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Piper Kindred did a double take at the black sports car. Her heart sank, bile rising in her throat. No, it couldn't be.
Oh, sweet mercy. There was no way this massive accident would have no casualties. Wreckage lay crushed with mangled pieces across the median, shattered glass scattered along the stretch of highway, a black BMW on its top and a large tractor-trailer on its side, blocking both lanes of traffic.
As a paramedic, Piper had seen plenty of wrecks, fatalities and gut-wrenching scenes, but nothing settled fear as deep within her as seeing the familiar car that was so often in her driveway the car that belonged to her best friend, Ryan Grant.
The ambulance barely came to a stop before Piper grabbed her heavy red medical bag, hopped out and hit the ground running. The warm November sun beat down on her back as she ran toward the chilling scene.
The medic in her couldn't get to the victims fast enough. The woman in her feared what she'd uncover once she reached Ryan.
Once closer, she squatted in an attempt to see the inside of the vehicle. A wave of relief swept through her the second she realized the car was empty. Okay, so he wasn't trapped, but what was the extent of his injuries?
Sirens blared in near surround sound between the police, ambulances and a fire truck trying to assist the wounded and clean up the mess.
Piper tried to keep her eye out for Ryan, hoping she'd see him sitting in the back of an ambulance with just an ice pack on his head. But her duty was to assist where needed not to seek out those most important in her life.
As she moved closer to the tractor-trailer, where the majority of the cops seemed to be congregated, she noticed numerous Hispanic people huddled together. With disheveled clothes, scraggly beards and various cuts and bruises, Piper couldn't help but wonder what they were all doing at the scene of an accident involving only one semi and the car of her best friend.
Piper ran to the group of obviously injured men and women. Some were crying, some had their heads dropped between their shoulders and some were shouting Spanish slang even she didn't understand because of the rapid rate, but she could tell they were angry and scared.
As Piper passed two uniformed police officers she heard the words illegal and FBI. Yeah, this was so much more than an ill-fated accident. By the number of uniformed officers scouring the area, it looked as though these people were not here legally.
Moments later she heard other officers discussing how so many stowaways were hidden in such a small compartment in the back of that semi. This situation was beyond what Piper was used to. Her job right now was to assess and treat the victims, not to worry about the legalities of this mess.
"Where do you need me?" she asked another paramedic who was examining a man's leg beneath his torn pants.
"The truck driver was pretty shaken," the paramedic told her. "He's sitting in the back of a squad car for questioning right now. No visible injuries, but his pupils were dilated and he did say his back was hurting. Seems he was driving this illegal group and he had no clue."
Piper nodded, gripped her bag tighter and headed toward the squad car closest to the overturned semi. Sure enough a trooper had his forearm resting on the roof of the car as he leaned in and listened to whatever the man seated in the back was saying.
"I swear I had no clue what was in the back of my truck. Please, you've got to believe me," the driver pleaded. "I was just trying to get into the other lane and that car came out of nowhere. I didn't see him at all."
According to the man's story, he was completely innocent. This was a mess of epic proportions and not something a few questions would solve. But all Piper needed to do was to assess the man to see if he needed to go to the hospital or if he could continue being questioned.
"Officer, may I please check him out?" Piper asked. "I understand he has back pain."
The officer stood to his full height and nodded, but didn't move too far away. Often medics and cops worked together. Being a first responder required teamwork and so far she'd never had an issue with any cop getting in the way of her treating a patient at the scene.
Piper leaned in and saw a middle-aged man with a protruding belly hanging over his faded jeans, a dirty, bushy blond mustache with matching beard and nicotine-stained fingers.
"Sir, my name is Piper and I'm an EMT. I was told your back is hurting. Can you stand?"
He nodded and slid out of the car as Piper backed up. When he came to his full height, he winced, grabbing his lower backwhether for show to get the officer's sympathy or because the pain was indeed real, she didn't know. Yet again, not her place to judge.
"If you'll come this way, we can set you in the back of an ambulance. You may want to go to the hospital just to make sure nothing else is wrong, but I can get your vitals over here."
"I appreciate that, ma'am."
As she led the man toward the nearest empty ambulance, her eyes scanned the crowd for Ryan. Had he already been taken to the E.R.? Were his injuries life-threatening? The unknowns were killing her.
She knew a life flight chopper hadn't been dispatched to the scene, so that was a mild comfort. Not only for the fact Ryan didn't need a medevac, but that none of the others involved in the accident did, either.
