Shoulders as broad and strong as Texas
That was Lucita Sanchez's first thought as Deputy Ripp McCleod rescued her from a crash. Here was a man that a woman could count on. One who wouldn't betray his wife and leave her with a son to raise alone. But as Ripp investigated her "accident" they realized someone had targeted Lucitaand her son might also be in danger.
Though Ripp vowed to protect Lucita with his life, he was wary about offering up his heart. Still, the proud yet vulnerable ranching heiress compelled him to stay close. Could this disaster be the best thing that ever happened to them?
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Was the driver crazy? At this rate he was going to hit her!
The headlights in Lucita Sanchez's rearview mirror were growing closer and closer, blinding her view of the secluded black highway in front of her.
Fear rifled through her, shooting adrenaline to every nerve in her body. Her knuckles in a white grip on the steering wheel, she pressed on the car's accelerator, hoping to pull away from the approaching vehicle.
Was the driver deliberately trying to ram into her? Maybe the driver couldn't see her?
Don't try to kid yourself, Lucita. Someone has been tailing you for weeks now. Long before you moved back to the Sandbur.
The broken white lines in the middle of the highway became one long blur as the speedometer crept toward ninety, then ninety-five. Behind her, the vehicle didn't appear to be relenting. Instead, the headlights seemed to be inching closer and closer to her back bumper.
Her mind was snatching for ways to escape when a jolt from behind lurched her forward in the seat and threatened to wrench the steering wheel from her grip.
The driver was ramming into her car! Someone was trying to kill her!
Dear God, what could she do? Obviously she couldn't outrun the other car. Even at this speed she was in dire danger of crashing. If she tried to pull over and stop, what would the driver do then? Stop and confront her?
She was frantically weighing the consequences of both choices when a black blob suddenly appeared directly in front of her on the highway.
Screaming, Lucita stomped on the brakes to avoid the animal. Her car instantly skidded sideways. Lights flashed as the vehicle spun round and round, end to end. The whipping momentum shot the car across the grassy right-of-way where it smashed through a fence, then crashed straight into an electric pole.
The violent jolt released the air bag and the safety device exploded in her face, the force snapping Lucita's head sideways against the window. She felt a stinging blow, and then she felt nothing at all.
Sometime later, she wasn't sure how long, awareness slowly returned to Lucita. Dazed, she struggled to push herself upright. The air bag had deflated and the nylon fabric was now draped uselessly against the steering wheel. Some sort of white powder was all over her. Apparently the stuff had exploded with the eruption of the air bag.
In front of her, steam was pouring from the crumpled hood and raining down on the cracked windshield. Incredibly, the headlights were still burning, shining a wide swath of light into someone's pasture and illuminating several bulls grazing among a stand of tall mesquite trees.
Where was she? And what had happened?
Shoving strands of light brown hair off her face, she peered out the back windshield. More than fifty yards away, the highway was black and eerily quiet. Apparently no vehicles had passed since she'd rammed into the electric pole, or if anyone had driven by, they'd not stopped to help.
And what about the menacing vehicle that had been behind her? Whoever had been driving had obviously not stopped to offer her a helping hand when they'd witnessed her crash, which only proved the person had been out to do her harm.
With hands shaking violently, she felt along the left side of the dash and managed to turn off the headlights. The idiot who'd rammed into her just might decide to return and she didn't want the headlights of her disabled car to be shouting, here I am.
As total darkness settled around her, she realized the shoulder strap on the safety belt was biting into her throat. She reached for the buckle at her waist, then cursed beneath her breath as her fingers fumbled with the latch several times before she finally managed to unfasten it. Once she was free from the belt's restraint, she breathed a tiny sigh of relief.
Now, she needed to find her purse, she thought, as she tried to come up with a plan. Her cell phone was inside the bag. If all the jolting hadn't damaged it, she could get help within a few minutes.
Like a blind person, she flattened her hands and began to pat carefully along the seats and the floorboard. After several attempts, she finally discovered the handbag behind the passenger seat. Thankfully, the bag was zipped shut and the cell phone was exactly where she'd placed it.
