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A horn blared, metal crashed, shattering Emma Smith's concentration and jolting her against the steering wheel. She scrambled out of her truck, only to find a tall stranger with an accusing finger pointed straight at her. His flashlight and the blinding rain made it impossible to see him clearly.
"Are you crazy or something, lady? Didn't you see me coming?"
When she didn't answer, he rattled on. "Are you hurt, is your truck damaged?" The man demanded, oblivious to the raging spring storm. His voice was edged with concern and withheld anger.
A stupid question if there ever was one. No one could see in this kind of a storm.
Momentarily blinded by his flashlight, all she could see now was a tall, broad- shouldered, narrow-hipped dark shadow with a Stetson, and a condescending voice. A cowboy, she should have known. Just her luck.
"In case you hadn't noticed," she said, shaking with indignation, "it's pouring cats and dogs out here. I couldn't see the hood of my own truck much less yours. I couldn't see you coming around that bend in the road."
Perhaps he deserved an apology at the very least, but Emma didn't feel much like apologizing to a man with a finger in her face. She wished he'd put that flashlight away.
Her hand shielded her eyes from the glare.
Maybe it was better if she didn't see him. When he suddenly clammed up, and stared so long and hard, Emma glanced at herself.
Oh God, in her hurry to get to the store for milk, she had slipped on that ridiculous t-shirt her brothers had given her for her last birthday. 'I'm over 21 and up for grabs!' Not to mention the t-shirt now clung to her like a second skin. She felt a hot blush bloomon her cheeks.
She hadn't planned on getting out in this mess in the middle of the night, but the baby needed milk, she had no choice. Thank God Bertha had enough sense to insist the baby stay with her. Just the thought of the baby being with her during the accident made her shudder.
The fact that she didn't have a bra on only compounded her misery. But dammit it was too late to worry over something that trivial.
"I hope you have insurance, 'cause I don't." She flailed her voice at him.
"Well that figures!" he boomed. He didn't sound too surprised though.
Probably figured her for a real airhead.
He flashed the light first at his truck, then hers. A headlight dangled from his grill. She heard him draw breath, as though steadying his next outburst. Her truck was none the worse for wear.
Emma shook, she didn't want to, but she was cold, angry, and a tad put out by this ogler. What had happened to good old fashioned manners?
"Look, I'll be glad--"
"Isn't that Bertha Martin's old truck?" The stranger interrupted flashing his light toward her truck again.
"It was. I just bought it. You know Bertha?"
"Sure, everyone around here knows Bertha," he said gruffly then cast her another glance. "But she wouldn't sell it. It belonged to her dead husband."
"I don't know anything about her dead husband, but she did sell it to me. Just yesterday as a matter of fact. I haven't even had the title changed yet, but I intend to."
Now the light was back on her face.
"What's your name?"
He made some kind of disgusted grunt and half turned away, then back to her. "Okay, this isn't getting us anywhere so let's get back to our problem. Now what are you going to do about this to make it right?"
"Well naturally I'll pay for it."
"Sure you will," came his condescending voice again. "Okay, let's get this out of the way and be done with it. This isn't the kind of weather to be exchanging trivialities. Let's just exchange names and addresses. You can send me the money."
"You'd trust me?"
"Not exactly, first I'd like to see a little identification."
He moved closer, and she backed up, within arms length of him. Without thought she reached out and put her hand on his chest to stay him. As though he might come closer. She hadn't thought touching a stranger could affect her in any way, but the instant her hand came in contact with warm flesh, all her senses came alive. As though that touch made her conscious of him being a man.
"Look cowboy," she said gulping and trying to sound sophisticated but knew she hadn't come off that good. "I don't have insurance, I'll admit that much. But this ought to cover it." She whipped out a small wad of bills from her front jean pocket and thrust them into his big warm hand. "Now leave me alone, will ya?"
She turned away to escape him when she heard his voice lower to a husky note.
"Ma'am a little identification and an apology would have been enough." The cowboy's words followed her to her truck door. She glanced at the ominous shadow in the rain. The money had fallen from his hands to the ground and he hadn't even bothered to pick it up. Her full paycheck, and he hadn't bothered to pick it up.
"I pay for my mistakes mister."
"I'll take that as an apology, then."
Before he had time to move any closer, she slammed the truck door, jerked it in reverse and took off, spewing mud and water all over his truck in the process. She drove at least two miles down the road, glancing in her rear-view mirror as she went. The cowboy hadn't moved.
Deke Travers moved his hand over his jaw as he stared at the money at his feet. Damn, the woman put him in one hellova awkward position. She'd paid for the accident so to speak, but he was nearly certain she'd stolen Bertha Martin old pickup. He sensed a desperation in this little gal. But he couldn't really see her as a thief. Still it looked like she had stolen the damn truck. He had no choice.
Even if she was the prettiest thing he'd seen in a long time. He had to forget those perfect pouting breasts, and the gentle sway of her hips. Somehow.
He spent the entire trip back to the ranch berating himself for what he was about to do. But Bertha Martin was a friend and he had no choice. He had to report this to the police.
He'd have bet his last dollar the woman was no thief. Something about the look in her face told him that much. The way she faced him, open and direct. The way she threw that money
meant she had to be running from something though. But what?
She hadn't shown him any ID and he certainly didn't buy that name she gave him. Emma Smith. A real phony. Yep, he'd probably been took in this time. The Sheriff would laugh at him for that one.
Emma shook all the way into town. She prayed the little store would be open so she could be on her way.
The lights were just going out as she opened the old screen door to the store, "Mrs. Wharton, could I just get some milk, please?"
"Why sure honey. What are you doing out this late at night?" The woman turned the light on again and opened the door for her.
"I--I, I was making a pie for the cafe tomorrow and I ran out of milk."
"Well land sakes why you baking' so late, hon?"
"I guess I'm a night owl. Bertha reminded me the store would close soon."
"I heard you were staying' with Bertha. That's real nice, she gets kinda lonely stuck out there in the middle of nowhere. But you know when her husband died she wouldn't budge from that place. You'd think with the cafe bein' in town she'd move a little closer," Mrs. Wharton was saying.
"It's hard to move away from your home, I guess."
The woman glanced at Emma as she put the milk on the counter and dug change out of her pocket. Damn, she didn't have enough money left to pay for the milk. She shifted her weight and glanced up at the woman.
Mrs. Wharton looked at her a little funny, then smiled.
"You're only a dime short, honey. Don't fret. I'll stop by for some coffee, how's that?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Wharton, I'm sorry."
"It's only a dime, Emma. Don't fret about it. We're all glad to have you here. We don't get many young folks these days."
"Thanks Mrs. Wharton."
Emma practically ran back to her truck. She laid her head on the steering wheel and felt a hot tear sting her eye. She wouldn't cry. She just wouldn't. Things would get better. They had to. But that thought died the moment she pulled into the old gravel drive at Bertha's place. The Sheriff's car was there, his lights flashing.
Dear God, he had come to take the baby away from her!