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The lights came out of the darkness like an oasis in the desert. Billie Rae glanced at the gas gauge on the old pickup, then in her rearview mirror.
She hadn't seen a vehicle behind her for miles now, but she didn't slow down, didn't dare. The pickup engine roared loudly, the speedometer clocked at over a hundred, but it was the gas gauge that had her worried.
She was almost out of fuel. Which meant she was also out of luck.
At the speed she was traveling, the lights ahead were coming up fast. At first she thought it was a small town. She hadn't seen one for more than fifty miles. But as she sped toward the glittering lights, she realized it wasn't a town. It appeared to be a fairgrounds aglow with lights.
Suddenly fireworks shot up from the horizon, bursting in the huge ebony sky stretched over this vast Montana prairie. She stared in surprise, realizing with a start what day it was. July 2. Two days away from the Fourth. She let the pickup slow to eighty as the booming fireworks burst around her, momentarily blinding her. The engine coughed. She glanced at the gas gauge. The pickup was running on fumes.
In her headlights she caught sight of the sign to the Whitehorse fairgrounds and another sign that announced Rodeo July 2-4. As the pickup engine coughed again, Billie Rae knew she'd just run out of options as well as gas.
She turned onto the dirt road that had a handmade sign that read Rodeo Parking and let the pickup coast in past dozens of trucks and horse trailers parked in the field around the rodeo arena. Just as the engine died, she pulled the truck into a spot between two pickups and turned off the headlights.
The highway she'd just come down had been nothing but blackness in her rearview mirror. Now, though, she wasn't surprised to see a set of headlights in the far distance. She'd known she didn't have much of a head start. Just as she'd known nothing short of dying would keep him from coming after her.
Billie Rae sat for a moment fighting tears. Her chest ached from the sudden loss of hope. Without gas she wasn't going any fartheras if she really believed she could ever go far enough to get away from Duane. She slumped over the steering wheel.
She'd left the house with only the clothes on her back, and now it was just a matter of minutes before he found her. Duane was no fool. He'd know the pickup would be running low on gas by now and that she hadn't stopped to fill it up since she had no money. She'd had to leave her purse behindnot that there was any money in it, thanks to Duane. He had kept her a virtual prisoner since their wedding six months ago.
None of that mattered now, though. She should never have run. Duane was right. There was no getting away from him. He'd get a good laugh out of her thinking she could. Hadn't he said he would follow her to the ends of the earth?
But it was what else he'd said when she'd told him she wanted out of the marriage that made her now begin to tremble in the dark cab of the pickup.
He had grabbed her by the throat and thrown her down on the bed. "You ever leave me and I will hunt you down like a mad dog and hurt you in ways you can't even imagine."
Her heart began to pound now with both fear and outrage. Duane had been so sweet, so loving, so caring before the wedding. Her mother had just died and she'd needed someone strong to lean on. Duane had provided the broad shoulder. He'd helped her through a tough time.
And then she'd made the mistake of marrying him. It wasn't that he'd suddenly changed. It was that once he put that ring on her finger, he'd finally revealed who he really wasa bully, a bastard, a batterer.
Her hands were shaking as she let go of the steering wheel. Her fingers ached from gripping it so tightly. Was she just going to sit here and wait for him to find her? He'd done his best to beat her down, but there was still a little fight left in her. She'd left him, hadn't she? That proved she had more courage than she'd thought and certainly more than Duane had thought.
She wasn't going back. Nor was she going to let Duane kill her. She had been a young, foolish, enamored woman when she'd married him, but once she'd seen behind the mask to the monster, there was no going back after that. She wasn't one of those women who thought their husbands would change. Or that it was her fault when her husband took out his bad moods on her.
But there was no denying she was in trouble.
Opening the door, Billie Rae climbed out of the pickup, surprised how weak her knees felt. Between booms of fireworks she heard a vehicle slowing on the highway before the small community fairgrounds. She didn't dare look and what was the point? She knew who it was.
She quickly worked her way through the pickups and horse trailers, following the sound of the oohs and ahs of the audience in the stands as the fireworks continued to explode over her head. The fireworks were going off closer together. One huge boom rattled in her chest after another. Soon the crowd would be dispersing and leaving.
She felt all her bravado leave as well. Soon everyone would be gone. Maybe she could find a place to hide where Duane wouldn't Who was she kidding? Duane was going to find her, and when he did
Glancing back through the parked vehicles, she caught a glimpse of a large black car driving slowly into the lot. Duane. He'd find the old classic Chevy pickup that had been his father's pride and joy. He'd find her.
She raced behind the grandstand in blind panic, knowing what he would do when he found her. She shouldn't have tried to leave him. She should have waited until she had a plan. But when Duane had come home earlier and she'd seen the rage building in him, she'd known how the evening would end and she couldn't let him hurt her again.
Billie Rae ran, blinded by tears and terror. If she could reach the stands, maybe she could disappear into the crowdat least temporarily. Eventually, though, the stands would clear out and all that would be left would be herand Duane.
As she came around the end of the grandstand, she collided with a tall cowboy. She'd been running for her life, glancing back over her shoulder and not looking where she was going, so she was hit hard, with her breath knocked out of her and her feet out from under her. If he hadn't caught her, she would have fallen to the ground.
"Easy," the cowboy said, his big hands gripping her shoulders to steady her. Tears continued to spill and she couldn't quit trembling. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out as she looked up into the man's handsome face.
He was dressed in boots, jeans and a fancy Western shirt. A gray Stetson was tilted back on his dark head. But it was the kindness in his brown eyes that had her riveted as the fireworks' grand finale continued.
