Read an Excerpt
"Oh, this is not good
" Nina Crawford said to herself as she cautiously pulled her SUV to a stop at the sign on the isolated country road outside her hometown.
Mother Nature had not been kind to Rust Creek Falls this year. First a summer flood had devastated the small Montana town, and nowstill in the midst of trying to recover from thatit was being hit by a December blizzard.
The weather report had predicted only a moderate storm that would arrive later tonight. Nina ran her family's general store in town and, trusting that weather report, when an elderly, arthritic customer on an outlying farm had called in and asked that a heating pad be delivered to her, Nina hadn't hesitated to leave the store in the hands of her staff and grant that request. And even when that lonely elderly woman had offered Christmas cookies and chamomile tea, Nina still hadn't had any worries about spending an hour visiting.
But the sky had grown increasingly ominous and dark with storm clouds, and when the first few flakes began to fall much earlier than they were supposed to, Nina had left.
Only to find herself miles from home when the howling winds had whipped that snow into a blinding frenzy.
Temperatures had plummeted rapidly, and already the snow was freezing to the windows of Nina's SUV, adding to the limitations of her vision. She rolled down her window, hoping to be able to better see if another vehicle was coming from her left.
It didn't help much. Visibility was low. Very, very low.
She studied the crossroads, searching for anything that might give her an indication that another car was coming. But she didn't see any approaching headlights in the whiteout conditions, and all she could hear was the screaming wind. So, hoping the coast was clear, she rolled up her window and ventured into her right turn.
But the moment she got out onto the road she did see headlights. Coming straight for her.
Trying to avoid a collision she swerved sharply, and so did the other vehicle.
The next thing Nina knew her SUV was nose-down in a ditch and she'd fallen pregnant-belly-first into the steering wheel.
Which was when she felt the first pain.
"No, no, no, no "
Fighting the rise of panic, she did what she could to push herself back from the steering wheelwhich at that angle was no easy task.
Her due date was January 13. It was currently two weeks before Christmas. If her baby was born now it would be a month early.
She couldn't deliver a month early.
A pounding on her side window startled her and the fright didn't help matters.
"Are you all right?" a man's voice shouted in to her.
Her SUV hadn't hit anything so her airbag hadn't activated and the engine was still running. But dazed and scared, she didn't know if she was all right. She just couldn't think straight.
Then the door was opened from the outside. And standing there was Dallas Traub!
It wasn't exactly encouraging to see a member of the family that had been at odds with her own for generations.
"Are you all right?" he repeated.
"I don't know. I may be going into labor. I think I need help ."
"Okay, stay calm. My truck is stuck, too, on the other side of the road. But at least it isn't nearly up on end the way you are. If we can get you out of here you can lie down in my backseat."
Fear and the dull ache in her abdomen robbed Nina of the ability to argue. Traub or not, he was all there was and she was going to have to accept his aid.
"Can you turn off the engine?" he asked.
That made sense but it hadn't occurred to Nina. And, yes, she could do that, so she did, leaving the keys in the ignition.
"I'm glad to see that you can move your arms. Do you have feeling everywherearms, legs, hands, feet?"
"Did you hit your head? Do you have any neck pain?"
"No, I didn't hit my head and I don't have any neck pain. I just hit the steering wheel."
"Are you bleeding from anywhere? Did your water break?"
As odd as it seemed, not even a question that personal sounded out of place at that point.
"I don't think I'm bleeding, no. And I'm perfectly dry ."
"Good. All good," he judged. "Would it be okay if I lifted you out of there?"
"I think so ."
"Let me do all the work," he advised. Sliding one arm under her legs, the other behind her back, he gently but forcefully pulled her toward him until she found herself extracted from behind the wheel and cradled against his big, masculine chest.
"Maybe I can walk ." Nina said.
"We're not going to take any chances," he responded, wasting no time heading across the road.
The man was dressed in a heavy fleece-lined suede jacket, but Nina had to assume that he was all muscle underneath it because he carried her as if she weighed nothing. And when he reached the white truck that was nearly invisible in the snow blowing all around it, he even managed to open the rear door on the double cab.
Another cramp struck Nina as he eased her onto the backseat and her panic must have been obvious to him because he said, "It's okay. Just breathe through it. It'll pass and we'll get someone out here before you know it."
"And if my baby doesn't wait for that?" Nina nearly shouted over the wind.
"I've been in a delivery room for three of my own kids and birthed more animals than I can countif it comes to that, I can take care of it. We'll be fine."
It crossed her mind to call him a liar because nothing about this was at all fine. But there was actually something soothing in his composure, in his take-charge attitude, and Traub or not, Nina had to hope that he really could get her through this if need be.
Justplease don't let there be the need .
"We should conserve fuel, so I'll turn on the engine long enough to get it warm in here, then we'll turn it off again," he explained, closing the rear door and getting into the front of the cab from the passenger seat to slide across and turn the key in the ignition. "But I'm going to leave my hazards flashing, to make sure anyone approaching can see us in the snow."
Warm air instantly drifted back to Nina but she was feeling more uncomfortable lying down, and she pushed herself to sit up to see if that helped.
It actually did and she explained that. "Just see if you can get someone out here to us," she instructed.
That was when he tried his cell phone and found that he had no reception.
"Try mine," Nina said, taking it out of the pocket of her wool winter coat to hand to him, fighting renewed panic.
But her phone was as useless as his was.
"Oh, God.. " Nina lamented as every muscle in her body tensed.
"Another contraction?" he asked.
"No, I don't think so," she answered, so scared she wasn't sure what she was feeling beyond that.
He angled sideways in the front seat. "We're gonna be fine. I promise," he said in a way that made her believe it and relax a little again.
