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Great. Just great.
Sheriff Dale Lewis regarded the small pickup truck on the shoulder of the road, facing the wrong way and tilted at an odd angle. It looked like his already long day was about to get longer.
Stifling a sigh, he took a final sip of tepid coffee and eased his patrol car off the wet pavement. As he settled the disposable cup back into the holder, he scanned the truck, illuminated in the glare of his headlights. It had Missouri plates and looked brand-new, but he'd never seen it before. Must not belong to anyone around Oak Hill. He knew most of the vehicles from his hometown on sight.
As he keyed the license number into the laptop beside him and waited for the results to appear on the screen, he surveyed the drenched landscape. Considering how dry the entire month of August had been, he knew the area farmers would consider the much-needed rain a blessing.
But he suspected the driver of the truck wouldn't agree. The pavement could be dangerously slick around this bend when dampened after a dry spell, as the person behind the wheel had discovered. It was too dark to see the road, but he figured he'd find skid marks come daylight.
When the license information came back, he gave it a quick scan. The vehicle was registered to a Christine Turner, and everything was clean. The name seemed familiar somehow, but he couldn't place it. And he was too tired to try. If she'd been the driver, she must have called a family member or friend to pick her up and abandoned the car until daylight.
Not that he blamed her. It was pitch-dark, and he was pretty sure the respite from the earlier downpour was temporary. Lightning continued to zigzag through the sky in the distance, and the ominous rumble of thunder suggested the imminent arrival of another deluge.
The truck was far enough off the highway not to cause problems, but the driver should have put the emergency flashers on, he reflected. Hoping the vehicle wasn't locked, he retrieved a flashlight and flipped on the spotlight mounted near his sideview mirror. He needed to check it out anyway, as a matter of routine. He could take care of the flashers at the same time.
He circled the truck first, noting that the engine was still pinging. Meaning it hadn't been there long. One back tire was fender-deep in mud, but otherwise nothing seemed amiss. Completing his circuit, he checked the driver-side door. Unlocked. Good.
Pulling it open, Dale started to climb up, then froze. The cab wasn't empty. A woman lay sprawled on the seat, one limp arm dangling toward the floor.
A surge of adrenaline shot through him, and Dale squeezed into the cab, balancing one knee on the seat as he leaned over the woman. Pushing aside the shoulder-length light auburn hair that had fallen across her face, he pressed two fingers against her neck. A solid, strong pulse beat a steady rhythm against them, and he let out a slow breath. During his twelve years as a cop in L.A. he'd come upon too many of these kinds of scenes with far different results. The woman might be injured, but at least she was alive.
As Dale set the flashlight down and pulled out his cell phone, he studied her profile. Caucasian, midthirtiesand with a very nasty bump on her left temple. He couldn't see any other damage, but her legs were encased in jeans and only a sun-browned length of arm was visible beneath the short sleeves of her cotton shirt. It was possible she'd sustained other injuries that weren't apparent.
Before he could tap in the numbers to summon an ambulance, the woman stirred and gave a slight moan. As he leaned over her again, her eyelids flickered open.
"Ma'am, please don't move. I'm calling an ambulance." Dale kept his voice soft, trying not to startle her.
It didn't work. Jerking her head toward his looming presence, she winced and tried to sit up, but he put out an arm to restrain her.
"Please, ma'am. You've been injured. It would be better if you didn't move until the EMTs check you out."
His soothing tone, meant to calm, seemed to have the opposite effect on her. She stared up at him in the dim light of the cab, blinking as if trying to focus, until all at once fear ignited in her eyes. Fumbling for the door handle on the passenger side, she twisted it open and pushed, scrambling away from him and sliding to the ground with such speed and agility that his mouth dropped open.
Then she slammed the door in his face.
It took a second for his brain to kick back into gear, and by the time he recovered enough to back out of the cab and circle the truck, she was clutching a length of board she must have retrieved from the back, holding it like a baseball bat.
Slowing his approach, Dale assessed the situation. It was obvious the woman was injured. She was using the body of the truck for support and seemed to be having trouble focusing. It was also clear that she was frightened. He had no idea why, but he needed to calm her down. "Ma'am, you don't need to be afraid. I'm a police officer."
"I can see that." Her voice wasn't quite steady, but her grip on the piece of wood was firm. He had no doubt she'd take a swing at him if he got too close. Had she been drinking? he wondered. But he'd smelled no alcohol, nor seen any evidence of it, in the cab of her truck. Perhaps the bump on her head had muddled her brain. He tried again.
"Look, you need help. I was getting ready to call an ambulance when you came to. Why don't you sit in the truck and take it easy until you get some medical attention? I'll help you."
He took a step toward her, and she raised the board. "I don't need help. Just back off."
Pausing, Dale regarded her through narrowed eyes. Her reaction to his presence was weird. And suspicious, considering he was a uniformed police officer. A warning light began to flash in his brain.
"You're hurt, and your truck isn't going anywhere tonight." He spoke in a slow, deliberate manner. "If you don't want medical assistance, which I strongly recommend, is there someone I can call who could pick you up?"
"Can I give you a lift home?"
"No. Iit's not far. I can walk."
"Ma'am, it's pitch-dark, and you're in no condition to walk anywhere." She was beginning to waver a bit, and it seemed to take every bit of her concentration to maintain focus. "Be reasonable."
