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In the Arms of a Stranger
By Virgina Kelly, Nina Bruhns
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Virginia Kelly
All rights reserved.
Rural South Alabama
JP Blackmon fought back exhaustion as he steered his old Chevy sedan down the isolated, muddy, Alabama back road. A roiling line of thunderstorms lit up the night sky. Rain pelted the windshield and overwhelmed the wipers. At least the storm kept the July heat at bay. Now if he could just get some sleep. A single fifteen-minute nap in the one day he'd been back in the States didn't cut it.
Especially when he'd lost so much blood.
Six hours after avoiding a shot meant to kill, he was as sure as he could be that he'd lost the men tracking him. Lucky for him the screams of bystanders in the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport parking garage had prevented a second gunshot, giving him a chance to escape. The bullet had plowed a deep furrow at his waist, on his right side. He'd controlled the worst of the bleeding with a pad he'd made from a T-shirt, but he'd have to take care of it pretty soon—if he could stay ahead of them.
But they'd know. Hell, it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where he was headed.
To the only person who could clear his name.
JP maneuvered around yet another slick, muddy curve that twisted back quickly. Suddenly, his headlights glinted off something—a smaller Ford SUV blocking the road less than ten yards ahead. Damn! He was going to hit it! Heart pounding, he snatched the wheel to the left and slammed on the brakes. The Chevy slid sideways in the muck, out of control. He held on and willed his car not to plow into the wide-eyed woman scrambling away from the Ford.
The skid threw his headlights away from her on to low bushes at the edge of the road. His front fender glanced off the rear bumper of her SUV, and then his lights aimed into silver sheets of rain surrounded by black nothingness. The stark realization that he was about to fall came only a second before his car careened down a ravine. The seat belt caught his shoulder, but the impact threw him to one side. Then the car jerked to a stop. The engine, still running, rumbled steadily. A swollen creek rushed before him, illuminated by his headlights.
"Damn, damn, damn," he muttered. He had to get out, had to check on the woman.
Grabbing the backpack on the seat next to him, he turned off the Chevy, grappled with the door handle, and scrambled out into the mud. Slipping backward a foot for each two upward, he clawed his way up the slippery embankment. By the time he reached the top, his side burned as if someone had stuck it with a hot poker.
He blinked away the rain whipping at him in the gusty wind. Desperate to find the woman, he scanned the dark road as he grabbed his pack and slung it over his shoulder.
Where the hell was she? Had he rolled right over her? Knocked her down the ravine?
A child's plaintive cry sliced into JP's fear. Holy shit, a kid.
He jogged through puddles to the rear driver's side of the SUV, jerked open the door, and peered inside. The dome light revealed a boy in the back, safe in his car seat. He looked fine.
Relieved, JP turned, looking for the mother. "Where are you?" he shouted.
Lightning speared down from the clouds and he saw her on the ground just beyond her SUV, a shadow in the storm-lit night, struggling to sit up in the muck. He tossed his pack onto the hood and rushed to her side. Thunder boomed around them.
"My son," she shouted above the roar of the storm. "In the car!"
Relieved to see her move, he knelt, ignoring the mud, and put his hand on her arm. "Wait! Something could be broken."
"I'm fine. My son—"
"He's fine, I checked on him." He held her down to be sure she wouldn't do more damage by getting up.
"Let go!" She flung his hand away and got to her feet, shuffling to her car on the mud-slicked road. After awkwardly opening the back door wider, she bent inside. Rain pelted down on her back.
"You're wet, Mommy," JP heard the child say.
"Are you hurt?"
"No," the boy replied. "Did that car hit you?"
She didn't answer, but in the lightning flashing all around, JP saw her sag with relief. Mud ran off her, pouring down her shorts and bare legs. Her shoes, like his boots, were swallowed by mud. She backed out of the car and straightened, or tried to straighten, but stopped, gasping.
She ran her hand from her collarbone to her shoulder. "Hurt trying to get away."
He saw it then. She was holding herself in an odd position, slightly bent at the waist, her right arm tight to her body.
"Where do you live?"
"Up the road." She wiped the water from her face and leaned on the SUV. "Half a mile."
"Can you drive?"
She was clipping her words, which meant some sort of painful injury. Damn! A broken bone would be the easiest to deal with. Internal injuries would require a lot more than he could handle. And out here in the middle of nowhere, the likelihood of an ambulance responding in time was not good.
"I'll try to move it so we can get you to some help." He'd handled wounded men before, but never a civilian. Never a woman. He didn't know where to touch her, afraid of causing more pain. "Is it your arm or your shoulder?"
"Shoulder," she said between clenched teeth.
"Can you get in the car? Or do you want me to carry you?"
"I'll get there."
