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His tailbone bruised, his thighs protesting the prolonged position, Pierce Thunder Horse shifted in the saddle. He hadn't been on a horse in over two months. There wasn't much call for FBI special agents to saddle up.
His typical visits to the family ranch were short. He loved his mother and brothers and would do anything for them, but the ranch held too many memories. Pierce didn't come home oftenit hurt too much.
With Tuck's upcoming wedding, he couldn't avoid returning. The frenetic wedding planning served as a stark reminder of Pierce's own wedding that wasn't. When his mother had mentioned that someone should really check on the local herd of wild horses, Pierce had jumped at the chance to get away from the hubbub. But he'd ridden half of the day and had yet to find the herd. Soon he'd run out of Thunder Horse Ranch property and cross over onto the Carmichael Ranch.
The redheaded hellion, his former fiancée, had been the love of his life. She was also the one who'd called off their wedding when her brother Mason had died on the job, thanks to Pierce's mistake.
His chest tightened, his hands gripping the reins so tightly his knuckles whitened. Why couldn't he locate the blasted herd? He was out here to find the horses, not mull over what had happened.
Every member of the Thunder Horse family had a deep connection to the wild horses of the badlands. They always felt they needed to make sure the herd was healthy and thriving, even though official responsibility for the area's wild horses rested with the representative of the Bureau of Land ManagementRoxanne. Damn! Had he really thought riding out to check on the herd would stop him from thinking about her? If so, he was a fool. Their love of the wild horses had brought them together.
Pierce remembered as if it had been yesterday the night he and Roxanne had saved a lost horse from a snowstorm. Roxanne had asked Pierce to help her bring the filly to her barn, where they'd nursed her to health and kept her warm and fed until the mare could be located and the two reunited. He'd known Roxanne for years, but that was the first time he'd realized what an amazing woman she'd become. It had been the beginning of their courtship. Eight months later, he'd asked her to marry him. And two months ago, she'd ended it.
Since then, he'd buried himself in his work to avoid the pain, the blame and the loss. He'd made it his objective to dodge memories and force to the back of his mind the date of his own wedding that hadn't happened and never would. But now that he was back at the Thunder Horse Ranch, Pierce had way too much time on his hands. Plus, the ranch carried too many memoriesnot just of Roxanne, but of Mason, who had been Pierce's friend since they were kids. The familiar settings only managed to dredge the painful memories back to the surface, a constant reminder of his failure professionally and personally.
A cold chill slithered down Pierce's back, chasing away the warmth of an early summer day in the North Dakota badlands.
He glanced up at the position of the sun as it dropped toward the horizon, his gaze lowering to the landscape. Nothing moved and only the sound of his horse's hooves clomping against the ground and the creak of leather interrupted his tumultuous thoughts.
With the sun so close to setting, Pierce wasn't going to find the herd and still have time to return to the ranch house before dark. Pierce had tugged his reins to the left, aiming the horse toward the barn, when a loud bang ripped through the silence.
Was that gunfire?
Bear, his stallion, danced beneath him, whinnying his fright.
Pierce spun back around and squinted against the setting sun, his gaze panning the prairie. Firing a weapon on the plains was rare but not unheard of, although it wasn't hunting season. Should he check it out? The sound had come from somewhere on the Carmichael Ranch. He hesitated, not at all anxious to cross over onto Carmichael property. He couldn't see anything, but his gut told him someone could be in trouble.
Another shot rang out.
Pierce nudged his horse.
Already nervous, Bear leaped forward, his legs stretching into a gallop, eating up the distance on the sparsely vegetated ground between him and whoever was shooting.
A smudge rose above the landscape, capturing Pierce's attention. From this distance, he couldn't tell if it was smoke or dust.
If the cloud was smoke, it meant a wildfire on the prairie.
The puff grew as Pierce approached. In the middle of the cloud of dirt rising from the dry prairie grass, a horse and rider emerged, riding hell-for-leather.
The rider leaned far forward, almost one with the horse, urging it faster.
As they neared, Pierce made out a small vehicle in pursuit. A dirt bike, the man steering it bent low over the handlebar.
