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Lesson number one in birthing class: never drive a car crosscountry alone. Especially during the ninth month of pregnancy.
But Jenna Garwood had never taken a birthing class.
For the tenth time in as many minutes, she cast an anxious glance in the rearview mirror, relieved to see that no one had followed her when she'd exited the interstate some miles back.
Since her escape from the Carrington Estate, she'd zigged and zagged from the east toward the west, careful to cover her tracks. After three days, she shouldn't be so worried. But the long arm of the Carrington family reached far and wide. And they didn't give up easily.
When she'd heard the plans they had for her unborn child, Jenna had done the only thing that made sense. She'd run.
She had always been weak, but the little girl beneath her breast had given her strength. After the humiliation and sorrow of the last two years, the baby had given her a reason to try again.
A moan slipped past a bottom lip raw from constant gnawing. She bent forward over the steering wheel to stretch the kink in her back wishing she hadn't spritzed the car's interior with eau de parfum this morning. The stench of dirt and oil intermingled with the honeyed notes of orange blossom rose from the floorboard like an unwanted visitor. Saliva pooled in her mouth. As she tried to focus on the road, she swallowed, regretful, too, of the hamburger she'd eaten for breakfast.
Somewhere in this empty Texas landscape, there had to be a quiet little town where she could rest… and hide… until the ache in her back subsided.
"Only a little farther, darling," she murmured to the hard ball around her middle. "Mommy'stired, too."
Tired was an understatement of monumental proportions.
Her back had hurt nonstop throughout the duration of her pregnancy but during the last twelve hours the discomfort had grown steadily worse. If it had been her belly instead of her back, she would have been scared.
In conjunction with long hours behind the wheel, stress was the likely culprit. She hadn't relaxed once since leaving the estate. Even sleep was accomplished with an ear to the door and her eyes half-open.
The stretching, pressing ache deepened. She really needed to find that town.
She reached for her handbag, a pink crocodile spy bag her mother had purchased for Jenna's twenty-second birthday six weeks ago. The purse, stuffed full of the very best cosmetics, a spa coupon, and a five-thousand-dollar shopping card, had been nothing short of a bribe and Jenna knew it. Unfortunately Mother never understood that monetary possessions had ceased to inspire loyalty in her daughter. Only one thing had her complete and utter devotion—the tiny person who, at this very moment, was causing a great deal of discomfort to Jenna's body.
As her fingers flipped open the purse flap, Jenna hissed a frustrated breath between her teeth. She no longer owned the elegant slider phone, complete with GPS and remote Internet access. Still fully charged and activated, she'd donated it to a bewildered but grateful soldier at an airport in Philadelphia. By the time the device had been located, it would be somewhere in the Middle East.
"Who would you call anyway?" Even 9-1-1 was fraught with difficulties. Though the Carringtons disdained public attention, choosing to deal with their scandals in a more discreet and private manner, Jenna would allow no chance of alerting anyone to her whereabouts.
She forced herself to breathe slow and deep. The tense, tense muscles in her back only grew tighter.
A flutter of panic trembled in her stomach. What if she went into labor out here alone?
She turned on the radio, praying for a distraction, while also pressing the car's accelerator. She needed to get somewhere fast.
A male voice, rich in Texas twang, came through the speakers to announce a fall festival at Saddleback Elementary School and a garage sale at 220 Pinehurst behind the Saddleback Pizza Place.
Saddleback must be a town. But where was it?
She gave the radio a pleading glance. "Can't you be a bit more specific?"
The pressure inside her body increased. A new and more insistent discomfort had moved around front to a spot low in her belly. Very low. She gasped and shifted sideways onto one hip. The pressure mounted, deeper, harder, stronger.
A guttural groan erupted from Jenna's throat. The sound was foreign, so different from her normal modulated tone.
From the radio pounded a driving beat of electric guitar and bass. The intensity echoed in her body.
The road ahead seemed to waver.
Fingers of iron gripped her abdomen. She was in trouble. Real trouble.
She blinked, panting, fighting the pressure. Sweat stung her eyes. Texas weather was cool, though not nearly as cold as a Pennsylvania November, and yet, Jenna was roasting inside the small blue economy. She reached for the air-conditioning controls and saw, with concern, how pale and shaky she'd become.
