muttered through clenched teeth to hold back an overwhelming rise of despair. Instead, it struck her across the back of the knees, buckling them beneath her weight.
Before she knew it, her companion swept her off her feet and eased her back against the car seat with surprising gentleness. He examined her head. "Looks like you took a nasty bump."
"So much for the air bag." As far as Deanna could tell, it was still neatly packed in the steering wheel. "If there really is one in-"
"Just relax," her rescuer said as she drew away from his tender touch. "I'm unarmed and harmless."
The muscles in his sun-bronzed forearm contradicted his claim, but Deanna ached too much to protest his tender attention to her aching head. Instead, she leaned against the leather head-rest while the man wiped her brow with a red bandana he pulled from his hat.
"Just a little cut on that lump there," he murmured, all business as he tied it over the lump swelling just within her hairline. The bandana was damp from having served as a sweatband, yet she was surprised to feel nothing of her initial revulsion.
She'd reached her limit. Nothing else could faze her, not after what she'd been through. Dare she hope that her luck, if she could call it that, was changing?
"It's bleeding a little." He backed away to inspect his handiwork. "You got a name, ma'am?"
Okay, she might hope, but she wouldn't trust.
"Manetti," Deanna ventured. "Deanna Manetti." At least she still knew who she was, much as she'd like to forget it.
"Can you tell me what happened, Miss Manetti?"
The questions were getting harder already. Her head throbbed worse, now that the man had pointed out the swelling. She felt as though she were about to lose her brunch, a mini-candy bar devoured hours earlier.
"A horse raced out in front of me and ran me off the road. A red horse." Fourteen years since she got her driver's license in New York City and not once had she had an accident. Instead, she'd traveled across the United States to have a run-in with a horse. She almost laughed at the absurdity, but her throat merely squeaked.
"How about some water? I have some in my canteen."
Of course a cowboy would have a canteen, she mused, daring to nod in cautious assent. If he even was a cowboy. She was so tired and hungry that she'd grown slaphappy.
Her companion approached the spotted horse, removed a canteen from its saddle, and returned to her with long booted strides. In a wink, he uncapped it and handed it to her.
Deanna didn't go for the idea of drinking after anyone, but under the dire circumstance, the water was like nectar from the gods ... and cold too! Upon closer examination, she discovered the container was insulated. Thermoses had gone west, if not cell phones.
"Best swish that about in your mouth and spit it out. Then swallow the next sip."
"You a dentist too?" Her paltry attempt at humor made her wince. She didn't understand the reasoning behind his odd request, but he was in his element - dirt, rocks, smelly horses, and leather. She was out of hers - diesel smut, skyscrapers, swerving taxis, and tailored executive fashion.
"No, but I've been up all night with a horse that took too much sand. Gives 'em a bellyache."
Uncertain as to whether or not he was pulling her leg, Deanna followed his instructions. When in Rome ... She swished and spit as delicately as possible. To her horror, it landed on his dusty boots.
"S'okay. It takes practice." He scuffed them in the dirt, more intent on her than her poor aim.
Never in her life had she expectorated in front of anyone. Along with the rule about not drinking after others, her mother had drilled that lesson into her head as well. Toothbrush time at the bathroom sink summed up Deanna's entire experience with spittle aim.
What she wouldn't give to go back to those days, but they were gone. Her parents had died in a traffic accident shortly after her high school graduation. Deanna sold their modest apartment in the city when she made the big move to Montana. After all, she'd had no reason to stay, no relatives to speak of, and no one special in her life.
"What brings you to Buffalo Butte, Miss Manetti?"
Ambition was on the tip of her tongue. Romance flashed through her mind. That was why she'd left the city and come west. C. R. embodied both, but all he'd led her to was disaster. And now she was in no-woman's land.
"Where did you say I was?"
"Actually Buffalo Butte's the nearest town. You're on Hopewell, my ranch," he said. "You've been on it for the last four miles, since you ran out of paved road."
"I made a wrong turn." It was true. She never should have turned west on the interstate from New York, and she certainly didn't know where she'd turned in these Montana hills. She was lost. Worse, she was glad of it. If she didn't know where she was, no one else did either.
"Where were you headed?"
"Do you ever run out of questions?"
"Got a whole hat full," her rescuer shot back with a grin. It was one of those wide, lazy grins his kind had invented.
"Have you a name in it as well?"
He shoved the dusty brim off his face in a cordial manner. "Shepard Jones, but most folks call me Shep."
Shepard. Heaven knew she needed one about now.
"I was just sightseeing," she lied, before adding an element of truth to salve her guilt. "Guess I made a wrong turn. I didn't know this was private property." And technically, she had been seeing sights, all unfamiliar.
"Was it a sorrel ... the horse that caused this?" Shep pointed to her buckled hood.
"No, it was red."
"Sorrel is red, Slick." At Deanna's astonished expression, he explained the nickname away. "I saw those New York license plates and figured you to be a city slicker."
"There are horses in New York," she reminded him, bristling at his condescension. "Even in the city."
"Wherever they are, red ones are still sorrel."
Okay, he was teasing her, but how could a girl complain when it was done with a grin, bracketed by lines that betrayed a long-time sense of humor? "So you know the horse?" she returned with a wry tip of her lips. For the first time, Deanna felt as though the uncomfortable shoe had been switched to Shepard Jones's foot.
He looked away for a moment and nodded. "'Fraid so. He's one of mine." Pulling his hat down lower, as if shifting down to business, he returned his attention to her. "Looks like I owe you. Think you can walk now?"
"Walk? Walk where?" Deanna stalled, not the least bit certain she could. Besides, she felt as if her head might fall off if she stood again.
Instead of answering, Shep pulled her to her feet with a firm grip on her upper arms. This time, it was Deanna who shouted, "Whoa!" as she grasped the front of his shirt to keep from falling.
In an instant, his long arms were under her, lifting her into the air with little effort. She fell hard against his chest with a gasp, still clinging to the loose-fitting front of the garment as if to choke him.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Why, rescuing you. Isn't that what we cowboys do?"
So he really was a cowboy ... and a bit of a smart aleck. She refrained from complaining that he was three days too late to be of any real help to her. This little fender bender was the least of her worries.
Excerpted from Along Came Jones by LINDA WINDSOR Copyright © 2003 by Windsor Enterprises, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.