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The bullet that knocked U.S. marshal Gabriel McBride into the giant boulder caught him just below the left shoulder. Close enough to his heart to be a problemif he 'd actually believed he had a heart. He felt the blood andhell, yesthe pain, but no way was he going to fold up and die because some lowlife hit man had gotten lucky.
He estimated the distance from the boulder to the road, waited until the next spectacular fork of lightning faded, then, using the darkness as a cover, ran for his truck.
Once inside, he drew a deep, grimacing breath and checked the wound. His jacket and shirt were soaked. With blood as much as rain, he suspected. Which rendered his next decision moot. He was approximately ten miles from Rapid City, South Dakota, shot and disinclined to call the people he should for help. That only left one option. Alessandra.
Fighting pain that speared whitehot through his arm and torso, he got the engine started. In spite of everything, a faint smile flitted across his lips. Alessandra would either cure him or kill him. Only she and God knew which way it would go.
Maybe he knew, too, but his thoughts were beginning to haze, so when he pictured his beyond beautiful veterinarian ex holding a scalpel, she wasn't necessarily using it to dig a bullet from his body.
Swinging the truck off the road onehanded, McBride relied on his memory rather than the headlights to guide him through the murk. A vivid flash of lightning had him swearing and pivoting left. He 'd almost slammed into one of the rocks that lined the mountain road.
Concentrate, he told himself, and not on scalpels or death. It was three miles to the highway, another six to Alessandra's door. With luck, he'd spot his quarry on the way and find the strength to haul him in. Without it, big sister's hit man would cut him off and finish the job he 'd started.
Swiping his good forearm over his face, McBride let both hit man and quarry go, fought the dizziness that wanted to sweep in and consume him and focused on Alessandra.
If tonight was his last night on earth, he wanted to die with her in his head. As she had been since he 'd wedged aside a mangled piece of metal on a crumpled northbound bus and encountered her stunning gold eyes.
"You could do worse, much worse, than date my nephew." Alessandra Norris's assistant, Joan, tapped the veterinary clinic's laptop. "By the way, how do you spell the dog's last name?"
On her knees, Alessandra smiled. "You're joking." She gave the blackandtan German shepherd a quick scratch behind the ears before palpating his kidneys. "You can spell Phoenix, but not Smith?"
"It's been a long day." Joan's blue eyes rose to the fluttering overhead light. "Storm's getting worse, and this pooch is as healthy as Rin Tin Tin in his prime. Why was his owner so insistent we check him out tonight?"
"Because he just bought the dog, and the two of them are heading south tomorrow."
"Not in that rattly old truck they rolled up in, they're not."
"The truck's borrowed. They're going by bus." Her assistant's eyebrows rose. "He's taking a dog on a bus?"
"Hey, I didn't make the plans."
"You don't ride buses, either." Joan gave her a look. "My sister and I are taking our usual tour bus trip to Las Vegas this fall. It's fun. You'd meet lots of interesting people. That's people, Alessandra, not dogs. Every year we encourage you to come, and every year you say no." She shook an accusing finger. "When you've got a phobia, you should march right up and spit in its eye."
Alessandra listened to the dog's heart. "Beat's good." Then she removed her stethoscope and scratched the animal's chin. "I almost got killed riding a bus, Joan. You know that."
"But you didn't, and in the end, you wound up meeting your husband."
"Soon to be exhusband."
Standing, Alessandra stretched out her lower back muscles. "Is there some reason we're having this conversation at ten o'clock at night, in the middle of a storm that's going to knock the power out and probably screw up half of tomorrow's appointments?"
"Tomorrow's Saturday. You're off. Doc Lang'll be stuck with any poststorm problems. Now, I want a commitment. Either you agree to come to Las Vegas with me and Lottie, or, come September, you get yourself
ready to meet my nephew. McBride'll sign those divorce papers eventually. When he does, you'll be footloose and fancy free." Alessandra's sixtyyearold assistant slitted a shrewd eye. "That's what you want, isn't it? To be done with what was so you can move on to what will be?"
Alessandra hooked the lead onto Phoenix's collar. The dog had a flecked white mark in the shape of an arrow on his back. Her childhood dog, a brown lab, had had a mushroomshaped mark that ran from its ears to the Whoa! Where on earth had that memory come from? she wondered. Unless it was part of a much bigger memory involving a bus trip gone bad, a childhood home left behind and a future ex.
