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More dread than hope filled Suzie Kent's heart as she drove around a wide curve toward Dew Drop, Texas. Suddenly, the flash of police lights startled her just as a mass of short, fat donkeys standing in her path yanked her out of her depressed state. Suzie gasped, "Oh!"
"Mom! Stop!" Abe yelled.
A tall man in a cowboy hat, jeans and the tan uniform of a Texas sheriff stood in the middle of the donkeys, waving his arms for her to halt. One minute he was standing, and the next-
"He went down!" Abe yelled again as the sheriff buckled and fell over.
Suzie stomped on the brakes of the monstrosity of a moving truck. The heavy vehicle groaned and rebelled, but fortunately the brakes grabbed and the bulky box on wheels lunged-once, twice, three times before stopping hard. She and Abe strained forward against their seat belts with the force.
Even intent on halting, she was shaken by what they'd witnessed. One of the cute donkeys had just taken down an officer with a well-placed kick.
Abe had his seat belt off and was out the door before Suzie even had time to tell him to be careful. At fifteen he wasn't listening to her anymore, and this was no different. Hurrying to get out of the truck, she pushed the flashers on then locked her gaze back on her son. He approached the donkeys, yelling and waving his arms wildly. She was thankful when the creatures parted down the road's yellow center stripe, scurrying like mice out of his way. This gave her a clear view of the downed officer. Sirens sounded in the distance and she hoped their shrill cry signaled help was on the way.
Abe skidded to a halt beside the black-haired man holding his hip and struggling to get up. His back was to them but it was easy to tell he was well built as he struggled to one knee, holding his injured leg straight.
"Mom, he's hurt!" Abe yelled over his shoulder, bending down and blocking her view of the officer. "I can help you stand up. If you can," he said. "That donkey blasted you."
"Thanks," the officer grunted. "That'd be much appreciated. Donkeys might be innocent-looking, but they can sure make an impact."
Though she hadn't yet glimpsed his face, Suzie quickened her pace. The officer looped his arm over Abe's shoulders just as she reached them.
"Here let me help, too." She scooted beneath his other arm, placing her hand on his stomach-his very firm stomach. The officer was in shape. Looking up she met his deep marine-blue gaze and froze.
"Thanks, Suzie. It's good to see you." Tucker McDermott's eyes bored into her, but concern stamped his expression, as if he knew the dismay shooting through her.
Her breath had flown from her lungs and she had no words as she looked into the face of the man she held responsible for her husband's death.
The man she was also counting on to help her save her son . Suzie's world tilted as she realized whose clean, tangy aftershave was teasing her senses and whose unbelievably intense gaze had her insides suddenly rioting. His hair was jet-black and his skin deeply tanned, making his midnight-blue eyes startling in their intensity.
"Tucker," she managed, hoping her voice didn't wobble.
Moving to Dew Drop, Texas, to Tucker's family's Sunrise Ranch, and asking for his help had taken everything she had left emotionally-and that hadn't been much since her husband had given his life in the line of duty for fellow marine Tucker, two years earlier.
And now, as circumstances would have it, she was forced to rely on his help.
Tucker grimaced, trying to keep most of his weight off of Suzie and Abe, but his hip clearly hurt.
"Thanks for the rescue. I'm glad y'all saw the pack and stopped in time. I had just arrived and it wouldn't have been good if you'd wrecked because of these hairy pests."
Suzie realized the donkey must have kicked him in his bad hip.
The word ricocheted through her. He'd been shot in the hip and gone down in a firefight-a firefight after being ambushed.
The firefight in which her husband, Gordon, had stepped in front of him and drawn fire.
Acid rolled in the pit of her stomach thinking about it.
"Thank y'all for helping me up," he said, his gaze snagging on hers again and holding. "I've got it from here, though." He pulled one arm from around her and the other from around Abe.
"Are you sure?" she asked, even though she wanted to step away from him in the worst way. Wanted to break the disturbing connection radiating between them. "Do we need to help you to your vehicle?
