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Stagecoach 10 Miles
Rachel Lewis strangled the steering wheel Sunday afternoon as she sped along the deserted Arizona highway southeast of Yuma. Although she'd been born in this desolate wasteland, the bone-dry landscape remained unfamiliar to her. The car's thermometer displayed 100it was only June seventh. After living two decades in Rhode Island, temps over eighty degrees constituted sweltering.
How did people survive this heat? Better yet. .how would she handle three months of hundred-degree-plus temperatures on her father's ranch?
You 're almost there. Eight hours in her car and the wavy heat lines hovering above the baking asphalt threatened to mesmerize Rachel. She gulped several swallows from her water bottle. Her concentration restored, she searched for a large rock, a mountain peak, a saguaro with too many armsanything that might help her recall the first few years of her life in Hell's backyard. Nothing. She felt like a tourist in a foreign land.
When Rachel was five years old, her mother had died in a horse accident and her father had shipped
Rachel east to live with her aunt. Twenty-two years later she was returning to her birthplacenot because she wanted to but because her father had asked her to.
The speedometer nudged eighty and she eased her foot off the accelerator. Thoughts of P. T. Lewis sent her blood pressure soaring. A week before the public schools in Rhode Island had dismissed for the summer Rachel had learned her father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and would be undergoing three months of treatment at a medical center in Phoenix. Before she'd uttered a single word of sympathy, he'd asked her to return to Stagecoach to run his rodeo-production company.
The phone call had been the first time her father had reached out to her since her mother's death and the hurt, abandoned little girl in Rachel had yearned to shout, "No!"
But Rachel wasn't a child. She was a grown woman with a successful career as a high school psychologist and athletic trainer. On a daily basis she dealt with teenagers who struggled with anger-management issues, eating disorders, physical disabilities and social adjustment problems. Too bad her background in psychology did nothing to ease the anger and hurt that had festered inside her the past twenty-two years. Her immature reaction to her father's request had triggered a bout of serious soul-searching.
Deep down she yearned to be needed by her father because he loved hernot because he wanted her to manage his business. Dare she hope P.T.'s call for help signaled a desire to mend their relationship? After several sleepless nights Rachel had acknowledged she wasn't certain she was able or even willing to forgive her father for choosing not to be involved in her life. In the end, his health had convinced her to attempt reconciliation.
P.T. was all the family Rachel had left, but she hesitated about becoming too close to him when a chance existed that he wouldn't beat his cancer. All these years she'd struggled to accept her father's disregard. If she opened her heart to him and then he didn't survive How would she endure losing her father twice in one lifetime?
I wish you were here to help me, Aunt Edith.
Rachel loved her aunt for all the sacrifices the woman had made in raising Rachel. Aunt Edith was the sole reason Rachel had survived her father's absence through the years. Her aunt had never openly criticized her brother for neglecting his only child but Rachel had eavesdropped on phone conversations through the years and overheard Aunt Edith reprimand her brother for not visiting Rachel or speaking with her on the phone.
Relax. It's not as if you're going to a job interview. She might as well be. For all intents and purposes, P.T. was a stranger to her.
Turn around and go home. Say you changed your mind. Not after driving over twenty-five hundred miles and crossing thirteen states in three and a half days.
Needing to mentally prepare herself for seeing her father, Rachel had chosen to drive rather than fly to Arizona. The last meeting with P.T. had been at her aunt's funeral two years ago. He'd stayed one night at a hotel then departed the following morning.
The road curved around an outcropping of jagged rock and Rachel focused on her driving. After executing the turn, she had a split second to react to the roadblock in her lane. She slammed her foot on the brake, wincing as the seat belt bit into her skin. Fear of crashing into the rock wall on her right or skidding off the shoulder on her left prevented Rachel from swerving. She squeezed her eyes closed then sent a silent prayer heavenward.
Screeching tires on asphalt filled Rachel's ears and the smell of burning rubber spewed from the air-conditioning vents. Not more than a few seconds had passed before the car rocked to a halt. Fingers fused to the steering wheel, it took a moment for her to realize she hadn't hit the big, brown blob. Relieved, she exhaled and opened her eyes.
Oh my God. Was that a bull drooling on the hood of her silver Prius? She scanned the horizon. Where was a cowboy when you needed one?
Rachel laid on the horn but instead of moving, the stubborn animal blew snot on her windshield. "It's going to be like that, is it?" She should put the car in Reverse, then drive past the ugly beast, but she couldn't take the chance that another vehicle might hit the animal. Intent on coaxing the bull off the road, she set the parking brake and got out. Keeping the driver-side door between her and the bull, she waved her hands in the air. "Git! Scoot!"
A stare down ensued.