Shaking it off, she patted the German shepherd's butt. "Are you this pushy with Dr. Lang?"
"I'll be worse than pushy if he leaves his wife of fifty years."
"McBride and I were together for less than a tenth of that time."
"Your math's off, Alessandra. You and McBride met seven years ago, back when he was a cop."
"And the memories keep on coming." Opening the door to the reception area, Alessandra raised her voice above the thunder outside. "Phoenix is in great shape, Mr. Smith."
The dog's owner, a beanpole with hollow cheeks and awkward hands, stood immediately. "Thanks again for seeing us, Doc. I hope you won't have any trouble getting home in the storm."
"I grew up in Indiana. This is just a summer shower. Good luck in the Southwest."
Leaving him to settle the bill with Joan, Alessandra returned to the examining room.
Gusting wind drove the rain in sheets against the windows and walls. Not a fit night for man or beast, she thought. Then she busied herself with anything and everything that would help stop her mind from drifting back seven years. Not enough, unfortunately. McBride's face had a way of sneaking in even when her guard was up. But tonight Joan hadn't merely damaged that guard; in typical jackhammer fashion, she'd punched right through it.
Smith and his dog were rattling off when she closed the lab door and returned to the reception room. "Go home, Joan." She held up a computer disk. "I need to look at some back files before I leave."
Joan shed her pink smock. "Workaholism's the first sign, you know."
"Boredom, depression, withdrawal, take your pick. Make up or break up, I say." She fluffed her short platinum curls. "Personally, if I'd nabbed myself a looker like McBride, I'd have stuck."
"Your exhusband drove a big rig. Mine's a cop turned u.S. marshal. Believe me when I tell you there's a difference."
"And there we end it." Tugging on her rain gear, Joan pointed at the ceiling. "Those lights are hanging on by their fingernails. You'd best work fast."
She intended to, Alessandra thought when a buckshot blast of wind and rain blew in with her assistant's departure. One mile away, in the rancher she'd scrimped and saved to purchase, was a clawfoot tub, a bottle of wine and a retrospective movie, all with her name on them.
Sliding the disk into her computer, she wondered if it was a sad comment on the state of her life that the highlight of a midAugust Friday night involved bubbles, pinot grigio and Cary Grant. Joan would say yes, but then Joan hadn't lived in the crazed nightmare that was Gabriel McBride's copdominated world for fourplus complicated years.
A rumbling peal of thunder shook the floor and walls. The lights and Alessandra's computer screen flickered. She poured a cup of coffee, eyed the ceiling, then turned her attention to the subject of bovine anatomy.
She hadn't done anything wrong, she was sure of it. The calf that had lost its life to a massive infection had been, essentially if not literally, dead before the breeder had called her.
Unless she'd missed something
The breeder, furious and threatening, insisted she had. What could an outsider possibly know about prize bulls?
By "outsider" he meant "female." But it didn't matter to her, since the breeder's opinion of Dr. Stuart Lang, who'd been practicing medicine in South Dakota for the past forty years, was equally low. Glancing at scanned copies of the letters she'd received from the breeder shortly after the calf's death, Alessandra sighed. If words could kill, she'd be dead several times over by now.
Thirty minutes later, with the lights flickering and rain still lashing the windows, she closed the file and rocked her head from side to side.
Phone threats, written threats, Joan's threatblind date or bus tripa dead calf and a feeling of guilt that wouldn't subside All in all, she'd had better weeks. Which made her plans for that night even more appealing.
She needed moments of solitude, sometimes craved them. Her father, a staunch Mennonite farmer, hadn't understood why. Neither had he understood or approved of her desire to leave the comfort of a closeknit community and board a bus for Chicago. What could college there offer her but headaches and problems? Better to stay in Holcombe, Indiana, marry the boy next door and turn two small farms into one.
She'd looked at Toby next door, then at the application in her hand. Not that Toby wasn't sweet, but Northwestern had easily outpaced him. She'd wanted to save animals, not farm them.
She'd also wantedand gottenan adventure.
A bus ride gone bad had bled into a hero's rescue, a marriage, a separation, a chance meeting with an aging vet and, finally, a pending lawsuit.
Taking a last sip of coffee, Alessandra wondered how Toby and the farm thing would have worked out. She'd probably be hiding chickens from her hubby's ax. Better the lawsuit, she decided.