Another ambulance arrived on the scene as Piper assisted the truck driver into the back of a vacant one. When fresh paramedics hopped from their emergency vehicle and made their way toward the group of injured people, she jogged back over to assist.
But froze in her tracks as one head lifted and a familiar set of dark eyes met hers. He was amid a group of Mexicans, but this man She knew this man.
Dear God. How could this What the hell ?
"Alex?" she whispered to herself.
Piper took off at a dead run and stopped beside Alex Santiago. Her bag dropped at her feet as she held her breath.
Was she honest to God seeing the man who'd disappeared months ago without a trace? Could it truly be him?
The man glanced up at her, holding his hand over his eyes to block the glaring afternoon sun.
My God. It was him. The hair was a shaggy, unkempt mess and the scruff on his cheeks and chin indicated he hadn't shaved in a few days or even weeks. But this was Alex. The man who'd been missing from Royal, Texas, for months.
The man most people assumed had become a victim of foul play, maybe even at his best friend's hand. But here he was, living and breathing.
"Alex, what on earth are you doing here? Where have you been?" she asked, eyeing the knot on the side of his head.
He winced as she slid her fingertip over the swollen bump. "You must have me confused with someone else. My name isn't Alex."
Piper's hand stilled above his head as she leaned down to look him in the eyes. She was pretty sure she knew what her friend looked like. Just because she hadn't seen him in months didn't mean she was clueless.
She looked closer. Um yeah, this was Alex. If he didn't think he was Alex, then he'd hit his head too hard in that crash. But at least he was alive.
"Your name is Alex Santiago," she told him, making sure to keep her eyes locked on to his, waiting for a spark of recognition from his end.
His brows drew together and he slowly shook his head. "I've never heard that name."
"Then what do people call you?" she asked, worry growing deeper with each passing moment.
Alex's eyes searched hers; he opened his mouth, closed it and sighed. "I don't remember. That doesn't make sense. How could I not know my own name?"
"You have a good bump here on your head," she reminded him as her eyes traveled down to the wrist he cradled in his other hand. "Looks like you may have broken your wrist."
He glanced down and simply nodded. Piper worried shock may be setting in. Between the accident and the apparent memory loss, she had no doubt Alex was shaken.
"Let's get you to an ambulance and see what the doctors have to say once you get to the hospital," she said gently. "I'm sure you'll remember you're Alex Santiago in no time. I'm Piper Kindred and we've been friends for a while. Can you at least tell me how you got into that truck?"
Piper lifted her duffel bag, helped Alex to his feet and held an arm around his waist when he started to sway. "Easy," she told him. "No rush. We're only going to that ambulance a few feet away. Think you can make it or should I bring a gurney?"
"No, I'm okay."
She didn't quite believe him so she kept him leaning against her side as she led him to the waiting ambulance.
"Go ahead and lie down on that cot," she said as she assisted Alex into the back of the vehicle.
"Do you know where you are?"
His blank look added to the sickening feeling in her stomach.
"We ready to roll?"
Piper glanced at the other EMT on the scene. They might as well go without her because there was no way in hell she was leaving without at least seeing that Ryan was okay and to tell him of miraculously discovering Alex.
"Go ahead and take him. He's got some memory loss so he doesn't know his name. Make sure the doctors are aware this is Alex Santiago and he's been missing for months. I'll go inform an officer because Alex was the subject of an ongoing investigation."
Turning her attention back to Alex, Piper offered a warm smile. "You're in good hands now, Alex. I know you're confused, but I'll be at the hospital as soon as I can to check on you."
Continuing to hold on to his wrist, Alex leaned back on the gurney. Piper closed the doors and tapped the back to inform the driver he was good to go.
With several paramedics now on the scene, Piper felt comfortable going in search of Ryan.
After searching frantically, running through the chaos, she found him next to the road on the other side of the overturned semi. Her knees weakened with relief at the sight of Ryan whole and upright. He was a good bit from his car, so she had to assume the officer had taken him aside to get his statement.
But glancing at Ryan and actually talking to him were two different things. He looked fine, but looks, as she'd discovered numerous times over the years, could be deceiving. Internal injuries were nothing to mess around with and could prove fatal even when a patient looked perfectly fine.
Added to needing to know the extent of his injuries, she had to tell him about the mind-blowing discovery she'd just made.
