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She was late again.
Alisa Merrick pressed down on the gas pedal of her silver convertible and the engine roared, then shot off down the county road. No way would she make the meeting on time unless she grew wings and could fly. And she needed the endorsement of the Kerry Springs downtown merchants to get elected to the council. She glanced at the dashboard clock and groaned.
That was when she remembered the shortcut. Okay, it was private property, but she knew the owners. The Raffertys were her neighbors. Surely they wouldn't care? Then Matt Rafferty came to mind. Maybe one would.
Alisa didn't have time to think just react so she took the sharp turn off the highway. Dust went flying as she made it onto the dirt road and started along the tree-lined road. Correction, overgrown trees and mesquite bushes made it difficult to see much ahead of her.
It didn't take long to realize this was a bad idea, and she needed to find somewhere to turn around and head back to the highway. Her vehicle couldn't handle this terrain. She didn't need to tear up the undercarriage of her car, but she had to keep going, hoping she made it out of this maze. Finally the trees thinned and she came into a clearing. That was when she saw the horse and rider. Too late.
Alisa hit the breaks and swerved to miss them. The huge rust-hued animal reared up and the rider went flying backward.
When she got the car stopped, she climbed out. "Oh, God. Oh, God," she chanted as she hurried to the down rider. The animal stood guard over the man who was facedown on the ground.
"Come on, boy. You need to move." She shooed him away, then knelt down beside the man.
Trembling, she felt for a pulse and thank God, she got one. With his hat gone, she recognized Matt Rafferty right away.
"Come on, Matt, wake up," she pleaded, trying to stay calm. "Matt, please.
He groaned and rolled to his side. He blinked and opened his eyes. She saw the dazed look. "Matt, are you okay?"
He groaned again. He was hurt. She touched him, and that was when he pulled away.
"Matt, it's me, Alisa. Please, please be okay."
Matt Rafferty fought to breathe. He tried to focus, but he felt himself slipping to that place he didn't want to go. Suddenly there was that familiar sound of the chopper blades, cutting through the clear sky. Help was coming. Was it enough? Would it be in time?
Somewhere in the background he heard a voice. A woman's soft, husky voice. Who was she? What was she doing here? He raised his eyes and slowly she was there.
"What the hell? Take cover," he shouted the order, but she didn't move. "Dammit!" He yanked her down beside him and pulled her close to him. "You're not a target."
"Matt!" she called his name.
He froze as the familiar voice broke through all the blurred sounds in his head. Then he felt her touch. He looked down at the woman next to him.
She smiled hesitantly, and his entire body reacted to it. As the fog began to clear, he wanted to run but he was weak as a kitten. Dammit. Not now. And not her.
She was the last person he wanted to see when he was like this. He glanced past her and spotted the car, recalling the noise that spooked his horse. He cocked his head as he caught the fading sound of the private helicopter that had sent him into a tailspin.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"I'd be better if there weren't so much noise disturbing my herd, or my peace."
"Sorry, that was Dad's helicopter."
"Maybe he could take a different route," he grumbled as he rolled away, feeling the pain in his shoulder. He managed to sit up. "What are you doing here?"
She did, too. "Would you believe I was driving by?"
"Well, maybe you should keep driving. It's safer for all of us."
"I can't leave you," she argued. "You took a header off your horse."
He wanted to stand, but wasn't sure he could. "Well, I'm okay now, so you can go."
She shook her head and stood up. Brushing off her skirt, she said, "You need help, Matt. I'm calling 911."
"No! I'm fine."
She frowned. "You don't look fine. You're pale and you fell hard on your shoulder." When he didn't answer, she went on. "You might have dislocated it. And what on earth happened to you when the chopper flew over? You seemed really panicked."
He wasn't discussing this with her. "I'm more concerned that someone was trying to run me down." With every bit of strength he had left, he got to his knees, then after a slow shallow breath he stood up. It took a moment for the pain to subside, then he looked toward the tree to see his horse.
"Nick." He managed a low whistle, but it was loud enough to bring his mount to his side. He grabbed his hat off the ground and set it on his head. He could do this. He'd already revealed too much of his weakness. He didn't want her to see him like this.
Alisa stepped in front of his path. "You're not climbing back on that horse, Matt Rafferty."
She only stood about five-three. Even with her high heels she barely made it to his chin.
"Who's going to stop me?" he challenged.
When he started by her, she grabbed hold of his upper arm. He winced. "See, you're hurt."
"I can manage. I've taken spills off horses since I was a kid." He didn't need her hanging around here. That was when he saw the silver sport car. "What are you doing on Rafferty land, anyway?"
"I was taking a shortcut. I was late for a meeting."
"And that makes harming what or whoever gets in your path okay, does it?"
She jammed her hands on her hips. "I wasn't trying to harm anyone. I didn't see you."
Alisa Merrick was a gorgeous woman. A man had to be blind not to be attracted to that all long raven hair and those velvet-brown eyes. Her Spanish heritage showed in her defined cheekbones and rich olive skin.
And talking of skin, that was exactly what she did, got under his skin.
"Then you shouldn't have been racing around on private property."
"I told you I have an important meeting in town."
"What? Breakfast with your friends?"