When the instrument lit up, she sent up a silent prayer of thanks and quickly punched in 911. After informing the dispatcher of her accident and approximate location, she put the phone away and leaned back in the seat. Her family had gone to dinner at a neighbor's and she didn't want to bother them until she had to.
Lucita's mind tumbled with questions as to what to do next. Should she get out of the car to wait? Even though she didn't smell any fumes, the thing could be leaking gasoline, and any kind of spark might ignite flames. But knee-deep grass and weeds surrounded the car and rattlesnakes were as thick as rats in this area of Texas. Anyone with a lick of common sense wouldn't walk across their yard at night without a flashlight, much less wade through a tangle of vegetation on the side of the highway. If she had a flashlight to illuminate her steps, she might venture the trek from her car to the highway. But, damn it, she could never remember to keep one in the glove compartment.
Ten minutes later, she was growing restless and about to climb out of the car anyway, when a pickup truck with flashing lights atop the cab pulled off the shoulder of the highway. Relieved beyond measure, she reached for the door handle and realized with faint shock that the door was jammed. Quickly, she leaned across the seat and tried the passenger doorthe only other door. It wouldn't budge. She couldn't have gotten out of the damn car even if she'd wanted to!
The bright orb of a flashlight suddenly passed over her window. Desperate now, Lucita turned on the key and pressed the electronic button to lower the thick glass.
"I can't open the door!" she called out to the tall figure approaching the car.
"Just stay where you are. I'll be there in a second."
The male voice was strong and solid and very reassuring. Relief tumbled through her, and for one brief moment she feared she was going to weep.
Don't fall apart now, Lucita. You've dealt with far worse crises than this.
The officer finally managed to wade through the tangle of grass and weeds until he reached the side of her wrecked car. Pointing his flashlight straight at her face, he asked, "Are you injured? The dispatcher said an ambulance wasn't needed."
Closing her eyes against the blinding light, she said, "I think I'm okay. Just shaken. Both doors seemed to be stuck. Can you get me out of here?"
He tried the driver's door and after a few strong jerks, the latch broke free. Quickly grabbing her handbag, Lucita swung her legs to the ground. With the help of his hand on her arm, she pushed herself out of the car.
"Ooooh." Too woozy to stand, she instinctively reached for the nearest solid thing to steady herself, which just happened to be the officer's broad chest.
"Whoa!" he urged. "Don't faint on me now!"
His reflexes were quick, and suddenly she felt a pair of massive arms wrapping around her, hugging her against the solid length of his body.
"Easy, ma'am. Take a few deep breaths. Slow and steady."
She did as he commanded. After a few moments she could feel her strength returning, and with it the embarrassment that she'd practically collapsed into a strange man's arms.
Beneath her cheek, the starched fabric of his shirt was cool and smooth and smelled of musk and sweetgrasses. In contrast, his arms were warm and their strong support made her feel safer than she'd felt in a long, long time.
Chiding herself for the moment of weakness, she forced her cheek away from his chest. "II'm fine. I'm sure I can stand on my own now," she insisted.
He dropped his arms, but kept a careful hand on her elbow. "I'm Deputy Ripp McCleod, ma'am, with the Goliad County Sheriff's Department. And you are?"
McCleod? Years ago there had been a sheriff with that name. Could they be related? "Lucita Sanchez. I live on the Sandbur."
His fingers were so long they wrapped completely around her arm. In spite of her claim that she was fine, she was inwardly grateful for the deputy's steadying hand. Otherwise, she wasn't sure her shaky legs had regained enough strength to keep her totally upright.
"You're related to Matt and Cordero?"
It wasn't a big surprise to hear this man call her brothers by their given names. Most South Texans were familiar with the Sandbur ranch. This lawman was probably a native of Goliad County. More than likely, he knew many people who lived and worked on the ranch. He just wouldn't remember her. Not since she'd been gone from her family home for several years and had only just returned in the past few months.
Quickly, she pulled her license and insurance verification from her purse to hand it to the deputy.
