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She had forgotten what it was like to drive in the country, especially in bad weather. She'd spent too long cruising along perfect city streets.
Sophie's eyes strained as she peered hard through the windscreen. The snow had given way to a sleet-rain mixture that was making it hard to see.
What on earth—?
She slammed on her brakes as a man's silhouette appeared in front of her, arms waving above his head, urging her to stop.
Her car slid as she swerved to avoid him.
Sophie shut her eyes. No, please no! She gripped the steering wheel, forced her eyes to open again and watched as her car traveled sideways in slow motion, before finally grinding to a halt.
Her heart was pounding hard, beating in her ears, in her throat, everywhere. Then, as her eyes started to focus again, she saw a flash of something dark darting in front of the car.
Could it have been ?
A horse. A horse was loose on the road.
She fumbled for her handbag and pulled out her phone, hand shaking as she dialed the emergency number.
"What is the nature of your emergency? Fire, ambulance or police?"
Sophie caught her breath long enough to listen to the calm tone on the other end of the line. "Police," she said.
There was a moment's silence, before the line clicked again. "Police, how can we assist?"
Sophie let her head loll back on the headrest, trying to calm her still-racing heart. Jeez, she'd almost hit a man, then just about taken out a horse!
"I need to report a horse loose on the road," she told the person on the other end, voice shaking. "There's poor visibility. I almost collided with it and the man attempting to catch it."
She finished giving the operator her location and almost leaped out of her skin at a tap on the window.
Damn it! Her heart was racing all over again. She recognized the figure she'd almost run over.
And he looked mad.
Wet and mad.
She wound down her window, about to apologize, but he didn't give her the chance.
"You going to sit there all day, or are you going to help?"
Sophie recoiled at the sharpness of his words. Even his deep American drawl wasn't enough to distract her. How dare he!
"I could have killed you," she told him, angry now. "What were you doing standing in the middle of the road?"
He scowled at her, hands planted on his hips. "I was trying to stop you from plowing into a horse, actually."
If Sophie hadn't been so annoyed with his tone she would have laughed. Seriously, who exactly did he think he was?
The guy was tall, well over six foot, and he was handsome, even if she was loathe to admit it. She could tell that, in spite of the dark, even though she could only just make out his features. His dark hair was plastered to his head, he was soaked through, and he was mad. Hands on hips, brooding kind of mad.
But still, rude was rude. Being handsome was not an excuse.
Sophie watched as he sighed, clearly realizing that she was far from impressed at being told off. He pushed a hand through his hair to stop it from trailing onto his forehead. His shoulders fell.
"I'm sorry, that was rude."
Yep, sure was, but she appreciated the apology.
"What I meant to say was that I'd appreciate your help, if you don't mind getting wet." He gestured at his own body. "Before you came along I almost had her. Now she's loose again."
Sophie sighed. Maybe he wasn't so bad after all. She'd probably given him a hell of a shock almost bowling him over, and a horse on the loose would be stressful for anyone.
"It's okay. I'll help." She rummaged in the back for her waterproof jacket and hauled it on before getting out of the car. "I'm with the local animal shelter, so it's no problem."
The guy looked relieved, a tight smile visible on his face. "Thank you." It made him look less guilty and more of a good guy.
She pulled up the hood on her jacket, braced against the cold. "I've already phoned it in to the police. We'll have help soon."
He groaned. Face-falling-into-his-hands kind of groan.
"This is not my night," he muttered.
She raised an eyebrow in question, before realizing he couldn't see. Why wouldn't he want the police involved? "Is there a problem?"
He shook his head, striding ahead toward the horse. "Let's just try to catch these horses and load them onto my truck, okay?"
At least he was being marginally politer now. Sophie followed. "How many are we talking about?" The guy pointed. "Three in that field by the fence there, and the one that's loose."
She looked at the horses. "Why don't we catch the group first, bring them over and start loading them. She might follow."
He stopped. Looked back at her, then started to nod. "Why didn't I think of that?"
Lark Anderson looked over the woman who'd almost run him over and who was now his unlikely savior. He shouldn't have been so rude to her, but she'd sure scared the life from him.
He glanced at her as they walked side by side toward the group of nervous horses, but her features were almost impossible to make out. She was tall, for a woman, and slender. Her outline in the near dark showed a slim woman with long hair in a ponytail, but beyond that it was too hard to see.
"So do you make a habit of working with your horses in the dark?"
She said it with a laugh but it made Lark's skin prickle. Even so, he wasn't going to bite.
"Not usually, no," he said through gritted teeth. "But then it's not every day a fence is left mangled for a horse to get caught in, either."
She almost came to a stop, looked across at him, then resumed her pace. "Sorry."
He shrugged and tucked his chin against his chest as another icy gust of wind slapped against his cheeks.
"You're not from around here, are you?"
"What gave it away?" he asked. "My weird accent?"
This time she did stop. "Are you always this rude?"
Lark shut his eyes for a heartbeat and sighed, pleased she couldn't see his face properly. "I'm sorry. It's been a long night."
She didn't say anything.
"Let's just say that adjusting to woolen socks and numb toes is harder than you'd think."
She laughed. He was pleased that she was laughing at him rather than walking away, and he couldn't have blamed her for getting back in her car, blasting on the heat and driving away. "As opposed to?"
This time Lark laughed. "Would you believe it if I told you a cowboy hat in California?"
He stopped a few feet from one of the horses and held his hand up slightly to tell her to do the same. Lark slowly reached for the horse, slipping a rope around her neck before she could dance sideways away from him. "Whoa, girl, you're okay. It's all right."
