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He recognized the car immediately.
On his way home, hoping to beat the predicted flash floods, Deputy Sheriff Joe Lone Wolf brought his four-wheel-drive vehicle to a halt the moment he spotted the other car.
The rain was falling faster and harder with each quarter hour that went by. Because of that, his range of visibility was considerably shortened. It hampered him somewhat, but Joe still would have known the battered Jeep anywhere.
It was ten years old, silver, with a red door on its passenger side thanks to an unexpected, sudden meeting with a hundred-foot bitternut hickory tree one foggy night. With some effort on his part, Mick Henley, Forever, Texas's bestand onlymechanic, had managed to find an exact match to replace the Jeep's mangled door.
Well, almost exact. It would have needed two coats of silver paint to make it the same color as the rest of the vehicle. But Ramona Santiago had fallen in love with the bold red color and refused to change it once the new door was in place.
Red suited her.
It matched her personality, Joe had thought at the time. He still did.
Mona was all things wild and bold. Far from shy and retiring, the raven-haired, green-eyed beauty had all the subdued qualities of a Fourth of July firecracker in the middle of exploding. The green eyes came from her Irish ancestors, the midnight-black hair was a gift from the rest of her heritageMexican and Apache.
They had the last in common.
Deputy Joe Lone Wolf was an Apache, through and through, born on the nearby Apache reservation where he spent his younger years before his uncle finally uprooted him and transplanted him into Forever proper, thereby rescuing him from an early demise.
He and Mona had something else in commonshe was the sheriff's younger sister, and he was technically in Rick Santiago's employ. One of three deputies, Joe had been with Rick and on the job the longest, although only by a matter of a few months.
If Rick knew that his sister was coming back to Forever tonight, he hadn't mentioned anything. Joe had a strong suspicion that the sheriff would be just as surprised as he was that Mona was here. The last anyone had heard, Mona was due to reach Forever the day before her brother's wedding.
Why the change in schedule? Joe wondered.
The vehicle's windshield wipers were already set on maximum speed and were clearly losing the battle for visibility against the rain. He would have had better luck seeing if he just stuck his head out the side window.
But he'd seen enough, approaching on the gently inclining slope, to know that something was definitely wrong. Mona's Jeep was stationary in a place where no one would willingly choose to stop. Moreover, Mona wasn't in the vehicle but was standing outside it.
Specifically, Mona was in the process of wrestling with a tire iron, cursing the very flat front passenger tire that was, of necessity, the focus of all her attention.
Though never demure, the Mona he recalled didn't ordinarily turn the air blue around her. She'd obviously been at this for a bit and, just as obviously, been unsuccessful in her endeavor to change the tire.
Just the slightest hint of amusement ran through him, even though it made no appearance on his face. He knew better than that. Mona had eyes in the back of her pretty head. At least, she did before she'd gone off to college to become a veterinarian.
Parking his vehicle several feet away from hers, Joe got out and, braving the rain, approached the sheriff's sister from behind. She didn't appear to hear him, but under the circumstances, that was more than understandable. The wind howled, the rain pelted and made its own mournful noise, and Mona, damsel-in-distress in this scenario, was cursing.
With all this going on, Joe doubted if she could have heard a train approaching from a distance.
"Don't you know you have to sweet-talk a car to get it to cooperate?" Joe asked just as he came to where Mona was standing.
The next thing he knew, he was literally jumping back, out of her reach, and not a moment too soon.
Startled, Mona immediately turned the tire iron in her hands into a weapon and swung it at her invisible target for all she was worth.
"Hey!" Joe cried indignantly, barely avoiding being separated from his midsection by the metal tool.
Tired, annoyed at the sudden downpour that had wreaked havoc with her schedule, and furious with the tire that had almost caused her to go careening off the road and down into a ditch, Mona was definitely not at her best. In addition to that, the knowledge that, at this moment, she bore a strong resemblance to a resuscitated drowned rat did nothing to improve her mood.