While Rachel contemplated her next move, a horn blasted in the distance. Shielding her gaze from the afternoon sun, she spotted a truck barreling along a rocky incline, kicking up a dust storm that would put a tornado to shame. The driver skillfully maneuvered the vehicle through a maze of rocks and prickly pear cacti before stopping at the edge of the road. He leaped from the truck. "You didn't hit him, did you?"
Ignoring his question, she asked, "Does this dumb animal belong to you?"
The cowboy was older than Rachel by a few years. Lines bracketed his mouth and fanned from the corners of his eyes, attesting to a life working in the desert. A little over six feet, his broad shoulders hinted at plenty of muscle beneath his long-sleeved blue cotton shirt. Rachel doubted there was a woman on earth who wouldn't feel protected and safe with this man's arms wrapped around her.
He stopped next to the bull and bent at the waist, flashing his sexy backside at her. The Wrangler jeans fit his tight She cleared her throat, miffed that the cowboy appeared more concerned with the bull than her. "Aren't you going to ask if I'm all right?"
His brown-eyed gaze traveled over her body. "You don't appear as shaken as Curly."
How would he know if the bull was upset or not? "Curly looks fine to me."
"The tire's resting on his hoof."
"Oh, no!" Forgetting her safety, Rachel rushed to the front of the car only to discover the tire was nowhere near the bull's hoof. "Your sense of humor stinks, mister."
He grinned and Rachel's heart jolted. His crooked smile highlighted a sexy dimple in his cheek, and gorgeous teeth, which appeared unnaturally white against his tanned face. Stuck in cowboy-ogle land, Rachel gaped.
"Sorry." He removed his Stetson and scratched his head. "Couldn't resist teasing you." He wore his dark hair neatly trimmedthe no-nonsense style at odds with the twinkle in his brown eyes.
"You've been out in the sun too long and the heat has baked your brain." Rachel perched her hands on her hips. "Are you going to move this bull off the road?"
"Well, ma'am, if you have a gadget in your car I can use to "
After he'd called her ma'am Rachel hadn't heard a word he'd said. "How old do you think I am?"
"You called me ma'am."
There went his grin again stealing the oxygen from her lungs. "We cowboys use that term loosely."
Irritated by his cocky attitude she said, "I'm twenty-seven."
Good grief. She glanced at her watch. "How long is this going to take?"
"Curly's stubborn. He won't budge until he's good
"If the bull is that difficult why isn't he contained behind a fence?"
"Mating season." The man's cheeks turned ruddy. "Every so often Curly succumbs to nature's call and busts through the fence to get to his girlfriend."
Males and their damned urges. "Sounds like Curly needs an owner who's smarter than him."
Her barb didn't faze him. "Like I said before, Curly's"
"Stubborn." So was Rachel. She pushed the cowboy out of her way then shoved the bull's rump with both hands. The big nuisance turned his head and stared at her.
The cowboy smirked.
"Least you could do is help," Rachel snapped. His grin widened.
"Maybe Curly needs a little encouragement." She hopped into the driver's seat and started the engine, swallowing a chuckle when the cowboy's mouth sagged open. Rachel shifted into Drive, then slowlyvery slowlylifted her foot off the brake. The car rocked forward, bumping the bull's side. The beast didn't move. She pressed the tip of her toe against the gas but the bull stood solid. Frustrated, she laid on the horn. Curly didn't bat an eyelash but the cowboy almost jumped out of his boots.
As far as Clint was concerned the uppity lady had no sense of humor. He should have guessed as much by the car she droveone of them silly hybrids. Shoot, she was probably a vegetarian because beef came from cattle and bovines polluted the air with methane gas. Even so, she had the most beautiful mouthwhen it wasn't sassing him. Full lips painted with a sparkly pink gloss that begged for a man's kiss.
He walked to the driver's side and waited for her to lower the window. "You got a fly swatter or an umbrella?" He had plenty of gizmos in his truck but he wasn't in a rush to go anywhere.
"What do you need never mind." She shut off the car then leaned over the front seat and rummaged through a shopping bag on the floor, offering Clint a bird's-eye view of her firm fanny.
Too bad the lady was so uptight or he might be interested in learning her final destination. He hadn't seen a ring on her finger but he'd noticed plenty more. A large clip secured a mass of wavy blond hair to her head. Several strands escaped the sexy pile, softening her face. Khaki shorts showed off pale legstoned in all the right placesand a sleeveless shirt hugged her small breasts. He wished she'd take off her sunglasses so he could see the color of her eyes. It had been a long while since he'd come upon a woman who'd snagged his interest. A shame she was a snoot.
"Here it is." She produced a plastic back scratcher painted to resemble a saguaro cactus. She'd probably purchased the cheesy souvenir at one of several tourist stands scattered along the highway.
"That'll work." His fingers bumped hers when he grabbed the scratcher, and a warm sensation shot up his arm. He attributed his reaction to the female dry spell he was experiencing. He'd lost track of when he and Monica had parted waysmust have been months ago if his body found a prissy woman in a Prius attractive.