"Yeah," Abe added, looking just as uncertain as she did.
Tucker limped a few painful steps away from them. "I'm okay," he said, gruffly. "It'll just take a few minutes for the throbbing to go away." He glanced ruefully at the donkeys. "What a mess."
"There's a bunch of them," Abe said excitedly, accepting Tucker at his word and moving back to focus on the herd of innocent-looking donkeys.
Suzie's heart caught. Abe's reaction-from the first moment they'd spotted the donkeys-was the first time in weeks, even months, that she'd heard any kind of positive excitement in his voice. Now he was actually grinning at the short, squat animals.
"They act like they own the road," he added, looking as if he wanted to pet one of them.
Tucker frowned. "And that's the problem. They could easily have caused a serious wreck."
"They sure took you out." Abe chuckled.
Suzie suddenly felt as though she was in a time warp, glimpsing the son she'd had before his father died. A lump lodged in her throat and her eyes welled with tears. She fought both down.
Tucker's lip hitched upward in a quick lopsided grin. "It's my own fault. A donkey's God-given instinct is to kick and they have a range of motion that would surprise a prize fighter. That's why they're used to protect herds from predators."
"Seriously?" Abe gaped at Tucker then at the docile, unassuming animals.
"Seriously," Tucker said. "They may not look like much, but those are some kickboxing masters right there."
"Cool," Abe said, swinging around as, siren blaring, a Dew Drop Sheriff's Department car rolled to a halt beside Tucker's SUV. "Looks like backup has arrived."
A young officer emerged from his patrol car, and strode their way. "Hey, Tucker, got here as soon as I could." A cocky grin widened across his suntanned skin. "Couldn't handle the misfit delinquents yourself?"
Delinquent. The word hit Suzie in the heart and wiped the smile off Abe's face instantly. He'd become too acquainted with the term of late, and the mention was all it took for shadows of mistrust to cloud his blue eyes. She almost cried out as she saw the veil of anger fall, the veil that he'd disappeared behind months ago. Her gaze shot to Tucker and she realized that he'd witnessed Abe's reaction.
"Yeah, the donkeys are troublemakers, all right," he clarified smoothly. "Help me get them off the road, Cody," he instructed the deputy, then focused on Abe. "By the way, I'm Tucker McDermott. I was a friend of your dad's and I owe him my life. He was an amazing man." Tucker cleared his throat. "I'm glad you've come to Dew Drop. And the boys of Sunrise Ranch are looking forward to meeting you."
Abe's expression flashed bright with anger as he stared at Tucker, then, glaring daggers at the deputy, he stalked back toward their moving truck. "This is ridiculous, Mom. Why'd we have to come here?"
Her mild-looking, blue-eyed, blond-haired son was a time bomb. Feeling sick, she glanced back at Tucker. He hadn't moved and was still favoring his hip. She wasn't sure he could move. "Tell me this is going to work out."
The weight of the world-her world-settled heavily on her and she felt suddenly weary and far, far older than her thirty-two years.
Tucker's fierce gaze engulfed her. "You have my word, Suzie. This is going to work out. I promise."
Tears sprang to her eyes, and all she could do was nod. She was so tired of handling everything on her own. So very tired. Tucker was offering her a strong support system and strong words that she needed to believe in.
"Hey, Abe," he called. "Could you help us herd these donkeys off the road before someone gets hurt?"
Abe spun back, his stance still belligerent but his expression interested. "Sure."
Tearing her gaze from her son, she looked back at Tucker, amazed.
"I hate to ask," Tucker said, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened-but surely he knew it had. "Could you help, too? I'm not moving as fast as I need to and we need them off this road. The trailer will be here soon but.."
"Um, yes, just tell me what to do."
"Move slow and wave your arms if one starts to come at you. Contrary to what you witnessed, they aren't aggressive. They're pretty tame. Until you sneak up on them like I did. Or try to ride them. I hear they don't like that at all."
"Okay." She glanced at Abe, who was already urging a group of three to move toward the edge of the road. "Abe, be careful," she called.
