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"C'mon! Just a few more gates!" Jason Hunter shook his video game. Beeps and twangs filled the air.
"Jason, shaking it won't make the game go faster." Melanie Hunter flicked her gaze between the dirt road and her eight-year-old son. Along one side, rocks and pines lined the steep grade. On the other side, soft road base rimmed along a slope scorched by wildfire burn. In the middle, nothing but rough washboard dirt.
Her tire hit a bump. She clutched the steering wheel. Maybe she should have just dealt with the road construction on the interstate instead of threading around on smaller roads. With all the recent rain, the county road drove more like an all-terrain vehicle track. "Honey, sit back. I can't see."
Jason dropped the game onto his lap. "The batteries died and I was winning."
"We don't have too much farther to go. I've heard there's a ski area up here somewhere."
"It's summertime, Mom. You can't ski in June."
"No, but Twin Buttes has lots of stuff to do even if it's not snowing. We'll stop there, have lunch and poke around the town." The frown on his face said he wasn't buying into the plan. She leaned over and bumped his shoulder. "I'll bet we can get batteries there, too."
"Whatever. Couldn't you have found a job closer to home?"
Melanie sighed and straightened in her seat. Not a job like this. If she got the analyst position in Montrose doing research on high-altitude seeds and plants, she wouldn't be putting in the long hours at the lab like she was now. Sure, Colorado Springs was a nice city, but it was hard for her to make ends meet on her single-mom budget. Besides, Montrose offered small-town living in the Colorado Mountains. Surely she'd find something to distract Jason from video games and get him outside playing. He needed fresh air and other kids, not dark rooms and Mario Brothers' parties.
Jason dug into his backpack, pulled out a cord and aimed the plug of his video game unit at the dashboard. He missed the cigarette lighter receptacle and hit the heater knob. "Quit driving over the bumps, Mom!"
Seeing a clear stretch ahead, she leaned over and grabbed the power cord from his hand. She'd find distractions for him later; right now, she needed to concentrate on driving. The truck shimmied in the mud. She jammed the plug into the socket and carnival music came alive from the player. "Jason, sit back."
"Mom! Watch out!"
The nose of her truck headed toward the slope crest. Jerking the steering wheel, she swerved away from the embankment. Mud and gravel splattered across the windshield as the pickup shimmied across the road toward a gigantic boulder. She yanked the wheel in the other direction, fishtailing the truck.
They skidded toward another boulder at the edge of the slope, the rough and chipped face looming fast. The front corner of her truck crumpled into solid rock, stopping their uncontrolled slide. Her head hit the side window with a thud.
A shrill whistle filled the cab of the truck. She blinked. Jason sat dazed.
Sixth grade that was as far as she'd gotten. She drew a shallow breath, glad her entire twenty-nine years hadn't flashed before her eyes.
She wrapped her arms around Jason and squeezed tight. "You all right, big guy?"
"Um hm." Wide-eyed, he stared out the cracked windshield. Seconds passed before he wiggled out of her embrace. He dumped his video game onto the floor and peered over the dashboard, his hand working his door handle with no success. "Cool. This is better than Cave Raiders any day. Look! Smoke and everything!"
Melanie lifted her fingers to massage the bump on her forehead. Cool wasn't exactly the word she'd use right now.
His seat belt already unsnapped, Jason scooted to the edge of the bench seat, taking in the entire mountain scene.
He plastered his nose to the passenger window. "Bet this hill makes a great sledding track in the winter." He reached across her for the door handle. "Let me out. I want to see how much truck we have left."
"The truck is fine." Melanie ruffled his sandy blond hair searching for blood. Satisfied he'd live, she smiled at the long-lost excitement in his eyes. She hoped the interview tomorrow paid off. She wanted more adventure for both of them.
She squeezed his shoulder. "It'll take more than a bump to keep us down."
Unbuckling her seat belt, she leaned into the door. Gravity worked against her. She shoved until the door groaned open. Her foot sank ankle deep into the rut. Mud oozed over the top of her boot to her toes.
Jason bumped the door wider. Losing her balance, she rolled off the seat as she wrenched around to grab the door frame. Her other foot slid beneath the truck. With all the grace of a worn-out mattress, Melanie hit the road square on her back and slid a good foot beneath the truck before her boot wedged between a couple rocks. Gravel and water soaked her arms and back. Her bottom sank into the mud, burying her legs.