As the horse and rider approached, the cowboy's hat flew from her head and a mass of deep auburn hair spilled out, flowing behind her.
Pierce couldn't mistake that red hair. It had to be Roxanne Carmichael, riding like her life depended on it.
His heart thumped, pressing hard against his ribs, making it difficult for him to breathe. Every instinct to protect what had once been his reared up in Pierce's consciousness. He spurred his mount to move faster.
Before he could reach her, another shot rang out and nicked the hindquarters of Roxanne's mare.
Already in a state of agitation, the horse bucked, then reared so suddenly that Roxanne toppled from the saddle, landing hard, flat on her back.
The mare took off, racing away from the dirt bike, leaving Roxanne at the mercy of the shooter.
The dirt bike, which had stopped while the driver fired his gun, now roared toward her again, speed increasing instead of decreasing, aiming directly for the woman lying on the ground.
At the last moment Roxanne rolled to the side, avoiding being hit.
Still too far away to intervene, Pierce pulled his rifle from the scabbard on his saddle and fired a round into the air. At the same time he dug his heels into Bear's flanks, pushing him to close the distance.
The shooter slowed and spun the bike to face Pierce, his dark helmet hiding his face. He lifted his hand, pointing it toward Pierce.
Sun glinted off the metal of the pistol he carried.
Pierce yanked Bear's reins to the side, forcing the animal to zigzag toward his target.
Another shot rang out.
Pierce answered, firing his rifle, careful to aim high to avoid hitting Roxanne. With the horse's movements the shot could go just about anywhere. All he might hope for was to scare the bastard away.
When Pierce didn't back down, the man on the bike spun his vehicle, the rear tire skidding sideways, kicking up dust in a dense cloud. The rider sped off across the prairie in the opposite direction. Within seconds, he disappeared over a rise, leaving a faint haze of dust in his wake.
Pierce raced to where Roxanne lay on the ground, ignoring the instinct pressing him to pursue the rider. His own need to find and capture the man who'd shot at Roxanne mattered far less than making sure Roxanne herself wasn't badly injured. He jerked back hard on the reins, forcing his horse to rear and spin all in one motion. As soon as Bear's hooves touched ground, Pierce flung himself out of the saddle and ran toward Roxanne.
She lay flat on her back, cursing beneath her breath.
Pierce let out the gulp of air he'd been holding and chuckled. She couldn't be hurt badly if she had the energy and wherewithal to form coherent curses.
Roxanne pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose, her eyes squeezed shut. "Did you get the license plate of the truck that hit me?" she asked.
Dropping to his knees beside her, Pierce ran his hands over her arms and legs, searching for fractured bones.
"I'm pretty sure there's nothing broken," she said, pushing his hands away as her eyes fluttered open. "Hello, Pierce." Her wide blue gaze was cool and wary. It hit Pierce like a gut punch to see her look at him with none of the warmth or love he'd cherished. He reminded himself that he was lucky she was even talking to him. After what he'd done, he wouldn't blame her if she never spoke to him again.
His chest tightened as his fingers slid up her arms. "Hello, Roxy. Are you okay?" He touched her gently, his hands moving around to the backs of her shoulders to help her sit up.
She leaned away from his touch then swayed and would have fallen back if Pierce hadn't reached behind her and steadied her with his arm. "Just had the wind knocked out of me in that fall. I'll be all right," she replied.
He leaned her against his chest to keep her from toppling over and further injuring herself, his heart clenching at the familiar aroma of her hairhoneysuckle and hay and the incongruous scent of copper, indicating fresh blood. When his right hand pulled away from her shoulder, it was red with her blood. "You've been injured, and not from the fall. Care to tell me how?"
"What?" She stared at the blood on his hand. "I'm bleeding?"
"Yes." He ripped off his denim shirt and the clean white T-shirt beneath, tearing a piece from the hem. He folded the soft fabric into a tight square wad and pressed it to the wound on her left shoulder, frowning as he evaluated the injury. It appeared to be just a nick, but it could have been so much worse.
"The shoulder doesn't hurt as bad as the back of my head." She pressed her fingers to the back of her skull.
Pierce brushed her hand aside and parted her hair, finding a soft knot. "More than likely, you'll live. The shot to your shoulder was just a flesh wound. Are you up-to-date on your tetanus shot?"
