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The crystal beads bounced on the hardwood floor and scattered in all directions. Callie Price hung over the win-dowsill, her legs, tangled in silk organza, dangling toward the ground. She bicycled her legs, the toes of her white satin pumps grappling for purchase on terra firma.
She tumbled into the flowerbed, the train of her dress burying her beneath layers of white froth. Scrambling to her feet, she jumped out of the flowers, leaving one of the pumps in the moist dirt.
For a scumbag, Bobby Jingo sure liked his flowers.
She slipped off the other shoe and tossed it at its mate. She never could run in heels.
The damp grass squished beneath her feet as she backed away from the window. Then she spun around and took the corner of the house at high speed. She collided with a teenage boy, knocking the cigarette from his lips and a can of beer from his hand.
"Whoa!" He held up his empty hands, his eyes widening as his gaze swept from her veil to her bedraggled train. "Aren't you the bride?"
Callie glanced at the red vest and pert bow tie, incongruous over a pair of black jeans and motorcycle boots. Her eyes flicked to the can on the ground, spewing foam. "Aren't you one of the valet parking attendants?"
Shoving his hands in his pockets, the boy squared his shoulders. "C'mon, I had two sips, and I need to get paid for this gig tonight. I owe my friend some money."
"There's a lot of that going around."
"Tell you what." Callie yanked off the veil and dropped it on top of the smoldering cigarette, then kicked it toward the beer. Starting a fire wouldn't be a great idea right now. "You get me some transportation out of here, and I won't tell anyone you've been drinking on the job."
The teen gulped, his Adam's apple prominent in his pencil-thin neck. "Are you kidding?"
She pointed to her feet encased in shimmering hose and the dirt-smudged train. "Do I look like I'm kidding?"
He shook his head, a smile spreading across his face. "Are you running out on the wedding?"
Real genius, this one, but he just might be her savior. "Yeah, I've got pressing business elsewhere."
"Sweet." He grabbed her arm and pulled her to the back of the house. Pointing to a beat-up motorcycle leaning precariously on its kickstand, he said, "Take it."
"Is—is it yours?" The boy sure seemed eager to part with his bike, or maybe he wanted in on the adventure.
He dug into his pocket and pulled out a key. As it dangled from his finger, it caught the light and winked at her. No time to analyze his motives, she knew.
She snatched the key from his hand, lifted up her skirt and rushed toward the bike. She called over her shoulder, "How do I get it back to you?"
He waved an arm. "Leave it on the side of the highway or something. It has a full tank—almost."
Reaching beneath her dress, she peeled off the silk pantyhose and hung them on a cactus. She shoved the key into the ignition and turned back toward the teenager, his mouth hanging open as he wrestled another cigarette out of a pack. "One more thing."
"Do you want me to show you how to start the bike up and keep it going?"
"I know how to ride a motorcycle." She tugged at the train hanging from her backside. "Could you rip this damn thing off my dress?"
Five minutes later, shoeless, veilless and trainless, Callie roared north on I-25 away from Las Cruces.
Once she got back to L.A. she'd figure out another way to save her father. She just hoped she could come up with something before Bobby hurt Dad.
Who was she kidding? After the stunt she just pulled, Bobby might hurt her, too.
Rod McClintock worried the toothpick at the side of his mouth as his gaze drilled the highway, shrouded in purple dusk. The horses he looked at in Austin would be a good start for the dude ranch, but he hated incurring so much debt.
He needed an infusion of money, land or a fairy godmother. Or maybe all three.
Through a layer of dust, a shimmering white shape appeared on the side of the highway. Either his fairy godmother just appeared or he could use a drink.
Easing off the gas pedal, he swerved to the left and peered out the passenger window. An old Honda bike tilted on its kickstand, and a woman in a long white dress stood beside it, waving her arms over her head.
A couple of cars had already sped past her, and a few cars behind him slowed down to take in the spectacle. He'd let one of those drivers take care of the stranded motorist. He didn't need any more problems in his life.
He watched his rearview mirror as a black SUV pulled behind the woman and the motorcycle. Three men tumbled out of the car, clutching bottles. Rod made for the shoulder of the highway and threw his truck into Reverse.