"You all right?" Jason leaned out and looked around. "You're a mess."
"Thanks." She swiped her hair out of her eyes.
Jason launched over the worst of the puddle and landed on the high spot of the road. He squatted beside the rear axle and examined her like an unfamiliar specimen. "You just needed to jump out farther, Mom."
"Thanks, Jay. I'll remember that next time."
An engine rumbled in the distance. Jason bolted to the middle of the road. "I'll flag 'em down. Maybe they can pull us off the cliff."
Melanie squinted over the edge. "It's not a cliff."
"Close enough." Jason waved his arms in the direction of the noise.
"Gabe, look up ahead."
Gabe Davidson glanced up from his clipboard. His cousin pointed at a pickup truck alongside the road. From where Gabe sat, he would have said the truck wasn't going anywhere soon. "Don't recognize it."
"Can't say the truck or the kid or the blonde are from around here." Hank downshifted and slowed.
"Fishtailed right into the rock." Grooved tracks left ruts inches deep. "The boys from county won't be happy when they have to come up and fix this."
The boy waved his arms at them. Hank pulled over and cut the engine.
Gabe checked his watch. The vet closed in half an hour. He fingered the list he'd scribbled on the scrap piece of paper. If he waited until tomorrow, he'd have to take a chance the vet stocked the medication he needed, since no one at the animal clinic was answering their phone, or else double back and drive into Gunnison.
He glanced at the boy, the angle of the truck and the woman wedged partway under the running board. He ground his jaw as uncomplimentary thoughts of Nick and Zac swirled through his head. Times like this, he really wished his brothers were around to help. Propping the clipboard with his list on top of the dash, Gabe shoved at his door. "Let's go pull 'em out."
"Hey mister," the boy called, as he jumped. "I think my mom's stuck."
"Are you okay?" Hank took off toward the boy while Gabe headed for the woman. The rock, the crushed front end of the pickup and the entire back end of the vehicle sat perched at an angle. No telling what the truck would do.
"Need help?" Mud covered her from head to toe. Gabe stared into blue eyes the color of mountain columbines in full bloom and lashes as thick as the foxtails that grew around them. Blond hair played across her cheek.
"No, I've got it." The palm of her hand sank up to her wrist.
He bent over and grasped her shoulders, her muscles firm within his palms. A spear of awareness shot through him as he found a grip and began to pull. The mud packed around her like a wallow sucking her hostage. As she began to slide free, she kicked her feet against the embankment.
The road base shifted beneath his feet. His hold tightened.
Her last kick must have hit a rock. She pushed up, relieving the tension in his pull. Momentarily. The rock worked loose beneath her foot and she sank back into place.
Gabe fought for balance as he teetered on the edge. No use. He tucked his shoulders as he rolled into the mud bog with her. His elbow trenched a rut behind her and she slammed up against his chest.
Spitting mud out of her mouth, she smeared her face with her hand. "Oh goodness." She squirmed to the side. "You okay?"
His hat lay inverted between them, the crown crushed against her ribs. He followed the line of her muddy T-shirt sleeve to her mud-matted ponytail. Her eyes sparkled wide as he drew close. "I told you to stop moving."
"I could've gotten out by myself." Her breathless voice warmed his cheek.
He swiped his hand down his face, as much to wipe away mud as to break his stare. "I'll keep that in mind."
She shimmied up the bank using the top of his boot as a foothold. "The road is in lousy condition."
"Yeah, well." Her smooth arm pressed against his chest, making simple thought difficult. "The Gunnison County road crew won't be happy about this, either."
She stiffened beside him. "This road is a disaster."
"Not if your speed is appropriate for the road condition."
She looked at him as if he'd grown another head. "What's the speed limit for horrendous?"
Gabe shoved his palm into packed road base. Confrontational wasn't what he needed right now. Luckily, Hank crouched down beside them before Gabe said something he'd have to apologize for.
"Ma'am, are you all right? Gabe isn't the daintiest creature to have land in your lap."
"Hank, get us out." Gabe needed to move, not make small talk. He leaned over her, caught her waist and pushed her up the side of the rut.