He expected her to give up when he watched her maneuver through the mud, leaning on the car, to get to the passenger's side, but she didn't. Whoever she was, whatever had prompted her misbegotten trip on this road, he had to give her credit for toughness.
Once she got into the passenger's seat, he climbed behind the wheel, then jammed his backpack on the floorboard between them. He turned, careful not to wince, and looked at the child's face in the dim light.
"Hi," he said in what he hoped was his most gentle voice. "I'm John. I'm going to help get your car out of the mud."
"Mommy can't call Unca Steve."
"Too far from cell towers," the woman explained on a pained breath.
"Not to worry, I'll try to get us out," he said to the boy.
"Unca Steve has a big truck." The child turned his head slightly, as if considering JP, and added, "Do you?"
He couldn't help but smile at the response. "No, but maybe I can help.
"'Kay." The little boy sounded dubious.
Smart kid. To get out of this they needed a four-wheel drive and a winch. But if he'd learned nothing else in his line of work, he knew how make do. Start with the simplest solution and go from there.
He turned the ignition just before another blast of wind-driven rain slammed into the windshield. Mercifully, the SUV started. He shifted into reverse, then pressed the accelerator. The SUV slid back and to the left. After turning the wheel, he eased into drive and pressed on the accelerator again. The tires spun and the front end smashed against dirt and bushes that had tumbled into the ditch opposite the creek, creating an embankment. He glanced at the woman. She stared straight ahead, clutching her shoulder. Again he tried reversing. Again the tires spun, but the car swung sideways, this time closer to the edge of the road.
He'd already been down the creek. No way in hell did he want to risk that again, not with a woman and child.
The rain suddenly stopped and the wipers shimmied across the windshield.
"I can stand on the bumper," she offered.
She was game, but she was in no shape to be of any use. "How far did you say your house is?"
"Half a mile."
He couldn't just leave her. Besides, he wasn't going far, not with the Chevy in the creek. He adjusted the bulk of the padded T-shirt at his side, grabbed his backpack off the floorboard, and got out. His windbreaker shifted, so he adjusted it both to cover his holster and to hide the bloodstain he knew had spread.
Bending to look in at her, he said, "I'll get you home."
"I can't get Cole out of the car seat," she admitted, eyes closed, resting her head against the seat.
Of course she couldn't. He'd hurt her. "I'll do it," he said.
"Cole doesn't like stra—he may not let you."
"I'll try anyway." He leaned in and unfastened the restraints, his side aching. The little boy clasped him around the neck and he pulled him into his arms. When he straightened, a blast of wind shook him. The child hunkered down and buried his face against JP's shoulder.
"Windy, huh?" he asked, and felt the child nod. Shifting him slightly, he added, "I'm going to put you down so I can help your mom, okay?"
"'Kay." The little boy relaxed his hold and JP eased him to the ground.
"Can you make it on your own?" he asked her.
She nodded, used her good arm to get out of the car, straightened, and pointed down the road.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, the little boy—Cole, his mother had called him—a few steps ahead. After watching her struggle to hold her arm close and keep from falling on the slick road, he decided this was taking too long. Even though the rain showers were intermittent now, lightning could strike them if they didn't get under cover. When she stopped to rest, he made up his mind.
"Brace yourself," he said.
She stepped back when she realized what he intended, but he was quick. He lifted her with one arm under her knees, the other around her waist, careful of her injured shoulder.
She stiffened. "No, really, I can—"
"No, you can't," he said. "I'll carry you. Just hold on to your arm so I don't jar your shoulder." He'd carried a couple of buddies from his unit off the battlefield. By comparison, despite his throbbing side, this woman weighed nothing.
When Cole started to move too far ahead, his mother called him back.
"Unca Steve is going to let us hike," Cole said.
"I know," she said, her breath soft against JP's cheek.
The boy turned and looked at JP. "I'm four years old now." He held up four fingers, which JP could just make out in the dark. "My friends came to my party last week."
"A late happy birthday," JP said.
"Unca Steve is taking us fishing," Cole said. "That's for my birthday, too."
Such simple things. Such luxuries. "That sounds like fun," JP said automatically, then realized he meant it.
Cole continued with a steady patter of comments. JP used them to keep himself focused. He had to remind the boy to slow down a few times. No way was he losing him in the dark after causing his mother's injury. Finally, as the sporadic downpours turned into drizzle, they neared a house. A light in front revealed a wide porch.
"This is it. I can walk now," the woman said once they reached the lawn. Her breath tickled his neck.
"I'll get you up to the porch." Only a few more steps. If he put her down he'd never be able to pick her up again. He felt blood trickle from beneath his makeshift pad into the waistband of his jeans.
"Thank you," she said simply.