"No, but if you must know"
He raised a hand. "I don't want to know." His shoulder was throbbing. "I need to check my horse."
Matt eyed the dark chestnut stallion. A beautiful quarter horse, sixteen hands high and smart. He'd trained the champion himself. Matt ran a hand over his flanks, speaking softly, grateful he was okay.
He jammed his booted foot in the stirrup, but that was as far as he got when he reached for the saddle horn and pain shot through his shoulder. He cursed and stepped back.
"That's it." Alisa marched back to the car and grabbed her cell phone off the passenger seat. "You won't let me help then I'm calling someone who will."
Dammit. "Just hold on a minute."
When she looked at him, he felt his gut knot up just like it had three years ago. Right after he'd made love to her, then told her goodbye.
"You'll let me take you to the hospital?" she asked.
He finally nodded.
Alisa gave a sigh of relief but as she looked over the ruggedly handsome cowboy, she realized he could still cause her heart to race, and palms to sweat. She hated that. Matt Rafferty was last man she needed in her life right now. Who was she kidding? He didn't want her three years ago and he couldn't wait to get rid of her now. Well, she didn't want him, either. Just as soon as she got him to the hospital, she'd be gone, again.
"Let me call someone to get Nick." He unbuttoned his shirt pocket and pulled out his phone. He punched in the number to the barn.
When his foreman answered, he said, "Hey, Pete, I need a favor. I'm out by Old Mill Road about a half mile from the highway. Could you come and get Nick?"
"Is there a problem?" Pete asked.
Matt glanced at Alisa. "No, nothing I can't handle," he lied, knowing Alisa Merrick had distracted him once, and he couldn't let her do it again.
An hour later at the E.R., Alisa sat in the waiting room. She'd made several calls. The first to her father to cancel the meeting. This wasn't how she wanted to start her Monday. This wasn't how she wanted to start any day.
Alisa closed her eyes. Matt could have been seriously hurt because of her. Both her father and her brother Sloan had warned her so many times to slow down. She'd received two speeding tickets in the past year as it was, not to mention the times she gotten off with a warning because of the Merrick name. There had been times she enjoyed being a senator's daughter. But today, she'd caused an accident. Worse, she caused an injury. She still prayed it was minor. Whatever, Matt was in pain and it was her fault. No matter what a jerk he'd been three years ago, she never wanted to cause him harm.
She hadn't seen Matt much since his return home from the army, but seeing the incident today, she realized he hadn't come back unscathed. The man could argue all he wanted, but she knew he'd had a flashback. Not uncommon for men and women who had served in a war zone. Matt had done a tour of duty overseas and came home a hero. But at what cost?
The automatic doors opened and she looked up to see an older gentleman come rushing in, Sean Rafferty. Right behind Matt's father was his brother, Evan. Since she'd made the call, Sean came to her.
There was concern on his face. "How is he, lass?"
"When I dropped him off, he was complaining to the nurse."
Evan grinned. "That's a good sign. I'll go check on him."
They watched as Evan went to the nurses' station, then she turned back to Matt's dad. "I'm so sorry, Sean, if I hadn't taken the shortcut through your property I truly didn't see Matt until it was too late."
The big Irishman took her hand. "We know you didn't mean any harm, Alisa. You have my permission to use that road anytime."
"Well, it was my fault, so I made arrangements to take care of Matt's medical bills."
"Let's not worry about that now."
"But he couldn't even get on his horse. So how can he work?" She knew that he was in partnership with his father and brother on the Triple R Ranch. Matt ran the cattle operation.
"There are enough ranch hands to handle the work," Sean assured her. "Although his injures might hold up the remodel at the bar."
"That's right, you've been out of town awhile. We've recently purchased Rory's Bar and Grill."
"Mom said something about Rory retiring. So you bought the place." She smiled. "That makes sense since you've worked there for years. And you're famous barbecue was born there. Will you continue to work there?"
Sean was a handsome man with thick white hair and an Irish brogue. He'd recently married Beth Staley. "Sorry, I've retired from bartending. I want time with my bride, and together we'll promote Rafferty's Barbecue Sauce. So Evan and I are silent partners. The bar is Matt's baby. Of course, my barbecue will be on the menu along with the Rafferty Legacy wines."
Alisa was happy for them. "Seems while I was gone, I missed all the good stuff."
"Well, seems you've been busy, too," he said. "I've been hearing good things about you."
Since her parents were close friends of Beth and Sean, she knew immediately what he was talking about. "I only made it official just recently."
"Well, if my opinion matters, I think you'd be wonderful on the town council," Sean encouraged. "We need more young people running things around here. Your Da is so proud."
She'd always been a daddy's girl, even when they butted heads. She had some progressive ideas for this town. "Some people don't want change. That means I need to do some fundraising. I'm challenging an established town council member in Gladys Peters." Alisa had to prove to this district that she was worth taking a chance on.
"This town needs to be shaken up a little, and you're just the person who could do that." Sean's blue eyes lit up. "I have an idea. In a few weeks we're having a grand opening at the bar. Why not do a fundraiser there, too?"
Oh, no! She doubted Matt would be happy about this. "I'm honored, Sean, that you'd even consider it, but you're trying to get this business off the ground, I'm not sure that it's a good idea."
"What's not a good idea?