When she saw who it was, she let go of the tire iron, dropping it to the ground. After a beat. She took in a deep, shaky breath, trying not to think about what might have happened if Joe's reflexes hadn't been as good as they were.
"Joe, you scared me!" she snapped. Turning the bolt of fear that shot through her into anger and aiming it at Joe.
"Then I guess we're even." His voice was calm, but beneath the deadly still exterior he had to admit he was anything but. Moving in closer again, Joe looked down at the tire that was still very much a part of Mona's vehicle. She hadn't gotten very far in her attempt to remove it, he noted. Raising his eyes to hers, he asked, "Got a flat?"
Mona laughed shortly and shook her head. "I always did love the way you could grasp any situation at lightning speed."
His expression never changed. "It was a rhetorical comment."
She pushed her plastered wet hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand. "So was mine."
With the rain beating a faster and faster tattoo on his tan, worn Stetson as it showered down all around him, Joe gave her a long, measuring look.
For the most part, Mona had been away at college, then veterinarian school these past eight years. Although it didn't seem possible, every time she came back, she seemed even more beautiful than when she'd left. But her sharp tongue hadn't dulled a whit. He supposed that there were just some things in life you could count on.
"You want some help or not?" Joe asked, quietly eyeing her.
Mona had made it a point never to ask for help. It was a matter of pride with her. Plus, if she wasn't counting on anyone, if she didn't depend on anyone, then she would never have to go through the agony of disappointment again. It was a philosophy she was forced to develop very early in life, when she finally realized that her mother would never come back for them the way she'd promised.
The only exceptions to Mona's philosophy were her brother, her late grandmother and Doc Whitmore. Over the years, the latter had slowly became the father she'd never known, as well as her mentor. Those were the three who'd brought stability into her life.
As for Joe, well, Joe was someone she'd gone to school with. Someone who'd always managed to be somewhere in close proximity, like the air and the trees. One way or another, Joe seemed never to be that far out of range. In short, he'd been her best friend, though neither one of them had ever verbally acknowledged the role.
She might have known she'd run into him before she saw anyone else from Forever, Mona thought.
In response to his offer for help, her slender shoulders rose and fell in a careless shrug beneath her soaked jacket. "Well, since you're here and all "
As she spoke, she stepped back from the defunct vehicle. Because of the torrential rain and the dust now swiftly turning into mud, Mona found her footing compromised. She was about to slip backward and come perilously close to ignobly landing on her butt if not her back altogether. At the last second, she was rescued from the impending embarrassment by Joe's quick reflexes. He grabbed her, pulling her forward toward him before she could slide backward. Due to his strength, the abrupt motion was a matter of overcompensation and suddenly, rather than discovering herself sprawled out on the ground and flat against the oozing mud, Mona slammed up against Joe without so much as the width of a raindrop between them.
She raised her eyes to Joe's, doing her best to regroup as quickly as possible. Her pulse raced and she didn't like it. She also didn't want him taking any note of it.
"Is that your heart pounding?" she asked flippantly, doing her very best to sound as nonchalant as she didn't feel.
"Nope," he lied. "Must be yours."
The same strong hands that had grabbed her now pushed her back by a good twelve inches, if not more. Having Mona against him like that took control out of his hands.
"You're an accident waiting to happen," he told her, his voice flat, emotionless as he tried to deflect any more attention away from the state of the organ that was betraying him.
Or one of the organs that were betraying him at any rate, he thought ruefully.
He nodded toward his vehicle that was parked off to the side. "Why don't you just go and wait in my car while I handle this?"
She was not about to take a chance on slipping again so soon. The last thing she wanted was to hear him laughing at her.
"What? And miss the learning experience of a lifetime, watching you change a tire?" she scoffed, raising her voice so that the winds didn't whip it away. "How will poor little me ever learn how to do such a big, manly thing if I'm shut away in an ivory tower?"
