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No matter what exotic parts of the world he visited, Brant Western hadn't forgotten how the cold of a February evening in Idaho could clutch at his lungs with icy claws that refused to let go.
In the past hour, the light snow flurries of the afternoon had turned vicious, intense. The active storm front forecasters had been warning about since he arrived for his mid-tour leave two days earlier had finally started its relentless march across this tiny corner of eastern Idaho toward Wyoming.
Icy flakes spit against his unprotected face with all the force of an Al Asad sandstorm. Somehow they found their way to every exposed surface, even sliding beneath the collar of his heavy shearling-lined ranch coat.
This was the sort of Idaho night made for hunkering down by the fire with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa.
The picture had undeniable appeal, one of the many images of home that had sustained him through fierce firefights and long campaigns and endless nights under Afghan and Iraqi stars.
After, he reminded himself. When the few cattle at the Western Sky had been fed and all the horses were safe and snug in the barn, then he could settle in front of the fire with the thriller he'd picked up in the airport.
"Come on, Tag. We're almost done, then we can go home."
His horse, a sturdy buckskin gelding, whinnied as if he completely understood every word and continued plodding along the faint outline of a road still visible under the quickly falling snow.
Brant supposed this was a crazy journey. The hundred head of cows and their calves weren't even his cattle but belonged to a neighbor of the Western Sky who leased the land while Brant was deployed.
Carson McRaven took good care of his stock. Brant wouldn't have agreed to the lease if he didn't. But since the cattle were currently residing on his property, he felt responsibility toward them.
Sometimes that sense of obligation could be a genuine pain in the butt, he acknowledged as he and Tag finished making sure the warmers in the water troughs were functioning and turned back toward the house.
They hadn't gone more than a dozen yards when he saw headlights slicing weakly through the fusillade of snow, heading toward the ranch far too quickly for these wintry conditions.
He squinted in the murky twilight. Who did he know who would be stupid or crazy enough to venture out in this kind of weather?
Easton was the logical choice but he had just talked to her on the phone a half hour earlier, before he had set out on this fool's errand to check the ranch, and she had assured him that after the wedding they had both attended the night before, she was going to bed early with a lingering headache.
He worried about her. He couldn't deny that. Easton hadn't been the same since her aunt, his foster mother, had died of cancer several months earlier. Even longer, really. She hadn't been the sweet, funny girl he'd known and loved most of his life maybe since around the time Guff Winder had died.
Maybe Easton wasn't acting like herself, but he was pretty sure she had the good sense to hunker down at Winder Ranch during a storm like this. If she did venture out, he was pretty sure she was smart enough to slow down when conditions demanded it, especially since he and his foster brothers had drilled that into her head when they taught her to drive.
So if that driver wasn't Easton, who was barreling toward his ranch on the cusp of a ferocious winter storm?
Somebody lost, no doubt. Sometimes these remote canyon roads were difficult to negotiate and the snow could obscure landmarks and address markings. With a sigh, he spurred Tag toward the road to point the wayward traveler in the right direction.
He was just wishing for a decent pair of optics so he could get a better look at who it might be, when the vehicle suddenly went into a slide. He saw it coming as the driver took a curve too fast and he pushed Tag faster, praying he was wrong. But an instant later the driver overcorrected and as Brant held his breath, the vehicle spun out on the icy road.
It was almost like some grisly slow-motion movie, watching it careen over the edge of the road, heading straight for Cold Creek, at the bottom of a maybe five-foot drop.
The vehicle disappeared from view and Brant smacked the reins and dug his heels into the horse's sides, racing as fast as he dared toward the slide-out.
When he reached the creek's edge, he could barely make out in the gathering darkness that the vehicle wasn't quite submerged in the creek but it was a close thing. The SUV had landed on a large granite boulder in the middle of the creek bed, the front end crumpled and the rear wheels still on the bank.
Though he tried not to swear as a habit, he couldn't help hissing out a fierce epithet as he scrambled down from the horse. In February, the creek was only a couple feet deep at most and the current wasn't strong enough to carry off an SUV, but Brant would still have to get wet to get to the vehicle. There was no other way around it.
He heard a faint moan from inside and what sounded, oddly, like a tiny lamb bleating.
"Hang on," he called. "I'll get you out of there in a minute."
Just in the minute or two he had stood surveying the scene and figuring out how to attack the problem, darkness had completely descended and the snow stung at him from every direction. The wind surged around him, taunting and cruel. Even as cold as he was from the storm, he wasn't prepared for the frigid shock of the water through his boots and his lined Wranglers as he waded up to his knees.
He heard that moan again and this time he isolated the sound he had mistaken for a bleating lamb. It was a dog, a tiny one by the sound of it, yipping like crazy.
"Hang on," he called. "Won't take me but a minute and I'll have you out of there, then we can call for help."
When he slogged through the water and finally reached the vehicle, he yanked open the door. The driver was female, in her mid-twenties, maybe. He had a quick impression of wisps of dark curls that looked stark in contrast with her pale, delicate features.
With every passing second, her core temperature would be dropping and he knew he needed to extract her from the SUV and out of the water and the elements before he could completely assess her condition, though it went against every basic tenet of medical training each Army Ranger received, about not moving an injury victim until you knew the extent of injuries.
"Cold," she murmured.
"I know. I'm sorry about that."
He took it as a good sign that she didn't moan or cry out when he scooped her out of the vehicle. If she had broken bones, she wouldn't have been able to hide her discomfort. She didn't say anything at all, just gripped his jacket tightly, her slight body trembling from both the shock and the cold, he guessed.
