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A light rain started to fall, making the road that wound its way to Jack's Bluff Ranch dangerously slick. Not a safe night out for man nor beast. Most days Bart fell into the former category. He slowed his pickup truck and turned up the volume on his radio, singing along with George Strait, though one of them was a bit off-key.
Bart stretched, then shed the necktie he'd loosened much earlier. He hadn't wanted to drive into Houston tonight, especially in this monkey suit. But his mother had refused to take no for an answer. Not that he didn't agree with her that philanthropy was important or that her work in spearheading the drive to raise funding for the new children's wing at the hospital was a worthy task; but sipping champagne and making small talk with a gaggle of rich social-ites wasn't his scene.
It still amazed him that his mother could waltz from ranch life at Jack's Bluff to Houston society functions so effortlessly. The only dance Bart knew was the two-step, and that was the way he liked it.
His mom had opted to stay in town and spend the night with his brother Langston and his new family, leaving Bart to make the hour-plus drive home alone. Normally he wouldn't have minded, but tonight he could have used the company just to stay awake and alert. It had been a long day. Ranching was not a nine-to-five job.
He caught sight of a pair of bucks at the edge of the road in front of him. He slowed even more. You never knew when a deer would take a notion to run right in front of you. He'd totaled a pickup like that last year. Worse part was it had killed the doe.
The rain picked up. He turned on the defroster to clear the windshield. The visibility improved only slightly, but he'd be home in less than ten minutes.
He tried to stifle a yawn, then jerked to attention. What the hell? Two cars were speeding toward him, driving so close they were all but swapping paint.
A second later he saw sparks fly as the outside car sideswiped the other and sent it rocking and bouncing along the shoulder before the driver managed to get all four wheels back on the highway. If this was some teenage game of chicken, they were taking things way too far. Somebody was likely to get killed. Maybe him.
He slowed and took the shoulder as the cars collided again. This time the smaller one went flying off the road. It slid down an incline and then rolled over, coming to a rocking upside-down stop a few yards ahead of Bart. The lunatic driving the attacking car sped past him.
Bart screeched to a stop, grabbed a flashlight and jumped from his truck. He took off running toward the wrecked car. Its wheels were still spinning when he got to it.
He aimed a beam of illumination inside the car. There was only one occupant-a woman who was draped over the steering wheel, upside down but still held in place by her seat belt. Blood trickled across her left temple and matted in her blond hair. She lifted her head, shaded her eyes from the light and shrank away from him.
The door was jammed, and he had to work with it for a few seconds to pry it open. "Are you okay?"
She didn't answer, but her face was a pasty white and her eyes were wide with fear.
"Take it easy. You're safe now."
"You tried to kill me."
"Not me, but someone did." He leaned in closer so that he could see the head wound. The cut didn't look particularly deep, but a nice little goose egg was forming. "What hurts?"
She stared at him, looking dazed and still fearful as she touched her fingertips to the blood. "I must have hit my head."
"Probably against the side window when you went into the roll. For some reason, your air bag didn't deploy."
"The light had gone off. I was going to get it checked."
A little late for that now. He pulled her against him while he loosened the seat belt. He lifted her out of the car and stood her on the ground. She was lighter than a newborn calf and short, probably no more than five-two or -three. Thin, almost waiflike. But movie-star pretty.
She swayed, and he put an arm around her shoulder for support. "My truck's over there." He pointed to where it was parked on the opposite side of the road. "Let's get you in it and out of the rain while we wait for an ambulance."
"No!" Fear pummeled her voice. "No ambulance. I'll be okay. I just..." She swayed again and might have lost her balance completely if he hadn't been supporting her. "I just need a minute for my head to clear. And I need my handbag."
"Right." He found it with its strap tangled in the brake and accelerator pedals. He worked it loose and handed it to her. She clasped it tightly in both hands as rain dripped from her hair and rolled down her face. He pulled the silk handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped the water and blood away.
"Who are you?" she whispered, her voice shaky.
"Bart Collingsworth. And don't worry. I'm just a Good Samaritan who happened to be passing by."
He took her hand and led her across the street. Once she was safely settled in the passenger seat, he closed the door, calling 911 as he rounded the truck to the driver's side. Like it or not, he was calling for an ambulance and law enforcement. He was still giving the operator the information when he climbed behind the wheel.
"I know you said you don't want an ambulance," he said once he'd broken the connection. "But there's a small hospital in Colts Run Cross-not much more than a clinic with a few beds, but they'll call in a doctor to check you out. Better to be safe than sorry."
"I've already had more than enough of Colts Run Cross."
"I take it you're not from around here."