For emphasis, she waved toward the vehicle which became less visible despite its close proximity.
Joe shook his head. "I see you still have a smart mouth."
The grin on her lips was deliberately exaggerated. She batted her eyelashes at him like an old-fashioned movie goddess. "It goes with my smart mind."
"Then I guess you must be brilliant by now," he commented drily.
Moving slowly, he picked his way around her Jeep, going to the rear.
"I am," Mona answered in the same tone, punctuating her sentence with a toss of her wet head. "Where are you going?"
He glanced in her direction. "Someone with your brilliant mind would know that I wanted to check the condition of your spare before going through the trouble of taking off the flat."
"I knew that," she retorted, then added in a more mellow tone, "but I didn't know if you did." She followed him to the rear of her vehicle.
The spare tire was mounted on the back of the Jeep. Testing the tire's integrity, Joe frowned and shook his head. This was not good. He spared her a glance over his shoulder and could see by her body language that she'd become instantly defensive before he even said a word. He said it anyway.
"Don't you ever check the condition of your spare?"
Her eyes narrowed beneath her soggy bangs. "Somewhere between studying for my finalsand the examination for my vet licenseand juggling a part-time job to pay for little incidentals like food, it must have temporarily fallen off my 'immediately to do' list."
He ignored her sarcastic tone and answered matter-of-factly. "Well, that's a shame," he told her. "Because your spare's flat, too."
Mona closed her eyes. It figured. All things considered, this had not been one of her better days. Opening her eyes again, she looked at Joe. "As flat as the one on it?" she asked.
You just didn't substitute one flat tire for another. Flat was flat. His dark eyes would have pinned her to the wallif there had been one around. "You know better than that."
Yes, she did. She was just desperate. And really, really annoyed. With both tires for being flat and with herself for not noticing that the spare had slowly lost its air. And most of all, right now she was annoyed with Joe for pointing it out.
Hands fisted at her waist, Mona swung one booted foot at the right front tire and kicked it.
"That's not going to make it come back to life," Joe commented.
She glared at him. "I know that." The hood she had on provided next to no protection for her at this point and when it slid off her head, she didn't bother to try to pull it back up. "Now what?"
The weather seemed to be getting more hostile by the moment. He turned so that the rain was at his back. Because he was taller, he provided a little shelter for her, as well.
He gave her options, although only one was really viable. "Well, I could call Mick and you could wait here for him to come with his tow truckif you don't wash away first. Or I could give you a ride into town and you could talk to Mick yourself, face-to-face."
Mona was in no mood to share a car ride with him, even though she knew it was her best bet. "No third option, huh?"
"Sure." Joe raised his voice again, competing with the increasing sound of the wind and the rain. "You could wait here for the tire spirits to come and perform the miracle of the reinflating tire."
His expression was so serious that anyone not knowing Joe would have thought that he actually believed in the spirits he'd just invoked. But she had grown up witnessing displays of his deadpan sense of humor.
With a sigh, Mona resigned herself to her only real alternative. "I guess I'll have to pick option number two."
"Good choice," he answered.
Turning on his heel, he started to lead the short distance back to his parked vehicle. It took him less than a minute to realize that Mona wasn't following behind him. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. She was still next to her Jeep.
"Change your mind?"
Crawling into the rear of the vehicle, Mona hauled out a large suitcase. She had no choice but to set it down in the mud.
"No," she told him, "I don't want anyone making off with my clothes." She didn't bother looking at him as she leaned into the back and grabbed a second suitcase. This one, lodged behind the driver's seat, proved to be less cooperative and she struggled to get it out of the vehicle.
Joe shook his head at the woman's unadulterated stubbornness. He crossed back to her in a couple of long strides. Firmly taking hold of her shoulders for a second time, he moved her out of the way and easily pulled the large suitcase out. Instead of putting it down next to the first one, he held on to it, keeping it out of the mud.