With Hank pulling, she popped out of the ditch and stumbled a good three feet from the truck. Hank offered a hand, and Gabe scrambled out from beneath the truck. Standing beside the muddy mess of a woman, Gabe regretted his moment of anger. Her woebegone look said it all.
"Sorry about getting you dirty." Her shoulders slumped as she reached out and swiped at his sleeve. "I appreciate the help. Our truck ran into a little problem"
"Yeah, you should've seen it, mister." The boy ran into the middle of the group. "Mom really carved an arc in the mud!"
Color glowed from beneath the grime on her face. "Jason, shush. We just took the turn a little fast, and, well" she shrugged in the direction of the truck "as you can see we're"
"Wrecked." Jason grinned with pride.
She frowned. "I was going to say, 'stuck.'"
Hank laughed and swept off his hat. "Hank Barrett, at your service, ma'am. I'm the foreman of the Circle D spread just down the road."
She took a step back and drew Jason beside her, angling her shoulder in front of him. Her protective gesture goaded Gabe even worse for his earlier irritation.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Barrett. I'm Melanie Hunter and this is my son, Jason." She nodded toward her crumpled fender and hood. "Any capable mechanics around?"
"We can probably round one up." The top of her head barely cleared his chin as Gabe took quick stock of her for injury. Wide eyes and sun-pinkened nose didn't detract from the apprehension in her tight lips. A dripping T-shirt encased her slender frame like shrink wrap around a gasket. Long legs braced; trim arms flexed. A muddy mess, but no blood in sight. "Gabe Davidson. I own the Circle D. You're not from around here."
She gave him the once-over, her arm tightening across her son. "Just passing through. Folks are expecting us in Montrose by tomorrow."
He gripped the misshapen hat against his thigh. Hard to tell what she thought of him, and frankly, he couldn't say he was very proud of his manners. He respected her reserve, considering her situation, and he extended his hand as much in apology as welcome.
Her slim fingertips slipped into his huge palm, the layer of mud between them unable to fully insulate the warm, soft texture of her skin. Heat raced up his arm like a jolt from an electric fence. "That's a long way to call a cab. I don't suppose you have a backup plan? Someone to pick you up?"
She shook her head.
"Some guy out there needs my mom to look at their plants." Jason puffed his chest. "Mom's great with bugs, too."
Gabe released her hand and hunkered eye level with Jason, thankful for the distraction. "Bugs, huh? And what are you a specialist in, Bud?"
A cheek-splitting grin displayed teeth too big for the boy's face. "I'm great at Thrill of the Chase and Raiders of the Hidden Caverns. My games are in the truck."
Gabe grinned. A kid after his own heart. "Are you now? Any good at Wheels and Karts?"
Melanie groaned beside them.
Jason ignored his mom, his eyes growing round. "Wheels and Karts? Cool. I don't have that game. I'll show you what I've got. I need my backpack." He shot over to the stranded truck.
Melanie slopped her foot around in the mud. "Jason, I doubt you'll have time to play games with Mr. Davidson. We've got to get going, remember?"
A shadow dimmed his bright eyes as he worked the door handle. "Yes, Mom."
"Mr. Davidson" Her gaze darted between him and Jason.
"Gabe," he corrected. He kept his eye on the boy. The ground at the edge of the road had become unstable. Tough telling what might happen.
Jason continued yanking on the jammed door handle, the entire truck rocking under the force.
Melanie turned toward Jason. The mud around her shoes acted like quicksand, keeping her glued in place. "Hey big guy, get back here before"
The crisp creak of metal filled the air as the truck shifted with a clunk, the front bumper pointing over the edge of the embankment. Gabe swallowed the knot in his throat and sprinted toward the truck.
Leaving her boots in the mud, Melanie leapt toward the truck just as Jason cried out. Gabe scooped up Jason a second before she reached his side.
Like a walrus slipping into the sea, the truck sank over the edge and slid down the side, the locked wheels creating a muddy channel down the charred slope. The pickup bounced a couple times and came to a halt on a level plane just inches from the next slope.
"Wow." Jason strained to see over the edge. Gabe held on, his arm wrapped around Jason's shoulders. Melanie threw her arms around them both, tugging at what had to be six foot plus of solid cowboy until they all stepped back. Her heart pounded like a ten-pound sledgehammer and her knees went weak. Jason squirmed.