Alex Santiago was alive. Their friend who had been missing for months was alive and on his way to Royal Memorial Hospital with an obvious broken wrist and some memory loss. But he was alive.
But, my God, what in the world had he been doing in the back of a semi-truck filled with illegal Mexicans? So many questions whirled around in her mind. She had no idea what the hell was going on, but she knew Alex was probably scared and confused.
As Piper moved closer, she noticed Ryan holding on to one of his sides. A trooper was jotting down notes and nodding as he took Ryan's statement. Piper closed the gap, but stayed a few feet away, waiting for him to finish.
The sight of him with a slight bruise over his right brow and his hair even messier than usual made Piper want to throw her arms around his broad, muscular body and squeeze him to death for scaring her. But he'd probably laugh at her if she got all misty-eyed or mushy right now.
She'd seen this cowboy compete on the rodeo circuit countless times. She'd seen him get knocked around, bucked and nearly trampled, but nothing had terrified her more than the sight of his totaled car.
The trooper stepped away and Piper inched closer on still shaky legs.
Ryan caught her eye and offered that crooked smile. "Hey, Red."
That smile could melt the panties off any woman, and it had according to rumor. But Ryan was her friend so her panties had stayed in place over the years. Though she wasn't blindher bestie was the sexiest cowboy she'd ever laid eyes on.
With that dark, messy hair usually hidden by a black Stetson and heavy-lidded baby blues, yeah, Ryan Grant was one very fine-looking cowboy and he did some mighty nice things to a pair of well-worn jeans.
"You need to be seen," she informed him, raking her eyes over him to look for other visible injuries. "And I won't take no for an answer."
"I'm just sore and banged up a little, that's all." He reached out, grabbed one of her shaky hands and squeezed. "You look tense. I'm fine, Piper."
"You will be checked out because you'll want to come to the hospital anyway when I tell you who I saw."
Ryan shrugged, hissing and grabbing his side again.
Piper's eyes darted down to his ribs. "If they're not broken, they're bruised, so you'll be going straight to X-ray when you get there, big boy."
"Who did you see?" he insisted.
All joking aside, she leaned in and said, "Alex."
"Alex?" he repeated. "Alex Santiago?"
Piper nodded. "He was in the back of that semi."
"Piper " He eyed her as though she was the one who'd hit her head. "Alex was in the truck?"
She merely nodded, crossing her arms and silently daring him to argue.
"How in the hell did he get there?" Ryan asked.
Piper nodded toward another ambulance and guided Ryan toward the open back. "He doesn't remember."
Ryan, still holding his side, put his foot on the back step. "He doesn't remember how he got into the semi?"
"He doesn't remember anything," she whispered. "He didn't even know his damn name was Alex when I was talking to him. He didn't recognize me and he was totally clueless."
"Damn it." Ryan glanced around at the group of Mexicans being tended to by EMTs and talked to by the cops. "He has amnesia?"
Piper shrugged. "I honestly don't know. He had a good-size knot on his head, but that could've happened from the accident. He's on his way in the squad I came with, so we'll catch a ride with another. Right now I think we both need to get to the hospital for multiple reasons."
"I don't need to get checked out, but I'll appease you only because I want to see Alex for myself."
Piper studied him, as if she could see beyond the surface and actually make an official diagnosis.
"You all right?" he asked. "You look a little pale."
Piper caught his worried gaze and smiled. "I'm fine. And if the doctors give you the go-ahead and release you, I'm going to kick your rear end for worrying me to death when I saw your overturned car."
Ryan's wide, signature smile spread across his face. "There's that Piper love. Come on. Let's get to the hospital."
"Oh, God, Ryan." She held a hand on his arm before he could step into the back of the ambulance. "What about Cara? Someone needs to call her."
Piper couldn't even imagine what Alex's fiancée, Cara Windsor, would think when she was told he was alive. Piper was stunned and thrilled, but she was worried about how extensive this memory loss was.
"Let's get the facts from the doctor first," Ryan suggested. "We can't have her running all in there in hysterics and shock. We need to prepare her for this and have concrete information."
Piper nodded. "I agree. Let's get to the hospital. And while you're getting checked out, I'll find out Alex's status."
She held up a hand. "The fact my heart rate is still out of control after not knowing if you were okay or not gives me the right to override anything you say. Now get your butt in and let's get to the hospital."