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A woman's breathing, harsh and edged, sliced the sudden silence as Tyler Adams cut the engine of the big Harley and brought it to a halt ahead of the sedan by the side of the highway. He still couldn't see her, but as he strode back to the car the pain-filled gasps came faster. Guilt flickered through him.
He almost hadn't stopped. Hell, he'd kept going for another mile or so before his conscience had gotten the better of him and he'd turned back to investigate. It hadn't been much - just a blinding sparkle coming from the far side of the sedan as he'd passed it - but the only reason he could think of for the sparkle he'd glimpsed was that the car's back door had been open a little. Muttering under his breath, he'd turned the Harley around.
He'd been right, the back door was open. Protruding from it were two slim legs. Two bare feet dug into the hard-packed New Mexico dirt, their heels lifted and the tendons of their high arches standing out against the fine white road dust covering them. Swiftly he began to walk around the open door to get a look at the rest of her, and as he did the gasps turned into a grunt.
"Stay right there, mister." The words sounded forced. "I - I've got a gun."
Dammit, she's been attacked. Even as he froze, the sickened thought tore through his mind. She'd been assaulted and she thought he was the bastard who'd done this to her, come back for a second sadistic round.
Tye suddenly wished he was a couple of inches shorter than six feet, instead of a few over, and a little less bulky, less broad-shouldered. Intimidating worked in his job - he'd built up the bodyguard and protection firm he headed into the agency of choice for nervous celebrities, partially on the strength of the don't-screw-with-me impression he apparently projected - but she didn't need big and intimidating right now.
"I'm not here to hurt you, lady." The ground between her raised heels was darkly wet. Blood, he thought with icy anger. "Let me help you back onto the seat so I can drive you to a hospital."
The gun thing had probably been a bluff. He stepped past the open door and got his first clear look at her.
The gun thing hadn't been a bluff. She was holding a massive revolver in both hands, and at this distance if she pulled the trigger he'd be a goner even before he hit the ground. But the damn gun wasn't important.
She was wearing a summery dress, white with a pattern of red cherries. There were three red buttons on the opened bodice, one of them hanging by a thread, and the ripe swell of her breasts was almost fully exposed. In the hollow between them her skin was slick with sweat.
Her hair was the pale brown of buckwheat honey, deeper by a shade than his own dark blond. It hung in damp strands to her shoulders. The hands holding the revolver were propped up on the enormous curve of her belly.
She was pregnant. Make that very pregnant, Tye told himself hollowly. She was so pregnant that any time now she wouldn't be pregnant anymore. Any time now the baby inside her was going to start coming out.
He saw her slitted eyes lose focus for a moment, heard her breath whistle between her gritted teeth. Slowly she exhaled.
"I suspect for the next little while I'm goin' to be too busy to be able to worry about you, mister," she said softly. "This isn't anything I ever thought I'd find myself doing, but you people left me no choice."
He'd told himself the damn gun wasn't important, but he'd been wrong about that, too. The explosion split the dusty silence like a thunderclap.
He couldn't remember actually making the decision to hit the ground, Tyler thought a second later. But apparently he had and apparently he almost hadn't been fast enough. The slashed shoulder of his leather jacket was evidence of that. Losing your edge, buddy, he told himself tightly. Better start getting out in the field again, sharpen up those reflexes.
"You shouldn't have done that, mister." The soft voice shook. "I was going for a wing shot, but if you'd jumped the other way this whole thing would have turned out bad for the both of us. I've got no desire to bring my baby into the world with blood on my - oh!"
The abrupt exclamation ended in a small gasp, and something about the vulnerability of that noise drove all caution from his mind. Quickly he got to his feet.
Her eyes were squeezed shut and the gun was beside her on the floor of the car. Tye seized his chance.
"Whoever you think I am, you're wrong, lady," he said tersely. "You need to get to a delivery room, and fast. Where are the car keys?"
"I guess the part Granny Lacey used to call the rest-and-be-thankful stage is over." Her voice was thready. "The car broke down, mister. Did I make a mistake about you?"
"I made a couple about you, so I guess we're even," he answered briefly. "Just tell me if I've got it right. Someone's after you, this junker isn't going anywhere and you're about to have a baby. That about it?" At her nod he went on, hoping he sounded calmer than he felt. "How long have you been in labor?"
"My water broke about half an hour after the car died," she murmured. Which explained the dampness of the ground between her heels, he thought in relief.
"I'm pretty sure I'm fully dilated now. My body's telling me it's time to start pushing."
Tye could still remember the first foal he'd watched being born. Del Hawkins had rousted him, Connor, Riggs and Jess from their beds, only waiting long enough for them to pull on jeans and boots. The four of them had exchanged furious glances, but after a week at the Double B they'd known better than to flatout confront the wheelchair-bound ex-Marine.
He'd been a tough and surly sixteen-year-old at the time, Tye reflected. He'd thought nothing could get to him. But at the sight of that wobbly foal scrambling up on ridiculously long legs he'd realized there was a lump in his throat. In the glow of the lantern he'd seen the others averting their faces, too.
That night had been a turning point, but he wasn't sure it qualified him for this.
"There's a plaid carpetbag on the front seat. I need the newspaper that's in it."
Her top lip was dewed with moisture and she'd closed her eyes again. The pain had to be bad, Tye thought. It had her talking crazy - although stress and fear might have something to do with that, too. Who was after her? An abusive husband, despite the fact she wore no wedding band? That seemed unlikely, since from her few cryptic remarks he'd received the impression there was more than one person looking for her, but his questions would have to go unanswered for now. Unzipping his jacket and slinging it onto the roof of the car, he bent down beside her.
"You don't want to read the paper. If there's something in that carpetbag I could use to boil water in I could get a fire going."
Excerpted from Lone Rider Bodyguard by Harper Allen Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 8, 2009
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