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"Keep away from those cowboys, they're ramblin' men "
The lyrics to the country song popped into her head the moment she saw the tall, blue-eyed man striding past her in the terminal of the small and private, but busy, Red Rock, Texas, airport.
He caught her staring, hesitated a second, then winked. Definitely the rambling type and one to stay away from. He touched a finger to his black Stetson and just like that he was gone, the moment over.
Then the tornado hit. That black hat was the last thing she saw before the roof was ripped from above her, the roar of air sucking everything within, including her, pulling her, dragging her. Around her, wood and metal flew and crashed, ricocheted and bounced.
Pain hit first, then panic. She couldn't catch her breath, couldn't fill her lungs enough to scream. Noise. So much noise. Then suddenly no sound at all.
The quiet was almost as frightening. Gradually she heard crying, someone screaming, others calling out.
Her face was pressed against the cold concrete floor. She tried to move but couldn't. The sound of someone running toward her crept into her awareness. A man flattened himself next to her, his face in shadowsher hero, whoever he was.
"You okay?" he asked.
"My legs hurt," she managed to say, wiggling her toes and feeling them move inside her high-heeled boots, the rubble preventing leg movement.
He sprang up.
She grabbed for him, caught thin air. "Don't leave me. Please, don't"
But he didn't leave. Weight was lifted from her, twisted metal, lumber and laminate.
"Can you drag yourself out?" he asked, this giant of a man who'd single-handedly raised the wreckage. "Hurry. There's not much time. You can do it, sweetheart. Try."
There was nothing to grab. Her useless polished fingernails dug but found no traction. She caught her breath against the unexpected pain of moving and exerted herself a little more, tried to belly crawl like a solider. Just when she thought she was going to be stuck there forever, he gripped her arm and yanked her from under the debris. Her feet cleared the mess a second before it came tumbling down. He scooped her into his strong arms and rushed away as the whole building creaked and moaned.
Panic set in. "My family ?" she asked.
He angled his head. "Over there."
She'd just started identifying relatives when part of the building they'd left crumbled with a final whoomph. If he'd been a minute later, she'd have been buried alive. She clenched him tighter, too shocked to say anything.
"I've got you," the stranger said. "You're safe."
The cowboy, she realized finally. The man who'd winked at her. She hadn't recognized him without his hat.
"Help will come soon," he said, his voice comforting.
She looked up as he set her down. An eerily calm sky replaced portions of the roof of the two-story structure. She'd been sitting on the other side of the room. How far had she been pulledor thrown?
"You think you can stand on your own?" he asked.
"I think so." Her eyes were level with his chest. She focused hypnotically on the bolo tie he wore, silver and onyx, before looking up at him.
"You'll be okay," he said, releasing her, understanding in his eyes.
Before he could abandon her, she grabbed him by his bolo and tugged him down for a quick, hard, thank-you-for-saving-me kiss, over as soon as it started. Her heart lodged in her throat, damming up the words trapped inside. She couldn't even ask his nameor tell him hers.
He cupped her shoulders and moved back. For an instant his eyes met hers, then he was running away from her. Paralyzed, she didn't budge for a minute, then she finally focused on her surroundings. It looked like a war zone. Some of her family were sitting in shock; some were running around. Suitcases were scattered everywhere. What had once been a small plane lay nose-down not twenty feet from where she'd been sitting before the tornado hit.
When she turned back to the terminal she saw no sign of the cowboy. Transfixed, she moved toward the luggage, thinking to stack it all together, needing something to do. Then she heard sirens approach and she staggered toward the sound, waving
Victoria Fortune jerked awake, sweating, her sheets tangled, her long, dark hair stuck to her skin. She'd had the dream again, the same vivid but increasingly detailed dream. The tornado had struck on December 30 in Red Rock, Texas. She'd been headed home after being a bridesmaid in her cousin Wendy's wedding. Now, three months later, Victoria was safe in her own bed, in her own condo, in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Three months, and she was still dreaming about it.
And him. She didn't even know his name, never even thanked him, the man who could've died with her that day but who'd rescued her without regard to his own safety.
She was sick of it, physically ill from the constant nightmares and loss of sleep. Even during the day she was assaulted by visions of the destruction and the surreal feel of the tornado sweeping her across the floor.