He didn't reply. She was thanking him for crashing into her, for possibly breaking one or more of her bones. His life was one screwed-up mess and he'd just brought disaster to this family.
Cole bounded up the steps to stand by the front door, his dark hair shiny under the light. "Do you still hurt, Mommy?" he asked.
"I'm fine, honey. It hurts just a little."
Hurts a lot, JP corrected silently. She probably thought he hadn't heard her moan those few times.
He climbed the steps to the porch, his legs struggling with each one. Carefully, despite what was now a searing pain in his side, he put her down.
"Is there someone home who can help you?"
She hesitated, and he knew she was alone. Alone and afraid to tell a total stranger.
"No one's going to come this far out on a night like this, and your car's stuck," he said. "Let me take a look, see if I can help. I've had some first-aid training." It mainly covered the injuries of his trade, wounds caused by knives and bullets, but he did know how to set a fracture—at least well enough that he or a member of his unit could be medevaced.
She looked unsure. Soaked, hunched over, mouth drawn tight in pain, she stared at him. Her white blouse was plastered to her, her jeans shorts hung heavily around some pretty fantastic legs. Her tennis shoes were ruined.
"I promise I'll stop if it hurts," he said to convince her. "I'm your best bet for now."
She kept her eyes locked to his, as if searching for a way to know if she should trust him. Hell, he wouldn't trust him.
"At least let me look."
Finally, she nodded.
Taking a deep breath to clear the dizziness creeping around the peripheries of his vision, he stepped forward. His mud-covered boots squished, and he grimaced at the mess.
"Hose, to the left," she said, indicating the direction with a nod of her head.
Bending over carefully, afraid he might tip over, he removed his boots and socks. The child pulled off his own shoes, but JP had to steady the woman as she toed off hers. He quickly rinsed their legs and feet, streams of mud washing across the porch.
She opened the door and flipped on the lights. The living room contained the usual mix of furniture—a couch, two overstuffed chairs, a single ladder-back chair, a coffee table, and a couple of lamp tables. Mounted on the far wall were several photographs, many old, in black and white. More were scattered on the lamp tables. Beyond was the entrance to the dining room, and a darkened hallway.
The woman stumbled to the ladder-back chair in front of the coffee table.
"Don't sit," he ordered, zipping his windbreaker higher to cover his holster. He had to deal with this and leave. Fast. He wasn't sure how much longer he could stay on his feet. "Let me look before you sit down."
Pain etched her face, but she nodded. The child looked on with dark, solemn eyes.
JP walked around her. She wasn't tall, maybe five and a half feet. Her dark ponytail, soaked and dripping, clung to her back.
He immediately saw why she hurt so badly. "Your shoulder's dislocated."
She didn't reply, simply stood still as if waiting for him to fix it.
He didn't want to do this. He really didn't want to do this. It would hurt like a son of a bitch.
"Do you want me to—?" Please say no.
"Yes." The single word seemed wrenched from her.
Damn. "Stand closer to the chair," he ordered, then pulled the coffee table aside, wincing. He examined her shoulder more closely to be certain, his stomach a knot of tension. He turned to the boy, still standing beside them.
"I'm going to move your mom's shoulder. It's going to hurt," he explained. "She might ... shout." Or faint. Hell, if she fainted, he'd have to wait here until she came around.
Bracing himself, with his legs apart for balance, he touched her gently. She grimaced. "I'll be careful," he said in a whisper. He let his fingers drift down the slick smoothness of her wet arm to her elbow, comforting her.
"Heck of a storm," he said to distract her. He kept talking, paying little attention to what he said, concentrating on a reassuring tone.
Damn, but he did not want to do this. She must have heard his indrawn breath an instant before he pushed with one hand and pulled with the other. The shoulder aligned itself with a nasty sound. She cried out, her eyes tearing, but held still. He cupped the joint to make sure it was back in place, and somehow held on to her until she lowered herself onto the chair.
Suddenly, the room started to spin and his vision darkened.
The last thing he saw as he clutched at the edges of the blackening abyss was the woman's wide, whiskey-colored eyes.CHAPTER 2
Good God. He'd fainted!
Abby Price's shock at the flash of intense pain in her shoulder was quickly eclipsed by utter surprise. The stranger had dropped like a stone and lay unconscious at her feet. Good thing he'd bent to help her into the chair. If he'd fallen from a standing position, he'd surely have gotten a concussion when his head hit the floor.
First-aid experience, my foot. If he fainted whenever he helped someone, he was the one who needed first aid. Sure, the sound of her shoulder popping back into place had made Abby queasy, but if he'd done this before, he'd known what to expect. What if she'd been bleeding?
She shook her head and took a mental step back.
Excerpted from In the Arms of a Stranger by Virgina Kelly, Nina Bruhns. Copyright © 2013 Virginia Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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