Instead of responding, she edged toward the back of the truck, continuing to lean against it for support. Dale remained where he was, fists on his hips, brow furrowed. In all his years as a cop, he'd never met with a reaction quite like this. While he'd had accident victims refuse medical attention, he'd never encountered such fear and hostility in a comparable situation. It seeped through her pores, almost tangible in its intensity.
When she got to the rear bumper, she pushed off and began to back away from him into the darkness. It was starting to rain again, large drops that left big, dark splotches on the blue cotton of her shirt. In another couple of minutes, they'd both be soaked. Whether she liked it or not, he couldn't let her walk away.
He took two steps in her direction, watching as terror gripped her features. She raised the piece of wood, but suddenly lost her grip on it and swayed. Dale closed the distance between them in three long strides, just in time to catch her before she went facedown in the mud, looping one arm under her knees. Despite her half-conscious state, she fought him, struggling to escape from his grip, every muscle in her lean body tense.
"Please, ma'am. Try to relax. I'm not going to hurt you. But you need medical attention. If you don't want me to call an ambulance, I'll contact our doctor in Oak Hill. I'm sure he'll meet us at his office."
The rain intensified, and without giving her a chance to respond, he headed toward the patrol car, depositing her in the passenger seat. Leaning close, he stared into her dull, slightly glazed dark brown eyes. "Stay put. I don't want to have to go chasing after you in this rain. Nor do I want to have to charge you with interfering with the duties of a police officer." He closed the door, praying the threat he'd pulled out of thin air would work.
It must have, because she was still sitting there after he retrieved her purse from the floor of the truck, locked the doors of her vehicle and slid into his seat in the patrol car. Either that, or she was too hurt to offer further resistance.
Handing over her purse, he pulled out his phone and punched in a number, watching her while it rang.
"Sam? Dale. Listen, sorry to have to ask this, but could you meet me at your office? I've got a woman who's been injured in a car accident and she doesn't want me to call an ambulance. She was unconscious when I found her, and she has a nasty bump on her temple." Dale listened for a few moments, answered a couple of questions, then severed the connection.
As he reached forward to turn the key in the ignition, the woman shrank back as far as possible into the corner of the front seat. She didn't look at him once during the ten-minute drive. Nor did she speak. And the instant the car came to a stop in front of the medical office, she groped for her door handle. "I control the locks," he told her. "I'll help you out." As Dale circled the car, he noted Sam's vehicle parked in front of the building. The town physician must have left as soon as he'd received the call, which didn't surprise Dale.After two years in Oak Hill, Sam Martin had become a valued member of the community, and his responsiveness was already legendary.
Once Dale reached her door, he released the locks and pulled it open. She was clutching her shoulder purse against her chest, her expression wary, and she ignored the hand he extended, struggling to stand on her own. He dropped his hand and kept his distance, but stayed close enough to save her from a fall if she started to nosedive again.
"The office is there." He nodded over his shoulder. A light over the front door illuminated a sign that said Sam Martin, M.D.
Edging around Dale, the woman headed toward the door. Close on her heels, he leaned around her and twisted the knob, pushed the door open, then entered behind her.
A tall, trim man with sandy hair that was brushed with glints of silver at the temples stepped through an inner door. "Hi, Dale."
"Sam. Thanks for coming. I haven't confirmed it yet, but I think your patient's name is Christine Turner."At the woman's startled look, Dale glanced at her. "I ran a license check. Standard procedure. And I'm Dale Lewis, just to make things even. This is Dr. Martin."
"We can worry about the introductions later. Right now that bump needs attention." Sam moved forward and tilted her chin up, scrutinizing the injury.
Interesting, Dale noted. She didn't seem frightened of Sam.
"Any idea how long you were unconscious?" Sam asked her.
"No. I remember sliding across the road, and the truck spun around. I hit my head on the door window. After the truck stopped, I unbuckled my seat belt and leaned down to pick up my purse from the floor on the passenger side. That's the last thing I remember until I saw him" she gave a short jerk of her head in Dale's direction "leaning over me."
"I don't think she was out long," Dale offered.
"The engine was still pinging when I arrived. A few minutes, tops."
"That's good. So is the fact that your memory of the event is clear. But let's take a look." He stepped aside to usher her into his office, directing his next comment to Dale. "I assume you're going to wait?"
While Sam and Christine disappeared into the examining room, Dale settled into a chair in the waiting area and pulled out his cell phone. Using speed dial, the connection took mere seconds.
"Hi, Mom. Sorry, but I've been delayed again. I came across an accident and had to bring the victim into town. Sam's looking her over now. Everything okay with Jenna?"
He listened for a couple of minutes, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, while his mother described the youngster's latest antics. His daughter was a source of joy to both of them, and he was glad once again that he'd come home after Linda died. It was far safer being sheriff of Oak Hill than a street cop in L.A. And he didn't want his daughter to grow up without either parent.
Besides, with his mother willing to watch Jenna most days, he didn't have to resort to day care very often. Both he and Linda had agreed that the decision to have children brought with it a responsibility to raise them. They hadn't believed in delegating that task to an outside service, unless there was simply no other option. He was glad he'd been able to follow through on that commitment.
"Look, I should be wrapping up here in the next half hour," Dale responded when his mother finished the tale of Jenna's latest adventure. "Don't hold dinner any longer. I'll eat later. See you soon."
By the time Dale checked his voice mail at work and returned a couple of calls, Sam appeared in the door to the waiting room, closing it with a soft click behind him. Dale rose and tucked the phone back into its holder.
"Is she okay?"