"Yes," she answered. "Matt and Cordero are my brothers. II was on my way home when this happened." She waved her arm toward the front of the car. She hadn't uprooted the electric pole with her car's assault, but it was listing toward the west at a precarious angle. The heavy wires were sagging, though thankfully none of them were touching the ground. Cedar posts from the fence she'd run through were now lying on their sides, along with several strands of barbed wire. It was a miracle none of the bulls had milled onto the highway.
The deputy's thoughts were clearly running along the same path as hers as he twisted his head toward a two-way radio fastened to his shoulder. "Hey, Lijah, hurry up. We got cattle here with a fence down. Get it up as quick as you can before they cause more accidents. And you need to call the power company and let them know a pole needs to be reset."
"Roger, will do," the officer answered. "I can see your lights now. Anyone hurt?"
"Don't think so."
Deputy McCleod turned his attention back to Lucita and the vague notion that she'd seen him somewhere before raced through her mind. "Is there anyone else in the car?"
It was a hot, moonless night with thin clouds blocking out the stars. The only glimpses Lucita could get of the deputy's face were when his flashlight inadvertently bobbed upward. Yet in spite of the lack of lighting, she could see that he was a tall man, even after factoring in his dark cowboy hat. His broad shoulders were covered with a uniform-type shirt made of khaki. Blue jeans encased his long, strong legs, while black, square-toed cowboy boots peeped from beneath the hems. A leather gun belt strapped some sort of revolver low on his slim hips. He was the epitome of a Texas lawman, making her acutely aware of his authoritative presence.
"No," she said. "I was traveling alone."
"Can you tell me what happened? Or do you remember?" he asked.
He had one of those soft, gravelly voices that made her want to shiver. Or was that reaction from the shock she'd been through? Either way, she hugged her arms against her breasts.
"I'm not totally suresomething ran in front of me. A wild hog, I think. Did you see one on the highway?" She twisted her head in the direction of the darkened blacktop. "I hope I didn't hit it."
"I didn't see a hog on the road or the shoulders. Only a set of skid marks a country mile long. You must have been mighty anxious to get home. Just how fast were you going, Ms. Sanchez?"
There was a hint of censure in his voice, which could only be expected. No one in his right mind would drive the speed she'd been traveling on the highway at night. Except someone in fear for her life, she thought grimly.
"Too fast," she conceded. "But Iit's not like you think. I wasn't just in a hurry to get to the ranch. I was"
Before she could go on, he interrupted, "In this area, wildlife on the highway is a major problemeven while driving the speed limit."
He didn't have to tell Lucita that. This patch of Texas had been her home for many years before she'd moved to Corpus. She'd seen plenty of mangled vehicles and even deaths caused by wandering wildlife.
"Yes, I'm aware of that, Deputy. But I" How could she tell him that she believed someone had been deliberately trying to run her off the road? Even to herself, the notion sounded incredible. And because she had no evidence to back up her suspicion, she kept it to herself.
Wearily, she reached up to push her long hair away from her face. As her fingertips brushed past her temple, they encountered something wet and sticky. She felt around on her head for the source of the gooey substance and yelped when her fingers pushed onto a lump and an open gash.
"Oww!" Lifting her hand in front of her face, she could see blood smeared on her fingers. "I must have cut myself."
"Let me take a look."
Stepping forward, he directed the light toward the side of her head. Lucita stood rigidly still while he parted her long hair to examine the wound. Once again she was assaulted with the pleasant smell of his shirt, the masculine strength of his warm body.
"Yeah, that's a pretty nasty gash. It was hidden by your hair and I didn't see it before," he murmured. "I'd better call in an ambulance, after all. You might need to be checked for a concussion."
She deliberately moved back from him. "Forget it. I'm not comfortable with hospitals. Besides, my cousin and her husband are both doctors. They'll come to the ranch and check me out if need be."
"I'm concerned about more than a concussion," he said in a brusque, businesslike voice. "You're probably going to need stitches, too."
Before she could guess his intention, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, gathered one corner together and pressed the fabric to the wound.
His big hand inadvertently brushed against her cheek and she closed her eyes as she tried to steel herself against the odd emotions rushing through her. How long had it been since a man who wasn't related to her had been this close? Three years. Three long, lonely years.