She wasn't heavy, maybe a hundred and ten pounds, he judged, but carrying her through the ice-crusted water still took every bit of his energy. By the time he reached the bank and headed up the slight slope with her in his arms, he was breathing hard and was pretty sure he couldn't feel his feet anymore.
He'd learned in the early days dealing with combat injuries that the trick to keeping injured men calm was to give as much information as he could about what was going on so they didn't feel completely out of control about what was happening to them. He figured the same technique would work just as well in accident situations. "I'm going to take you back to my place on the horse, okay?"
She nodded and didn't protest when he lifted her onto Tag's back, where she clung tightly to the pommel.
"Hang on now," he said when he was sure she was secure. "I'm going to climb on behind you and then we can get you warm and dry."
When he tried to lift his icy, wet boot into the stirrup, it seemed to weigh as much as the woman had. He had to use all his strength just to raise it that two feet. Just as he shoved it in and prepared to swing the other leg onto the horse, she gasped.
"Simone. My Simone. Please, can you get her?"
He closed his eyes. Simone must be the dog. With the wind howling around them, he couldn't hear the yips anymore and he'd been so focused on the woman that he'd completely forgotten about her dog.
"Are you okay up there for a minute?" he asked, dreading the idea of wading back through that frigid water.
"Yes. Oh, please."
He had survived worse than a little cold water, he reminded himself. Much, much worse.
Returning to the vehicle took him only a moment. In the backseat, he found at least a half-dozen pieces of luggage and a tiny pink dog carrier. The occupant yipped and growled a big show at him.
"You want to stay here?" Brant growled right back. "Because I'd be just great with that."
The dog immediately subsided and under other circumstances he might have smiled at the instant submission, if he wasn't so concerned about getting them all back to the house in one piece. "Yeah, I didn't think so. Come on, let's get you out of here."
As he considered the logistics of things, he realized there was no way he could carry the bulky dog carrier and keep hold of the woman on horseback at the same time, so he unlatched the door of the carrier. A tiny white mound of fur hurtled into his arms.
Not knowing what else to do, he unzipped his coat halfway and shoved the puffball inside then zipped his coat up again, feeling ridiculously grateful none of the men in his company could see him risking hypothermia for six pounds of fuzzy canine.
The woman was still on Tag's back, he was relieved to see when he made his torturous way back through the water, though she seemed to be slumping a little more.
She was dressed in a woefully inadequate pink parka with a fur-lined hood that looked more suited to some fancy après-ski party in Jackson Hole than braving the bitterness of an Idaho blizzard and Brant knew he needed to get them all back to the ranch house ASAP.
"Is she all right?" the woman asked.
What about him? Brant wondered grumpily. He was the one with frostbitten toes. But in answer, he unzipped his coat, where the furry white head popped out. The woman sighed in relief, her delicate features relaxing slightly, and Brant handed the dog up to her.
He caught a glimpse of the little pooch licking her face that looked oddly familiar as he climbed up behind her, but he didn't take time to analyze it as he dug his heels into the horse's side, grateful Tag was one of the strongest, steadiest horses in the small Western Sky stable.
"We'll get you warmed up. I've got a fire in the woodstove at home. Just hang on a few minutes, okay?"
She nodded, slumping back against him, and he curved his arms around her, worried she would slide off.
"Thank you," she murmured, so low he could hardly hear above the moaning of that bitter wind.
He pulled her as close as he could to block the storm as Tag trudged toward home at a hard walk, as fast as Brant dared push him.
"I'm Brant," he said after a few moments. "What's your name?"
She turned her head slightly and he saw dazed confusion in her eyes. "Where are we?" she asked instead of answering him.
He decided not to push her right now. No doubt she was still bemused from the shock of driving her SUV into a creek. "My ranch in eastern Idaho, the Western Sky. The house is just over that hill there."
She nodded slightly and then he felt her slump bone-lessly against him.
"Are you still with me?" he asked with concern. When she didn't answer, his arms tightened around her. Out of pure instinct, he grabbed for the dog seconds before she would have dropped it as she slipped into unconsciousness—surely a fatal fall for the little animal from this height. He managed to snag the dog and shove it back into his coat and his arms tightened around the woman as he nudged Tag even faster.
It was a surreal journey, cold and tense and nerve-racking. He didn't see the lights of the ranch house until they had nearly reached it. When he could finally make out the solid shape of the place, Brant was quite certain it was just about the most welcome sight he had ever beheld.
He led the horse to the bottom of the porch steps and dismounted carefully, keeping a hand on the woman so she didn't teeter to the ground.
"Sorry about this, Tag," he murmured to the horse as he lifted the woman's limp form into his arms. "You've been great but I need you to hang on a few more minutes out here in the cold while I take care of our guest and then I can get you into the warm barn. You deserve some extra oats after tonight."
The horse whinnied in response as Brant rushed up the porch steps and into the house. He quickly carried her inside to the family room where, just as he'd promised, the fire he'd built up in the woodstove before he left still sent out plenty of blissful warmth.
She didn't stir when he laid her on the sofa. As he was bent over to unzip her parka so he could check her injuries, the dog wriggled free of the opening of Brant's own coat and landed on her motionless mistress and began licking her face again, where a thin line of blood trickled from a cut just above her eye.
A raspy dog's tongue was apparently enough to jolt her back to at least semiconsciousness. "Simone?" she murmured and her arms slid around the dog, who settled in the crook of her arms happily.
She was soaked through from the snow's onslaught and Brant knew she wouldn't truly warm up until he could get her out of her wet clothing. Beyond that, he had to examine her more closely for broken bones.
"I'm going to get you some dry clothes, okay? I'll be right back."