Until he said, "There are pockets out here where you can get cell reception if you just hit one. I'll walk out a ways and see if maybe"
"No! You can't leave!" Nina said in full-out panic once again. "You know the stories about farmers getting lost in storms like this just trying to find their way between their house and barn. You can't go!"
"I do know the stories," he said.
Then he slid to the passenger side again and got out of the truck.
A moment later he climbed into the backseat with her, carrying a thick coil of rope she'd heard him drag out of the truck bed. He rolled down the rear passenger window, held one end of the rope and tossed the rest of the coil through the window. Then he rolled the window up again, catching the rope in a small gap at the top of it.
"Okay " he said then, handing her the end of the rope that he'd retained. "Hang on to this, I'll hang on to the other end and I won't go any farther than the length of it. If you need me, just yank and I'll come right back. Otherwise, I'll use it to make sure I can get back."
"You'll be careful?"
"I will be. And I'll leave the engine running to keep you warm in the meantime. All right?"
"I suppose," Nina agreed reluctantly, holding on to that rope with a tight fist.
Dallas Traub wrapped his hand around hers and squeezed. "Everything is going to be okay," he said confidently.
Her own hand wasn't cold, and yet his around it felt even warmer. It was also slightly rough and callused, and the size and strength of it along with those signs of hard ranch work all infused her with more of a sense of calm and a renewed belief that he could and would take care of her. Traub or not. Regardless of what happened.
Nina even managed to smile weakly. "Be careful," she said, thinking of his safety, too.
He let go of her hand and Nina was surprised to find herself sorry to lose his touch. Which was what she was thinking when he opened the door, ducked under the rope and got out, leaving her alone. And sorry to lose his company, too. His comforting presence.
The touch, the company, the presence of a Traub.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply again, willing herself to settle down for the sake of her baby, willing her baby to rest, to stay put, not to be born today .
Then another cramp struck.
"Please, no, not yet," she begged her unborn child and the fates, as if that could stop things if she really was going into labor.
How long had Dallas Traub been gone? It seemed like forever and Nina looked across the front seat through the windshield, hoping to spot him. But all she could see was snow.
She caught sight of herself in the rearview mirror then and realized that the stocking cap she had on was askew. For some odd reason she regretted that Dallas had seen her looking so disheveled, so she straightened the cap. She also gave in to the urge to fluff her hair a bit where the long brown locks cascaded from beneath the cap past her shoulders.
Her ordinarily pink cheeks were quite pale and she reached up and pinched them to add some color. Her mascara had survived the accident and all that followed it without smudging beneath her very dark brown eyes, but unfortunately her thin, straight nose had a bit of a shine that she didn't like to see.
She tried to blot that with the back of her hand, regretting that she'd left her purse in her SUV with her compact in it. And with her lip gloss in it, too.
Not that, in the midst of possible peril, she was actually thinking about putting on lipstick to accentuate lips she sometimes thought were not full enough. She merely wanted to moisten those lips to keep them from chapping, she told herself. Certainly it wasn't that she cared at all what she looked like at that moment. Especially to a Traub. When she'd just had a car accident. When she could potentially be going into labor.
But, oh, she wished this particular Traub would come back .
She considered yanking on the rope just to get him to, but she didn't let herself. They needed help and if there was any chance that he might find cell reception she couldn't cut that short.
But soon, come back soon .
Then, as if in answer to her silent plea, the rear passenger door opened and there he was.
She also didn't understand why the way he looked registered in that instant, but she was struck by how tall and capable-looking he was. She guessed him to be about six foot three inches of broad-shouldered, Western masculinity.
But it wasn't merely his size that impressed her. He was remarkably handsomesomething else that she'd never noticed in all the times they must have crossed paths around Rust Creek Falls.
Nina knew all the Traubs in general, but she'd never really noted much about them in any kind of detail. Now it struck her that Dallas really did have rugged good looks with a squarish forehead, a nose that was a bit hooked, but in a dashing sort of way, lips that were full and almost lush, and striking blue eyes that had enough of a hint of gray to add more depth than she'd ever have attributed to a Traub.
"Did you get a call out?" she asked as he extracted the end of the rope through the window, tossed the recoiled mass into the truck bed again and then climbed into the backseat with her, closing the door and the window after himself.
"No," he said. "We're really in a dead zone out here. But don't worry about it. Somebody will come looking for us. My folks are stuck at home with my three boysbelieve me, before too long they'll start to wonder where I am." Then he switched gears and asked, "How are you doing?"
"I'm okay ." Nina answered uncertainly. "Any more pains?"
"One," she admitted.
"And how about heat? Think we can turn it off for a little while?"
"Sure. If you're warm enough."
He stood to lean over the front seat to reach the key, and Nina found herself sneaking a glance at him from that angle.
He was wearing jeans that hugged an impressive der-riere and thick thighs, and she knew she had no business taking note of any of that.
Then the engine went off and he sat back down, turning toward her and perching on the very edge of the seat so he could pull down the rear cushion as he said, "There should be a blanket in here."
He produced a heavy plaid blanket from the compartment hidden behind the seat.
"You're probably not going to like this, but we'll both stay warmer if we share the blanket and some body heat," he said then.
"It's okay," Nina agreed, knowing he was right.
And not totally hating the idea of having him close beside her or of sharing the blanket with him. But she didn't analyze that.
Opening the heavy emergency blanket, he set it over Nina and reached across her to tuck it in on her other side.
Then he sat near enough to share the warmth he exuded and laid it across himself, too.
"You're sure you feel better sitting up?" he asked.
"If something changes and you need to lie down just let me know "
"I will," Nina said.
She did slump a little more into the blanket, though. And somehow that brought her a bit closer to him, too. But he didn't seem to mind that she was slightly tucked to his side and it seemed as though it might be insulting if she moved away again, so she pretended that she didn't notice.