Huge booms reverberated through her as brilliant colors showered the sky around the two of them in breathtaking beauty. For a few moments, it seemed they were the only two people in the world. As if this show was only for them alone. The cowboy smiled down at her and she felt a hitch in her chest.
The fireworks show ended in hushed dark silence, then the large lights of the fairgrounds blinked on and Billie Rae heard the crunch of gravel under a boot heel at the other end of the large grandstand.
As if coming out of a dream, she swung her gaze to where a dark figure was heading their way. Duane. She would recognize that arrogant gait anywhere.
She tried to pull away from the cowboy, needing to run, but he held on tight to her as the crowd suddenly swarmed around them.
Tanner Chisholm would have scoffed at even the idea of love at first sightuntil a few moments ago. When the woman had come running out of the darkness behind the grandstand and into his arms in a shower of fireworks, noise and beautiful lights, he'd taken one look at her face and fallen.
Time froze with fireworks going off all around them. When she'd crashed into him he felt as if his whole life had been leading up to that moment. He'd known in an instant that it was no accident that this woman had run into his arms on this warm summer night.
He stared into her wide brown eyes, as her dark curly hair floated around her shoulders. He saw the terror etched in her tear-streaked face, felt her trembling and realized that come hell or high water, he'd do his damnedest to move heaven and earth for this woman.
It was crazy, wonderful and totally out of character. He wasn't the kind of man who fell in love in a split second. But any man would have seen that this woman was running for her life.
"What's wrong?" he asked as she fought to pull away from him and run. He saw her look behind him again. A man was headed in their direction, fighting the crowd to get to them in a way that left no doubt the man was furiousand coming after the woman in Tanner's arms.
"Come with me." Tanner took her hand and pulled her through the crowd. He knew these rodeo grounds like the back of his hand because he'd grown up here, played under these grandstands, ridden in junior rodeo and had later ridden bucking broncs out in the arena.
The woman resisted for only a moment before she let him lead her through the crowd and the darkness toward the shadowy fairground buildings beyond the rodeo arena. From the way she was still trembling, he suspected that the man chasing her meant to hurt her. Or at least she thought so. The fact that she was more afraid of the man than a complete stranger told him the woman was desperate.
As he drew her between two of the fair buildings, he spotted the man fighting his way through the rodeo crowd. Tanner caught the man's expression under one of the large lights. The heightened fury he saw on the man's face made him worry he might have made things worse for the woman by trying to protect her.
Too late now. Whatever had the man all riled up, he wasn't going to be taking it out on this woman. Not tonight, anyway.
Tanner led her between two more buildings, weaving his way through the maze of dark structures, until he reached one he knew would be unlocked. Pulling the door open, he drew her inside, closed the door and turned the lock.
"Who is that out there?" he whispered, still holding her hand in the blackness inside the building.
Silence, then a hoarsely whispered, "My husband."
Tanner mentally gave himself a swift kick. He really had stepped in it this time. Only a fool jumped into a domestic argument. "Why's he so angry?"
She started to answer but he felt her freeze as she heard the same sound he did. Someone was running in this direction on the wooden boardwalk in front of the buildings. He didn't have to tell her to be quiet. He knew she was holding her breath.
The footfalls came to a stop outside the building, the last along the row. Past it was a line of huge cot-tonwoods cloaked in darkness. With luck, the man would think that was where they had gone.
Tanner could hear the man's heavy breathing and cursing, then his angry voice as he muttered, "You may have gotten away this time, Billie Rae, but this isn't over. When I find you, I'm going to make you wish you were dead. That's if I don't kill you with my bare hands."
The man stood outside the door panting hard, then his footfalls ebbed away back the way he'd come. The woman he'd called Billie Rae let go of Tanner's hand, and he could hear her fumbling with the door lock.
"Not so fast," Tanner said, reaching around her to turn on the light. They were both blinded for a moment by the sudden light. "I think you'd better tell me what's going on, because you heard what he just said. That man plans to hurt you. If he hasn't already," Tanner added as he saw the fading bruise around her left eye.
What Billie Rae had heard her husband say wasn't anything new. He'd threatened her plenty of times before, and the threats, she'd learned the hard way, weren't empty ones.
"I appreciate what you did for me, but I can't involve you in this," she said, finally finding her voice.
The cowboy let out a humorless laugh. "I'm already involved up to my hat. Do you have someplace you can go? Family? Friends?"
Billie Rae opened her mouth to lie. Duane had moved her away from what little family and friends she'd had right after the wedding. She'd lost contact over the past six months. Duane had made sure of that. Just as he had thrown a fit when she'd suggested going back to work.
"Your work is in this house, taking care of me. That's your work."
"You don't have anyone you can call, do you?" the cowboy said. "Don't worry. It's going to be all right. I know a place you can stay where you will be safe."
Billie Rae wanted desperately to take the cowboy up on his offer but realized she couldn't. It had been bad enough when Duane had been after her alone. Now he would be looking for the cowboy he'd seen her with. "No, you don't understand. Duane will come after you now. I'm so sorry. I should never have put you in this position."
"You didn't. I'm the one who dragged you in here," he said as he pulled out his cell phone.
She tried to protest to whatever he was about to do, but he shushed her.
"I need a ride," he said into the phone.
She heard laughter on the other end.
"I need you to bring me my pickup. That's right, it's parked right where we left it before the rodeo. No, I can't come get it myself, Marshall, or I wouldn't have called you. The keys are in it. I'm in the last fairground building. There will be two of us. Make it quick, okay?" He snapped off the phone and gave her a reassuring smile.