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By Linda Conrad
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneManny Sanchez decided the pounding rain did have one advantage - it helped to hide his stealthy nighttime chase. He rode his Harley through the bitter, biting and brutal sleet, torn between cursing the storm and being grateful for the added cover.
In the next instant the minivan he'd been following slowed. When its brake lights glowed red, memories of devastating car wrecks flashed before his eyes. He'd seen plenty of twisted metal in his thirty-four years, and a flashback of his own agony clutched at his chest.
Damn. Not this time. A baby boy was riding inside that van. Life had always been cruel as far as Manny was concerned, but the baby's short, tragic life simply must not end this way. Manny couldn't let that happen - not again.
Through his rain-distorted visor, he watched horrified as the minivan carrying the coyote and his cargo came to a low-water bridge. They hit a patch of icy highway and slid sideways. Manny winced.
¡Ay, Dios mio! No one will get out alive! Suddenly his bike hit another frozen spot and he lost control. He cut the power, laying the bike down into the gravel covering the side of the road. His leather-clad, left shoulder took the entire brunt of the roadway collision, but a combination of adrenaline and freezing cold numbed him to the effectshe knew were sure to follow.
Luckily the bike slid across the asphalt, scattering sparks and landing in a field, while he sprawled down the gravel in the other direction. His heavy jeans protected him from the rocks and wet pavement.
When his forward momentum finally eased, he jumped to his feet, relieved he was still able to walk. But there wasn't time to check for broken bones or bleeding. He ripped off his helmet, flung it aside and ran toward the bridge.
In terrifying slow motion, Manny watched the minivan lose contact with the asphalt as it hit the rushing water. Within the space of a heartbeat, the boxy little vehicle turned on its side and was swept into the furious torrent.
A breath hitched in his throat as he stood paralyzed, seeing the scene unfold before him. Shock and a fleeting sense of sorrow and guilt overtook him. Why hadn't he found a way to end this assignment earlier today - or yesterday? Or, hell, last week before things had gotten so out of hand?
He clearly heard the eerie shriek of twisting metal over the sounds of howling water as torrents assaulted the minivan with a devastating rampage. The incessant beating of the rain competed with the hammering of his heart.
Without a moment for recriminations and once again burying his emotions, he reacted to the tragedy the way he'd been trained - don't hesitate, act.
Just then the minivan snagged itself on a pile of debris clogged against willows at the side of the raging river. It was all the advantage Manny would get, and he ran toward the van before it broke loose and dashed farther downstream.
By the time he reached the car, lying precariously driver's side down, he'd made an assessment of what he could do, and what the chances were that anyone had survived. The van was submerged a good three feet deep, and the black water still rose against it. Since the roof was all he could see from the bank, he couldn't be sure, but ...
Manny scrambled up the hood and scaled the front window, ignoring the pain in his shoulder. Slick and slippery, the van rocked gently as the cascading water tore at it, making any assent more than hazardous.
After too many precious minutes, he made it to the passenger side and knelt, yanking on the front passenger door. It took a supreme effort, but the door finally opened, revealing the murky interior.
"Hey, can you hear me?" he shouted. He bent closer and realized no one sat in the passenger seat. For a second the silence from inside was so complete he wondered if the worst had already happened.
He began lowering himself into the front toward the spot where a driver should be, when a child's cry pulled him up short. The baby was still alive! But Manny couldn't see him for all the darkness and water.
With another small whimper from the back seat, Manny quickly reached into the murky water where the driver should be and found - nothing. The smuggler that had been driving must have been thrown out as the van went over.
As fast as he could, Manny dragged himself out of the van and wrestled with the sliding back door. The more he pulled the worse his shoulder throbbed.
The door eventually gave way to his efforts. Manny saw the kid, still strapped in his child-carrier and hanging sideways as the water rose to meet him.
Please don't let him die. Manny reached for the carrier's seat belt and gave it a jerk. Nothing happened. The damn thing was stuck, so Manny lowered himself into the car, sliding past the suddenly too-quiet child and landing in the freezing water.
Standing upright in the back, waist deep, with his feet resting on the car's left side window, he reached into his jeans pocket for his knife. As Manny's fingers grasped the pocket knife, a small hand reached out to touch his face.
"Hi, baby, are you hurting?" He tried to keep the tension from his voice. "I'll have you out of here in a minute."
The dark-haired child, dressed in nothing but a red sweater and diaper, started to sob. It wasn't a loud cry, but a soft, heart-wrenching sound that tore into Manny's soul.
"Pa ... ba?" The baby patted Manny's face and reached grasping fingers toward his jacket.
"I'm not your papa, hijo, but there's no need to be afraid. I won't let anything else happen to you."
A flash of memory passed through Manny's mind, reminding him that this little one had already lost his father and his mother forever. That was enough. Manny vowed to keep him safe from now on - no matter what it took, and no matter who didn't care for the idea.
With more effort than Manny's shoulder should handle, the seat belt finally gave way to his sharp blade. The baby grabbed him around the neck and hung on desperately.
Manny flipped the blade closed and jammed it back into his pocket while he experienced the closest thing to sheer panic he'd ever felt. How in the world was he going to lift himself and the boy out of the back seat and onto the car's side with this injured shoulder?
"Hand the baby to me."
"What the ...?" The woman's voice coming from above startled the hell out of him.
When he looked up, all he could make out were long slender arms reaching down into the open doorway. Where had she come from? Had she been inside the van and gotten out by herself? Impossible. But then where ... and how ...?
"Hurry up. I don't think we've got much time." The woman's demand shocked him into movement. He lifted the baby up with his good arm. The seemingly disembodied arms from above grabbed hold of the boy securely.
The baby gasped and tightened his grip on Manny and wailed.
"Easy, sweetheart, I've got you." The woman's voice turned soft and pleading.
Manny pried the boy's arms from his neck as gently as he possibly could. Meanwhile the woman made soothing noises, pulling the baby upward. Once they had disappeared from view, Manny used his good arm and his legs to drag himself up and out of the car.
Excerpted from Desperado Dad by Linda Conrad Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.