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RIDE A PAINTED PONY

 

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Watch the nifty trailer for exactly one minute

            

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

Twenty-seven miles of dark road and driving rain were all that stood between Nick and the bed he’d reserved for what was left of the night.  He might have pulled over and waited for the downpour to pass, but he was set on having himself some pleasure this night.  Real, rock-solid pleasure.  He was this close to laying himself down flat, stretching out his whole long, bone-tired body over fresh, white sheets and soft pillows.  If he had just pulled over, he might have spared himself the one thing he always took care to avoid.  Nicholas Red Shield hated surprises.

 

But more than the surprise of a pair of wild eyes staring back at him in his high beams, he hated making roadkill.

 

Eyes left.  Wheel right.

 

It was a tricky maneuver.  His empty horse trailer fishtailed as he shifted into Neutral, kicked the brake, and arced the steering wheel to the left.  Getting the trailer in line was only half the battle now that the rubber no longer met the road.  Every scrape against the pickup’s precious chassis felt like a bloody gouge in Nick’s own leathery hide.  His beautiful blue two-ton dually–as near to new as any vehicle he’d ever had–mowed down a mile marker post, jolted, shuddered, and went still.

 

Rain pelted the roof of the cab.

 

Nick took a deep breath and slowly loosened his grip on the steering wheel.  He glanced in the rearview mirror, searching for familiar eyes. 

 

“You okay back there, Alice?”

 

His passenger popped her head up to assure him that she was only slightly less bored with him than usual.

 

Nick was okay, too, thanks for asking.  A little shook up, but he wasn’t going to let it show, even when nobody but the cat was looking.  Bad form was bad form.

 

And stuck was stuck.  He couldn’t tell whether the main cause was mud or mile marker, but his efforts to get loose soon had six tires spinning in all gears.

 

Nick was not a man to curse his luck.  He wasted nothing, including breath.  Ever equipped to handle his own problems, he practiced taking care of business to perfection.  If the mile marker was the hang-up, he hoped the business of jacking his baby off the damn thing wouldn’t take all night.  He chuckled and started humming as he reached under his seat for the flashlight.  “Jackin’ my sweet baby off,” he sang softly. Times like this, a little humor couldn’t hurt.  He exchanged cowboy hat for yellow rubberized poncho and climbed out of the truck with an unconscious smile.  He could really be funny when nobody was listening.

 

But the sight of his truck’s skewered underbelly was nothing to laugh at.  It would take more than a flashlight beam to assess the damage, especially with the cold spring rain rolling off the hood of his poncho.  He could have sworn he heard her groaning softly, just like a real woman.

 

“What do you expect me to do in this rain, girl?  Beam you up?”

 

Something behind him snapped.  Nick pivoted and swept the light over the roadside slope until it hit on a clump of bushes and a clutch of bobbing branches.  Damn, had he clipped that deer after all?  He grabbed his pistol and a loaded clip from the glove box and then sidled down the steep, wet slope.  He’d been lucky.  Better his precious pickup had impaled herself on a post than to go tumbling trailer over teakettle down the hill.

 

The bushes weren’t much taller than he was, but they were dense and filled out with new foliage.  And they weren’t moving on their own.  There was definitely something in there.  Nick parted the branches with his gun hand, flashed the light into the tangled thicket, and found two more of the night’s thousand eyes.

 

They weren’t doe eyes, but they were almost as big.

 

“Don’t,” a soft voice pleaded as the eyes took refuge from the light behind a small, colorless, quivering palm.  “Please, don’t.”

 

A woman?  A child?  Nick’s heart wedged itself in his throat.  He flashed the light away from her face.

 

“It’s okay.  I won’t . . .”  He shouldered branches aside and dropped down on one knee to discover a woman who wasn’t much bigger than a child.  “That wasn’t . . .”  He could barely get the words out.  She was curled up, soggy, and shaking to beat hell.  “Jesus, that couldn’t have been you in the road.  Could it?”

 

“Wh-who are you?  Who sent you?”

 

“No one sent me.  Listen, did I . . . did I hit you?”

 

Who are you?” she demanded, pumping up the volume.

 

“Name’s Nick Red Shield.  I could’ve sworn I missed the, uh . . .”  He gestured toward the scene of the crime with the barrel of his pistol.  “Sorry.  I was expecting a deer.”  He tucked the gun in his belt and then pulled the poncho over his head.  She needed it worse than he did.  “How bad are you hurt?”

 

“I don’t know.” 

 

“Anything broken?  Can you move your . . .” 

 

Move what?  The arms she’d knotted around her knees?  He felt like some idiot hunter who’d awkwardly wedged himself into a rabbit’s hole.  They were nearly nose to nose, but he didn’t dare touch her, and she didn’t dare move.  She couldn’t draw back any further without becoming part of the undergrowth.  Her violent quivering made his bones vibrate.

 

 “Let me help you.”  He offered his hand, palm up, as though she might want to sniff it first.  “I’ll be real careful.”

 

“What kind of a name is Red Shield?”

 

It seemed like a crazy question, under the circumstances.  Check out my hand, sure, but my name?

 

“I’m an Indian.”  He couldn’t help bristling.  Squaring up, he braced the rebuffed hand on his upraised knee.  “Sioux.  South Dakota.  Look, I didn’t see you until you were right in front of me, and I did everything I could to avoid hitting you.  If you want me to try to flag someone else down, I will, but there isn’t much traffic tonight, and I don’t have any way to call anyone.  Do you?”

 

“C-call who?”

 

“A cop or an ambulance.”

 

“You . . . you’d call the police?”

 

“I would, but I don’t have a phone.  And if I leave you here and go for help, I’ll damn sure get charged with hit and run.  So make up your mind.  What’ll it be?”

 

“What are my choices?”

 

“Trust me, or don’t.  Can you walk?”

 

She stared at him, sizing him up while she drew several breaths, miserably shaky on the uptake.  Finally, she loosened her grip on her folded legs and felt around for something besides him to hang onto.  She didn’t seem to care what the bushes were doing to her hands, and he could barely hear her answer.

 

            “I think so.”

                                                                     *** 

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