By the time he jumped out of his truck, the three men had formed a circle around the woman, the white wedding dress swirling around her legs. Her long, blond hair whipped in the hot wind from the speeding cars on the highway.
"Hey, baby, did your groom ditch you by the side of the road or something?"
The woman tilted up her chin, digging her fists into her hips. She looked ready to make a run at the guy.
"Take a hike." Rod stepped between the man and the stranded woman, jerking his thumb toward the idling SUV.
"Are you the groom?" The moron twisted his head over his shoulder and snorted at his two buddies.
Rod grabbed a handful of the man's sweat-dampened T-shirt and yanked him forward. The man's head snapped back around, his mouth slack with a dribble of beer at the corner.
"Get moving." Rod bunched his fist and drew it back to emphasize his point.
The man pedaled backward, bumping into his two friends, already scrambling for the security of the car. "Sure, man. We're not looking for trouble."
Only with a little blonde in a wedding dress and…bare feet.
The men piled into the SUV and shot down the highway.
Holding up his index finger, Rod pulled out his cell phone and placed a call to 911, giving them the license plate of the SUV. He snapped the phone shut and dropped it back into his shirt pocket. "Don't want those guys plowing into a carload of kids."
She gathered her billowing hair in one hand and twisted it behind her. "Who are you, Sir Galahad?"
A pink blush washed over her cheeks beneath the grit and grime. "Thanks. I appreciate your help. I was so happy someone pulled over—until I saw The Three Stooges climb out of the car."
"You're in a dangerous situation." His gaze narrowed. "What is your situation?"
"I ran out of gas." She aimed a dirty, pink-polished toe at the tire of the Honda 550, but stopped short of kicking it.
Running out of gas didn't tell half the story of a barefoot, bedraggled bride in the middle of New Mexico. He tapped the phone in his pocket. "Do you want me to call a roadside service to bring you some gas?"
The woman laced her hands in front of her and dropped her chin, glancing up at him through lowered lashes.
A practiced look, if he ever saw one.
"Not really. I was kind of hoping for a lift. It's been a hell of a ride in this wedding gown."
"What about the bike?"
She shrugged, the strap of her dress slipping off her shoulder. "It's not mine."
Rod crossed his arms and dug his boot heels into the gravel. If she stole the motorcycle, he'd turn her in, too, with those jackasses in the car.
She peered at him through the veil of hair that hung over her face, and then jerked her head up. "I didn't steal the bike. Someone loaned it to me."
He cocked his head. This one looked like a package of trouble tied up with a white bow; but curiosity nibbled
at his gut. He hoped to hell that curiosity wouldn't land him in the same condition as the cat.
"How are you going to return the bike to your… friend?"
"He told me to leave it on the side of the road when I ran out of gas, and he'd get it back." She nibbled at her bottom lip and crinkled her brow, as if the logic of this plan escaped even a barefoot woman standing in the middle of the highway in a dirty wedding dress.
His gaze tracked over the motorcycle—no saddlebags, no pouch, no nothing. "Do you have a purse with you? Money? Change of clothing?"
She threw her head back and laughed at the darkening sky. Then she doubled over, her shoulders shaking as she clutched her stomach. Was she having a breakdown?
Rod stepped toward her, his boots crunching the gravel, and her head shot up. Tears streamed down her face, and she swept them away, creating streaks of dirt on her cheeks. But she was still laughing.
"Do I look like I have anything? Just a few bucks and my driver's license." She patted the side of her breast, encased in the tight bodice of the wedding dress. "Wouldn't want to get a ticket for driving without a license."
A carload of teenagers screamed and yelled out their car window, and the woman rubbed a hand across her nose. "Can we get off of this godforsaken highway now?"
"After you." In a grand gesture, he swept his arm toward his truck. "Where are you headed?"
Taking a few tentative steps on the chunky gravel, she called over her shoulder, "North is good."
Rod resisted the urge to sweep her off her feet, which must be hurting. Better to let her tough it out than suspect him of improper designs on her. Although accepting a ride from a stranger didn't seem to bother her.