She stared out the front window into the darkness and rain. "Is anybody?"
"A few lucky souls. I live on a ranch a few miles down the road. Jack's Bluff. You just passed it."
She trembled and clasped her hands in front of her, nervously twisting the wedding band on her left hand. "I didn't notice."
"Guess not, with that lunatic trying to run you off the road. What was that about?"
"I haven't a clue."
"Then you don't know the driver of the other car?"
"But you must have had some kind of altercation for him to react so violently."
"He just came out of nowhere, sped up behind me and forced me off the road."
Either she was lying or this made no sense at all. She leaned back and closed her eyes. She looked incredibly fragile, like a porcelain doll that had been left out in the rain.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. I just don't feel like talking."
He left it at that until she finally shifted and opened her eyes, still looking straight ahead.
"You know, if you really want to be a Good Samaritan," she said, "you could drive me into town and drop me off at a cheap motel. I can handle things from there."
"You were awful woozy back there. You'd be better off seeing a doctor. But you're welcome to use my phone if you want to call your husband."
She twisted the gold band on her finger as she shook her head. "No, thanks."
"I can call for someone to tow your car or you can just wait and have the sheriff do it."
Finally she turned to face him. "If you live on a ranch, why are you dressed like that?"
"It was tux night at the campfire. But I'm a genuine cowboy. Got boots and spurs and everything."
"Then maybe you could get some of your cowboy buddies to pull my car back to Jack's whatever you said."
"Right. Take the car there and I'll come for it later."
"Your car's got four wheels straight up in the air. You need a tow truck for this job."
She shrugged. "I'm short of cash and I don't have a credit card on me."
"Tell you what-I know a local mechanic with his own tow truck. I'll call Hank Tanner and have him take the car to his garage.You can settle up with him later."
"He'll want a name."
Sirens sounded, and Bart caught sight of flashing lights speeding toward them. The ambulance had made excellent time.
"Last name?" he asked.
She ignored the question.
"If you're in some kind of trouble, you should level with me. Maybe I can help. I could at least follow the ambulance to the hospital and see that you're in good hands tonight."
"In trouble? I am trouble, cowboy. Thanks for the offer. But forget about the car. Forget about me, too. I'll be just fine." In spite of her assurances, a tear escaped and rolled down her right cheek.
Bart's insides kicked around like a stallion on a short rope. He had his doubts that anything she'd said tonight had been the truth. Well, except that she was trouble. Likely in trouble, as well. None of which was any of his business.
But he was wide-awake now, and the hospital wasn't but a few miles away. Besides, what red-blooded cowboy could resist trouble that came in a package that was five foot two and blond?
Sheriff Ed Guerra had called just as Bart was about to follow the ambulance into town. Once Bart gave him the lowdown, the sheriff asked Bart to hang around. Bart couldn't think of a good reason to refuse.
There was no trace of the sheriff's usual good humor when he strode over to the crime scene in the steady rain. Bart had already dug his work poncho from the metal toolbox in the bed of his truck, along with an old Western hat that had seen better days. The temperature was supposed to turn a bit cooler following the front that produced the rain, but right now it was still warm and muggy for late October.
Ed adjusted his umbrella as he approached the upside-down car. "Well, don't this just take the whole biscuit! You can bet there's a dadgum sight more to this story than meets the eye."
"I took the liberty of checking in the glove compartment for the registration papers on the car. The vehicle belongs to Margo Kite of New Orleans, Louisiana," Bart said, handing the document to the sheriff.
Ed held it under the umbrella so it wouldn't get wet while he adjusted his flashlight to illuminate it. "But you said the driver's name was Jackie."
"Jaclyn-at least that's what she told me, but she could have been lying. She wouldn't give a last name. I guess the car could have been borrowed."
"Or stolen," Ed said. "Approximate age of the injured?"
Ed rubbed his chin. "Not a teenager, then. Was she under the influence?"
"I didn't smell alcohol on her breath."
"Didn't appear to be."
"I was afraid of that. The pretty ones are always the most trouble."
"I'll add that to my list of truths to live by."
"No, you won't. You young studs never do. I'll run a check on the license plate. See what turns up."
Bart took a better look at the car while the sheriff made his call. It was a late-model Buick Lacrosse in an off-red metallic finish. It would take a skilled body man to put it back in decent shape.
Only the trunk seemed to be relatively undamaged. Bart opened it and pulled out a blue nylon duffel with a slight rip in the side, apparently not as important to Jaclyn as her handbag had been. The only other items in the trunk were the typical spare tire, a few tools and three liter-size diet sodas that would probably spew their contents the second they were opened.