Before she could take another breath, a squeezing pain of epic proportions followed hard on the heels of the intense pressure.
"Oh no." She was in labor. Either that or her body was rupturing from the inside out.
Mouth open, panting like a puppy, she gripped the steering wheel with both hands and tried to stay on the road.
"Not yet, baby. Not yet. Let me find a hospital first." She squinted into the glare of an overcast sky, hoping for something, anything. A town, a house, another car.
Nothing but the endless brown landscape and an occasional line of naked trees.
The pressure mounted again, little by little, a warning that another power punch was on the way. Dread tensed her shoulders. "Nooo."
Her body poured sweat. So unladylike. Had Mother perspired this much with her?
She had to escape the pain. She had to. Perhaps if she stopped, got out of the car and walked a bit. Walking had helped in the past to ease the back ache. Even if walking didn't help, she could drive no further. She wouldn't take a chance of having an accident.
She tapped the brake and aimed the car toward the grassy roadside. Her belly tightened again. With one hand, she grabbed for the rock-hard mound, moaning with dread. The terrible pain was coming again. She could think of nothing but the battle raging in her body.
Just before the agony took control, Jenna saw a flash of barbed wire and orange fence posts. The fence moved closer and closer.
And there was nothing she could do about it.
As his King Ranch pickup truck roared down County Road 275, Dax Coleman had two things on his mind: a hot shower and a good meal.
At the last thought, his mouth curled, mocking him. He hadn't had a good meal since the latest of a long string of housekeepers quit two weeks ago. Supper would be microwave pizza or scrambled eggs, the extent of his culinary gifts. His own fault, certainly. He wasn't the easiest man in Texas to live with. Just ask his ex-wife—if you could find her.
A snarl escaped him. He reached over to raise the radio volume and drown out thoughts of Reba.
As he rounded the last lazy curve before the turnoff to the Southpaw Cattle Company, a car in the distance caught his attention. Dax leaned forward, squinting into the overcast day.
The guy up ahead was either drunk, lost or having trouble. Dax took his foot off the accelerator. The car, a dirty blue economy model, was taking its share of the road out of the middle. It wove to the left and then back again as the driver began to slow.
With a beleaguered sigh, Dax tapped the brake. He wasn't in the mood for drunks. He wasn't in the mood for any kind of people, come to think of it.
For the last five years, all he'd really wanted out of life was his son and his ranch. The rest of the world could leave him the heck alone.
The car ahead slowed considerably and aimed for the side of the road. Maybe the fella was having car trouble.
After an afternoon of helping Bryce Patterson separate calves, Dax was too tired and dirty to play nice.
Still, he was a Texan, and the unspoken code of the country was rooted into him as deeply as the land itself. Out here, folks helped folks. Even when it was inconvenient.
Another car might not come along for hours and cell phone usage was spotty. He grabbed the plain black device from the seat next to a pair of dirty leather gloves and a pair of fencing pliers. Sure enough. Not a single bar of connection. He tossed the phone aside.
"Don't know what good the blasted thing is if it never works where you need it."
As he glanced back up, still grumbling, the dirty blue car wobbled off the road, onto the grass, and down a slight incline.
"Come on, buddy, stop. Stop!"
The car ahead kept rolling.
Five strands of brand-new barbed wire bowed outward before snapping like strings on a fiddle. Orange fence posts toppled. Dax's fence posts.
"Blast it!" he ground out through gritted teeth and slammed the heel of his hand against the steering wheel. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was proud of holding back the expletives that tempted his foul-tempered tongue like flirty girls. A few years ago, he would have let fly with enough curses to make the grass blush, but with a mimicking boy dogging his boot prints, Dax had cleaned up his act. At least, that part of his act. Nothing much would clean up the rest.
Braking hard, he slid the truck onto the shoulder and bounded out into a comfortable November afternoon. The metallic slam reverberated over the quiet countryside, joining the rattle and wheeze of the car now captured in his barbed wire like a sad little bluebird.
"Hey, buddy," Dax hollered, as he approached the still-settling vehicle. "You okay?"