Reaching the truck, she grabbed the door handle before he could, and pulled herself onto the running board. Nudging her hand out of the way, he opened the door for her. She launched herself inside, dropping onto the leather interior of his truck with a rustle of silk and a soft sigh.
By the time he slid into the driver's seat, the woman had adjusted the seat back as far as it would go, stretched her legs out and closed her eyes.
He studied her face in the creeping gloom, the headlights of the passing cars illuminating its planes and curves. She'd obviously ditched a wedding and, judging by her dress, it was her own. But why the full-scale flight in complete bridal regalia? She couldn't stop to change clothes, grab a credit card, get her own car? The whole thing smelled worse than a truckload of manure.
She opened one eye. "Are you going to put this behemoth in gear and get moving?"
For a woman in her position, she didn't show much gratitude. He stuck out his hand. "My name's Rod."
She placed her delicately boned hand in his and, with the grip of a truck driver, she said, "Callie."
He extracted his fingers from hers and cranked on the engine, Bach immediately cascading from the speakers. She raised one perfectly sculpted eyebrow, and he jabbed the button to turn off the CD player.
Blowing out a breath, he pulled onto the highway. "So, how'd a nice girl like you wind up on the roadside in a wedding dress?"
"Who said I was nice?" She clicked open his glove compartment and rummaged inside with one hand.
"Looking for something?"
"Food. I'm starving. Didn't stick around long enough for the canapés at the reception."
Despite being an intruder, she'd made herself right at home in his truck. "There's a bag in the backseat with some granola bars and beef jerky, and a cooler with some bottled water."
"Even that sounds good to me right now." She un-snapped her seat belt and twisted in her seat to paw through the paper bag on the floor of the truck.
Rod shot her a sidelong glance as she ripped into a piece of jerky with straight, white teeth. If he had any sense, he'd turn around and deliver her back to the bridegroom. Poor sap. What kind of woman leaves her man stranded at the altar?
She chugged the water and then rested the bottle against her cheek, staring at the highway as his truck gobbled it up. Her pretty blue eyes, shadowed by the dark interior of his car, had a haunted look. Her porcelain skin stretched too tightly over her high cheekbones, and her full lips pursed into a tight knot.
Okay, maybe she didn't dump a poor sap. Rod always jumped to the most unsavory conclusions about women and their motives—a legacy from mommy dearest.
He cleared his throat. "Are you hungry? Because I've been driving all afternoon, up from Austin, and I could use a meal."
Callie flashed him a smile, and his heart almost came to a crashing halt in his chest. The woman could crack wise with the best of them, but that smile didn't contain an ounce of artifice or bitterness.
"That would be great. And once we get to the next town, maybe you could loan me some money so I can hop on a bus, or at least loan me your cell phone to call a friend back home to wire me some money or something."
"Back home? You're not from around here?"
His brows shot up. "What's an L.A. girl doing in New Mexico?"
"Isn't it obvious?" She tugged at the sides of the wedding gown, ripping off a little more lace.
"Okay, let me get this straight." He loosened his grip on the steering wheel and flexed his fingers. "You came out from L.A. to New Mexico…Arizona…Texas to get married, decided you couldn't go through with it, hightailed it out of your own wedding and hopped on a motorcycle to escape. Is that about right?"
She flashed him two thumbs up. "You got it."
"So, are you heading back to L.A. now?"
He didn't believe half of that story, but once he dropped her at the next bus stop, her story wouldn't matter anymore. Then he could get back to his own problems of raising enough money to turn his working ranch into a dude ranch.
Since his father and stepmother moved to Palm Springs, taking most of the capital out of the ranch for their retirement, he'd have to rely on loans to get his dude ranch up and running. He hated being indebted to anyone, even a bank.
The McClintock spread had enough space for a modest dude ranch, but he needed more land to really make a go of it.… Not that he could afford to buy more land. Or more horses.
He rolled his shoulders and glanced at his silent companion. It didn't look like she had any intention of satisfying his curiosity, but at least she had a plan. He didn't want her depending on him to come to the rescue.