The smoke detectors gave a long screech and a second later the lights died.
The clinic had an emergency generator, but since there were no animals in residence and Alessandra knew the layout well enough to locate her purse and trench coat, she didn't bother starting it up. Instead, she collected her things and let herself out the back door.
Wind snatched at her hair and coat like claws. Her car would start, it would. Although she probably shouldn't have let a seventeenyearold delivery boy tune it up as payment for a full sheet of lab work on his aging retriever.
Dr. Lang called her a soft touch. Joan used a less flattering term, but one look into the dog's big brown eyes and Alessandra had caved.
Since an umbrella was pointless, she made her way across the pitted parking lot. She'd almost reached her car when a hand clamped onto her arm and swung her around in a rough half circle.
A fork of lightning illuminated the surly face of the calf breeder. He was big, bald and built like a bulldog. His eyes were flinty and he had no neck. The fingers that dug into her skin like talons tightened when she tried to shake him off.
Fear tickled her throat. Swallowing it, she met his glare. "Let go, Hawley."
"You set the law on me."
"I talked to the sheriff."
Lightning flashed again. His lips thinned. "You told him I threatened you."
"I called you up, told you you'd pay for what you'd done. And, by God, you will." He took a menacing step closer, sank his fingers in deeper. "You don't know squat about farm animals. Hell, you couldn't wrestle a colt from its mama's belly if your life depended on it."
She wouldn't back down, would not give him the satisfaction of reacting to the vicious gleam in his eyes. "I think I could probably do a lot of things under those circumstances."
His scowl became a sneer, and he yanked her toward him.
"You talk a good game, Dr. Norris, but deep down I reckon you're really a spineless little city girl who should have stayed in Chicago." Another jerk, another fruitless attempt to free herself. Fear didn't so much tickle now as grip her insides.
He bared his teeth in a leer. "Maybe I can think of a fair payment, after all."
She caught the whisper of movement in her peripheral vision while she was lining up a determined left to his barely visible Adam's apple. A hand descended on her shoulder, and a voice emerged from the darkness next to her.
"I think that's enough manhandling for one night, pal."
Shock kept Alessandra's fist balled as she snapped her head around to regard the profile of none other than Gabriel McBride.
His expression remained amiable, but the hand that reached out to yank the breeder's startled fingers away did so with no small amount of force.
Alessandra felt rather than saw Frank Hawley's sputtering outrage.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Who's not important. What is " McBride's slight movement had the breeder sliding his eyes downward. Lightning illuminated both the Glock and the badge at the waistband of McBride's jeans.
"You're a cop?"
"Close enough to haul you in for attempting to harm the lady beside me."
"That lady's a killer," Hawley spat.
"Makes two of us. You've got five seconds to disappear. On six, you're coming with me."
Hawley showed his teeth again, this time in a snarl. He raised a finger, started to jab it, then curled it back and swung away.
McBride watched and waited through the next thunderbolt before asking, "What the hell did you do to the guy, Alessandra?"
She pushed his arm away. "Nothing. Let go of me."
Sighing, she sidestepped him. "Thank you. Now, will you please tell me what you're doing in South Dakota?"
The smallest of smiles touched his mouth. "Got a bit of a problem, darlin'."
He took one step back and, before she could reach for him, dropped like a stone to the rainsoaked ground.
"No hospitals, Alessandra. No cops. Say it."
McBride was hanging on to consciousness by a fine thread. Experience told Alessandra that thread wouldn't be allowed to snap until she made the required promise.
He held and shook her wrist. "I need you to say it."
There was no decision, really. If she didn't agree, he wouldn't let her help him. If she didn't help him, he'd die.
"Yes, all right, no cops."
"I heard you, McBride." She attempted to lever him up. "I can't carry you, though. You'll have to help me."
Alessandra used all her strength to get him to his feet and into the clinicand all her will not to go against her word. He'd been a cop once. Now he was hiding from them. Every shred of common sense she possessed told her to do what was necessary, then walk away. She also knew she wouldn't listen to it. She never did.
And so the nightmare would begin.
He didn't know where he was because everything had gone black and weird. He felt like he was being dragged over a wet, rocky mountain. Water splashed onto his face, and the whole left side of his body felt numb. Until he took a wrong turn and ran straight into a redhot knife.