His question was met with the slow, painful screech of wire against metal, like fingernails on a blackboard. The driver didn't answer and made no effort to get out of the car.
Dax frowned, slowing his steps to assess the situation. Maybe the guy was drunk. Or maybe he was a criminal fixing to bushwhack an unsuspecting rancher. Dax considered going for the wolf rifle resting behind the seat of his truck but fought off the temptation. At six foot one and a hundred and eighty pounds, he could hold his own. Besides, he'd watched the car weave and wobble for a couple of miles. His gut told him something was amiss, either with the driver or the car. Maybe the guy was sick or something.
The car had been moving too slowly for any kind of serious injury so the accident was a by-product of another problem, not the cause. There had been no real impact other than the scraping entanglement with wire and the now-toppled fence posts.
"Blast it," he said again. No matter how tired he was, he'd have to get this fence back up in a hurry or risk having heifers all over the road by morning.
Slapping his Stetson down tight, Dax strode down the slight incline and across the narrow expanse of calf-high weeds toward the blue car. Other than a cloud of dust circling the tires and fenders, there was an eerie stillness around the vehicle.
Dax bent down to peer through the driver's side window. His gut lurched. The occupant was either a guy with really long hair or he was a woman. A real curse drifted through his head. He savored the word like chocolate pie. Women were a lot of trouble.
"Hey, lady." He tapped a knuckle on the glass while tugging the door handle with the opposite hand. "Do you need help?"
The woman was slumped forward, her head on the steering wheel. She was breathing, but her shoulders rose and fell rapidly as if in distress. Dax exhaled a gusty breath. Crying women were the second-worst kind.
Suddenly, the object of his concern arched back against the cloth seat. A cry ripped from her throat, scary enough to make him jump.
The sound shot adrenaline through Dax's veins. He yanked at the door. It was stuck. Strong from years of wrangling five-hundred-pound bovines, he yanked again, harder. The door gave way, digging up dead grass and dirt as it opened.
He reached in, touched the slender shoulder. "Miss. Miss, where are you hurt?"
She turned a narrow, haggard face in his direction. Her eyes were wide with fear. Dark blond hair stuck to a sweaty forehead and cheeks.
"My baby," she managed, the sound more groan than words.
"Baby?" Dax glanced quickly into the backseat, but saw no sign of a child.
The woman squirmed, her hands moving downward to her waist.
And that's when Dax knew. The woman with the wide, doe eyes and the teenager's face was in labor.
All the expletives he knew rushed to his tongue. Somehow he held them back, useless as they were to anyone but him.
"Talk to me, miss. How long have you been in labor?"
"The baby's coming."
The implication froze him solid. "Now?"
She managed a nod and then slid sideways in the seat, lying back against the opposite door. Her body rocked forward. She fought against it, battling the wave of pain he could see on her young face. Nature was taking its course.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry."
Sorry for what? Going into labor? Having a baby? The latter set his stomach churning even harder. He knew about that kind of woman.
But he had no time to ponder the past or the woman's cryptic statement. His brain shifted into warp speed. He had a dilemma here. A real dilemma. A strange young woman was having a baby in a car on his property and he was the only human being around to help.
Great. Just great.
"We need to get you to a hospital."
Her eyes glazed over and she made that deep groaning sound again. His pulse ricocheted off his rib cage. He'd heard this particular moan before from cows and mares. The woman was right. They were out of time.
"All right, miss, take it easy," he said, as much to calm his own nerves as hers. "Everything will be okay."
She nodded again, her huge eyes locked on his face, clinging to his words, trusting him, a total stranger. Dax got the weirdest feeling in his chest.
"How far along are you? I mean, is it time for the baby?"
"Two weeks away."
Close enough to know this was the real deal. Dang. Dang. Dang.
"How long have you been in labor?" he asked again.
Her body answered for her. Dax was smart enough to know that contractions this close could only mean one thing. Birth was imminent.
Think, Dax, think. What did he need? What could he do, other than wait for the inevitable?
"I'll be right back," he said past a tongue gone dry as an August day.
She managed to lever up, almost heaving toward him. "No! Don't leave. Please. Please."