Maybe it'd been even worse this time because she'd talked to her cousin Jordana last night, who'd suffered her own traumas, and they'd agreed Victoria should go to Red Rock so they could deal with their problems together. Support each other. Be there for each other.
Victoria glanced at the clock then threw off the covers, realizing she needed to start packing for her late-morning flight. She was going to face the past and deal with her near-death experience. She also needed to thank her hero, which was long overdue.
But first she called her parents to tell them she wouldn't be attending the requisite family Sunday brunch.
"The pew was mostly empty this morning," her father, James Marshall Fortune, said when he answered the phone.
"I'm sorry, Daddy. I overslept."
"You party too much," he said gruffly but softly. As the youngest child and only daughter, Victoria got away with more than her four brothers could. Occasionally she used that to her advantage.
"What constitutes 'too much'?" Victoria asked sweetly, making an effort with her beloved father. Even he had been openly worried about her.
"Ha! We'll wait for you. Your brothers aren't all here yet, either. Only Shane."
Victoria wandered onto the balcony off her bedroom. She was on the fifteenth floor. "I'm not coming at all, Daddy. I'm heading to Red Rock in a couple of hours."
"I thought you'd decided to skip that party."
"I did skip it. The party was last night, but Jordana and Emily are still at Wendy's house. We're going to have a little girl time, just us four cousins. Well, plus Wendy's new husband and baby. Please tell Shane I'm taking a few days of vacation, all right?"
"Your brother is your boss. If you need time off, you need to square it with him yourself. And I'm sure your mother will have something to say."
"Yes, sir." Her father made it sound like she was a sixteen-year-old kid instead of a twenty-four-year-old college graduate who lived alone and held down a good jobif she could hold on to it. She hadn't been pulling her own weight for a while now.
"Shane overheard and says that's good news," her mother said, coming onto the line. "What's going on, honey?"
Victoria repeated what she'd said to her father.
"You're still having bad dreams," her mother said.
"Yes, ma'am. They're not going away on their own."
"What about that manthat cowboy who rescued you? Are you going to see him?"
"I need to thank him. It's been haunting me that I haven't. I think that's part of my problem."
"I can see where it could help. Are you taking the company jet?"
Victoria closed her eyes. "I'd have to land at Red Rock Airport, and I'm not ready for that. I'll fly into San Antonio and rent a car."
"Call me if you need me. I think it's good you're doing this, sugar. Important. You've looked so tired."
"Thanks, Mom." But it was more than good, Victoria thought. It was necessary. She hadn't been able to deal with molehills lately, much less mountains.
Hours later she drove into downtown Red Rock, then pulled up in front of Marcos and Wendy Men-doza's pretty three-bedroom house. Wendy had been working her magic on the place, transforming it from bachelor pad to family home, a fun mix of contemporary and cottage styles. She'd been gardening, too, Victoria could tell. What had been barren at the time of the wedding in December now bloomed with welcoming spring beauty.
Wendy burst onto the front porch. At twenty-two, she was two years younger than Victoria, and she sported the same long brown hair and eyes. She was more openly bubbly than Victoria, but as first cousins, they'd been as close as sisters. So were Jordana and Emily, Wendy's sisters.
"Where's the star of this show?" Victoria asked, hugging Wendy.
"Sleeping. Finally," Wendy answered. "Marcos is working."
"And your sisters?" Victoria asked as they stepped into the house.
"Emily went for a walk. Jordana left."
Victoria stopped. "She left? When? Why? I talked to her just last night. She said she would wait for me."
"I don't know what happened. She took off right after lunch. Honestly, Vicki, Jordana was acting weird the whole time she was here. Em noticed it, too. We're worried about her. Did she tell you what's going on?"
She had, but Victoria couldn't tell Jordana's secrets. Victoria made a noncommittal sound as she checked her cell phone for messages, finding none from Jordana.
"You can bunk with Em instead of at the hotel now that Jordana's gone. Would you like some tea?" Wendy asked. "We could sit on the sunporch for a while."
"Yes, fine," Victoria said, trying to drum up some enthusiasm for Wendy's sake.
"Meet you on the porch in a minute." She laid a hand on Victoria's arm. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Just fine. Why is everyone asking me that?" She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. "I'm sorry, Wendy. I really am. I don't know if I'm all right. I know I haven't been myself. I'm hoping this trip will be the vacation I need."
Victoria carried her suitcase into the guest room. How could Jordana leave without a word to her? They needed each other.