"Mom, I've got this," he huffed, impatient with her mothering.
"I'll get this end," the other officer called from where he'd moved to the far side of the group.
That left the middle of the herd for her and Tucker. Feeling that she wasn't doing it right, she waved her arms somewhat weakly, moving toward the donkey closest to her.
Not intimidated in the least, fuzzy whiskers lifted her way and deep brown eyes studied her. Clearly distracted from nuzzling the yellow line, the animal blinked dark eyelashes, pawed the pavement twice- then charged.
Suzie gasped, her arms dropped like lead as she spun and ran-straight into Tucker McDermott's arms.
"Hold on," Tucker said, pulling her protectively against his body and shifting so the crazy donkey aimed at him instead of her. "Yah!" he yelled at the miserable beast and waved his arm in a not-so-weak manner.
The donkey skidded to a halt instantly.
Tucker held her tightly with one arm and shooed the silly animal away. It turned and trotted off, as if it hadn't just tried to mow her down.
"They just get excited sometimes. No harm meant," Tucker assured her. His soft chuckle washed over her.
Suzie was mortified that she'd run to him. That she was now in his arms. And her crazy heart was pounding, even as his low rumbling chuckle resonated through her. What was wrong with her? She was reacting to Tucker's touch as if. .as if she were attracted to him. Even the thought made her ill, made her feel like a traitor.
True, she hadn't been held like this in almost three years because when Gordon died it'd been months since she'd seen him. But still, Tucker McDermott.
This was disturbing and wrong on so many levels that she couldn't stand it. Yet, even as she worried, Tucker's aftershave, manly and teasing, filled her senses as he soothingly rubbed her back.
This was the man she held responsible for her husband's death.
"Yes," she forced, pulling away. "I'm not used to charging animals. And I'm embarrassed. I don't make a habit of running into strange men's arms."
He looked confused. "You don't have anything to be embarrassed about. You didn't know. If an animal does that again, yell loud and make an aggressive move of your own. It will run for the hills. Usually."
Like she hadn't tried that. "Fine," she snapped. "Thanks, um, for the lesson. I believe I'll wait in the truck." She stumbled over her words, turned and strode toward the van, daring even one of the measly animals to come her way! It was all she could do not to run as humiliation and indignation collided.
Yanking the door of the moving truck open, she climbed inside, glancing out at Abe as she tried to compose herself. He appeared sullen but, surprisingly, continued helping move the varmints off the road. Her gaze shifted back to Tucker. His expression was grim as he stared after her, probably wondering why she was acting so strange.
After a moment he turned away, and she watched him take a step, stiff at first, then better after a couple of steps. Still, though his expression didn't show it, she sensed he was in real pain.
The mean-spirited thought jumped into her mind instantaneously. Shame engulfed her. She'd been outspoken in the past, when needed, but never mean-spirited.
Death changed a person. Hardened up the heart like a cement block-she hated it.
She hated everything about this process of loss and its lifealtering aftermath.
The truth was, she had no choice but to be here and hope with all her heart that Tucker McDermott and the Sunrise Ranch could help her son. Abe was the only reason she was here.
Her fifteen-year-old was hurting so bad on the inside that the only way he could cope was to lash out in ways that scared her for him. Her son, who needed more than she'd been able to give him.
Over the phone when she'd spoken with Tucker, before coming here, he'd given her his word that all would be well. She was praying that Tucker's word meant as much as Gordon believed it meant..
Gordon had been a few years younger than Tucker when he'd come to live at Tucker's family's ranch. A working cattle ranch that was also a foster home for boys who'd been abandoned and were alone in the world. Gordon had looked up to Tucker and he'd told her he'd become a marine because Tucker was a marine.
Gordon would have walked through fire for Tucker and had told her if anything ever happened to him she should turn to him for help.
As it turned out, her husband had given his life for Tucker
And left her to raise their son alone.
Tucker McDermott was the last person she wanted to turn to for help, but her son was in trouble and Suzie would do whatever it took to save him.