"So I take it you're the rodeo rider," she said in a soft voice.
Lark nodded, before realizing she couldn't see him. "Yeah, that's me."
"You have your one secure?" she asked.
He looked over at her, pleased that she'd managed to clip a rope onto the other horse's halter. "Yup, let's get them over to the truck."
Lark whispered to the horse, reaching for the third one as it came closer. He now led two of them, and he wanted to get them out of harm's way as soon as he could. He hated leaving the loose horse out on the road where she could get hurt.
"Back to whether you do this kind of thing in the dark often."
He laughed this time, shaking off the grump he'd been in since he'd found the horses in such awful conditions.
"Let's just say that I'm not good at tucking up in my own bed at night during a storm, without knowing the animals around me have the same comforts."
"Well, when you put it like that," she said thoughtfully.
Flashing lights interrupted them.
He'd hoped to resolve the situation before the police arrived. Hoped to have fled the scene. The last thing he needed was to get in trouble with the law.
Lark continued walking as though he hadn't even noticed the approaching vehicle, taking the frightened horses over to his truck.
Thankfully they loaded easily enough. Someone must have trained them before they'd been left to their own devices. Just as they'd hoped, the other mare wandered close.
"I'll take her," he told the woman, reaching for the horse and running a hand down the mare's neck to soothe her. "Maybe you could go and stall the police for a moment?"
"Sure thing," she said, almost invisible in the dark now. "You finish up here and I'll let them know what's happening."
Lark stifled another groan. How the hell was he going to talk his way out of this one?
In his younger days, he might have jumped in the truck cab and taken off in hopes of outrunning trouble.
But he was no longer that boy who didn't want to face any consequences. He was a man with responsibilities now.
He managed to secure the other horse, now waiting to join her friends, before loading her and pushing the button to close the ramp at the back of the truck.
Just in time.
Lark forced his shoulders to relax and turned. Slowly. Feet moving in a half circle to confront the male voice he didn't recognize.
"Sophie here tells me the situation is now under control."
Sophie, huh? He looked at the woman standing beside the officer. He wished he hadn't snapped at her earlier. But being beyond cold, almost getting run over and dealing with the rogue horses had been too much to handle. Especially after the year he'd already had.
What he hadn't been able to notice before was how pretty she was. What he could see of her anyway, now that she was illuminated in the police car's lights. Her hair was caught up in a high ponytail, although he couldn't quite make out what color it was, and she had a wide smile on her face despite the cold.
He felt rude that he hadn't even known her name until now.
"I've finished loading them," he responded, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb. "I'm sorry for any inconvenience."
The officer switched on his flashlight. Lark could make out a frown on his face as the light danced in a bright arc.
"As an animal owner you have an obligation to keep them under control, to ensure they pose no threat to public safety."
Lark felt his neck hairs bristle at the condescending tone in the man's voice. They weren't even his darn horses!
He should have kept on driving. Ignored the horses. Been realistic enough to admit that they weren't his and that he couldn't save every unloved animal in the world.
But even if he'd known this was how the night would end, he probably still would have tried to help them. It wouldn't have been in him to walk away.
"I'll need to see your license, so I can make a formal report."
"Tim, I really don't think there's a problem here."
Lark didn't move. He wanted to hear what this Sophie had to say, why she was sticking up for him when he'd almost caused her to crash her vehicle. Especially after how rude he'd been.
"It looks like someone vandalized the fence, and one of the horses became stuck in it, so this man was doing his best to get the horse off the road and to safety. Right?"
Lark found himself nodding before he even realized what he was doing. "Yeah, something like that."
The officer clearly wasn't convinced. Yet. "License?" he asked again.
Lark pulled his wallet from his pocket. "Here." He passed the license over.
"International license, Mr. Anderson?"
Lark resisted being smart-mouthed. "Yes."
"Tim, let's deal with this in the morning. It's so cold," said Sophie, her voice soft.
He watched as his unlikely advocate wrapped her arms around her body, despite the thick coat she was bundled in. "I can check on the horses' welfare in the morning and report in to you then. Let's all get out of the cold."
Lark stayed silent. He wasn't about to say something and jeopardize a possible get-out-of-jail-free card.
"You sure?" the officer asked.
Sophie didn't miss a beat. "Yes, positive."
"Well, Mr. Anderson, you'll be hearing from us both tomorrow."
He had no idea what had just happened, or why this Sophie had stuck up for him. But he wasn't going to argue. If she wanted to come see the horses tomorrow he couldn't care less. So long as he could get out of his dripping-wet clothes and into something dry, he would agree to anything.
And so long as she didn't try to tell him what to do when she turned up.
"I'm at "
Sophie interrupted before he could give her his address. "I think everyone in town knows the farm bought by the famous rodeo cowboy."
The officer had started to walk away, shoulders hunched against the wind.
Lark chuckled. "Small town, huh?"
She paused, arms still wrapped around herself. "I'll come past tomorrow and you can explain everything to me then."
"Thanks for all your help," he said, grateful at least that the night was over.
Lark watched her walk off, before springing into action himself, running back to the truck.
He'd almost forgotten about Lucy.
Damn it! So much for trying to be a good dad.
He swung open the door to the cab. "Honey, I'm so "
Lucy was sitting cross-legged, a big smile on her face. Seeing her like that hit Lark like a swinging punch to the gut.
"It's okay, Dad. Did you get them all?"
He hauled himself up behind the steering wheel, pausing to strip off his shirt and throw it into the back in a ball.
"I got 'em honey. But I'm so sorry for leaving you in here."
She smiled like a child far beyond her years. As though she understood, as though she knew why he'd had to do it.