"Had one a couple weeks ago." She snorted. "Stepped on a nail."
Pierce shook his head. "Sounds like you. You seem to follow trouble."
Roxanne sighed. "Yeah, that's me."
"What just happened here? Why was that man shooting at you?"
She started to shake her head, until the movement made her wince and clutch at the back of her head. "Remember the filly we rescued from the snowstorm two years ago?"
Pierce swallowed hard on the lump clogging his throat, remembering the night he'd fallen in love with Roxanne. "Sweet Jessie?"
"Yeah, that one." Roxanne opened her eyes wide and blinked several times. "I was following Sweet Jessie toward the canyon, hoping she'd lead me to the herd of wild horses, when I heard a shot from behind. I felt a sting and when I turned around, that dirt bike was behind me. I took off, he followed after me You know the rest."
"Do you have any idea who the biker was?" Pierce hadn't been able to make an identification, but it had been years since he'd lived full-time on the ranch. Roxanne would be more familiar with the localsand their bikesthan him.
"No." She pinched the bridge of her nose again. "It's a bit blurry. I must have hit the ground pretty hard, just now. I was good until then."
Pierce stared into her eyes. "You could have a concussion. Can you get up on your own?"
"Absolutely." She pushed away from him and staggered to her feet. Then she swayed and her knees buckled, tipping her over into Pierce.
Pierce straightened, then hooked his arm beneath her knees and scooped her up, settling her against his chest. He glanced around, searching for Bear. He gave a short, sharp whistle.
The stallion trotted toward him, snorting and tossing his mane, still hyped up from the mad dash to save Roxanne.
"Easy, Mato Cikala." Little Bear. Pierce spoke low and slow in his native Lakota language as he approached the spooked horse, maintaining eye contact with the animal the entire time.
Ultimately, the stallion calmed, his dancing hooves settling to a stop in the dry prairie grass.
Pierce lifted Roxanne up onto the saddle, seating her sideways. He placed her hands on the saddle horn and said, "Hold on."
Roxanne's lips tightened. "I know how to ride a horse."
"I know," he said, before he placed his boot in the stirrup and mounted behind her. Then he slid into the saddle, lifting her to sit across his lap.
"This is silly. I can handle a horse by myself."
"You may be fully capable, but I don't intend to walk all the way to the ranch."
"Is halfway back to the barn by now." He bit hard on his tongue to keep from saying more. He knew she didn't want to be anywhere near him, so the least he could do was make the trip as unobtrusive as possible. Besides, when they weren't talkingarguinghe could almost pretend that things were the way they used to be. Pretend she didn't hate him and that he didn't hate himself.
The stubborn look on her face didn't match the glazed look in her eyes and the way she swayed as she sat there alone.
His heart clinched. "Try not to argue, for once."
"I don't argue," she muttered, her body naturally leaning against his, despite her better judgment.
With her brain somewhat fuzzy, she had to work to remind herself that Pierce Thunder Horse wasn't someone she could trust.
When she realized he was headed away from her ranch, Roxanne frowned. "You're going the wrong way."
"I'm taking you home with me."
"I can't go home with you! Some maniac is out there on a dirt bike shooting up every rider he seesI need to get home so I can call the sheriff and tell him what happened. Then I need to check on my horse and make sure she got back safe and isn't badly hurt. And when that's done, I'll need to saddle back up to go check on Sweet JessieI think the bullet that winged me might have hit her, too, but I didn't have a chance to check."
"You can call the sheriff from our housefor all the good that will doand you can call your foreman to check on your horse. Jim knows your stables as well as you do, and he'll be able to take care of the mare if anything's wrong. As for Sweet Jessie, I'll send one of my brothers back to check on her. But right now, you've got a bullet hole in your shoulder, and every sign of a concussion. You need to go where people can take care of you."
"And you think you can take care of me?" As soon as the words came out, they both flinched. She knew it was a low blow to throw Mason in Pierce's face, even if he had fallen short on his promise to keep her brother safe. They both knew what Pierce had donehe'd never offered any excuses for what had happened to Mason, not even when she'd begged him to explain.