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Hallie drove down the country road between green fields. Nothing looked familiar. Was that because she was lost or because her memory was faulty? She pulled to the side of the road and stopped. She tipped her head back and closed her eyes. It was fine. She had GPS. She could call for help if necessary. No reason to blink away tears. No reason to get upset or frustrated.
Her brain was healing. Each week, she got a little better. That didn’t mean she’d never have setbacks. Anyway, maybe she was simply lost. She didn’t know the area outside of Last Stand very well. She’d visited for a couple weeks before Christmas to help her aunt at the wild animal rescue—okay, she’d escaped to her aunt’s property to hide—but she’d only moved to Last Stand a week ago, at the beginning of March.
Hallie got out of the car and looked around. The perspective wasn’t that different standing versus sitting, but at least she didn’t have bugs splattered across her windshield to obscure the view. She gazed at the forested hills. She was clearly not still in Houston. Who knew Texas could be so green and rolling? Well, anybody who lived in Texas Hill Country knew it.
The sight loosened something inside her. Maybe it was simply the reminder that she wasn’t in Houston anymore. Or because the deep blue sky contrasted so nicely with the dark green trees and the bright green fields. The dusty road made a pleasantly contrasting pale slice through the landscape, edged with patches of yellow flowers. She should take a picture.
She couldn’t post it online. She didn’t do social media anymore, because he might see and use a photo to track her down. It wasn’t fair that he’d taken that connection away, too. She could follow her friends silently, but she didn’t trust privacy settings enough to share anything with them. Starting over wasn’t so bad, but she resented having to cut so many ties.
It was necessary, though. She hoped she remembered that even on her bad days. It was hard to keep secrets when your memory faltered.
She took the photo, even if she couldn’t share it. Keeping a diary and taking photos of everyday events was supposed to help her retain those new memories. Not that she particularly wanted to remember being lost, confused, and frustrated, but whatever. While she was at it, she double-checked that she didn’t have anything important and urgent on her to-do list.
Everything could wait until she got home. She simply had to get home.
A sudden rustling came from the ditch beside the road. Hallie flinched. But it wasn’t like he would be hiding in a ditch beside a ranch road two hundred miles from Houston, on the off chance she might drive past and decide to stop. It must be an animal.
An odd trilling noise filled the air. The sound would be creepy in the dark of night, but out here under sunny skies, it suggested a bird or possibly a frog. Still, Hallie hesitated with her hand on the car door handle. Instinct said get inside, lock the door, get away. Take no chances. Stay safe.
But the rustling sounded like a large animal. What large wild animal would be near a road in the middle of the day, making noise? Most predators hunted from dusk until dawn. A dog maybe? But a dog couldn’t trill like that. Was she hearing two different animals?
Hallie pulled the car door open wide. Then she headed for the ditch, prepared to race back and dive inside if she needed to escape danger.
She stared down at a fluffy ball that rustled the grasses as it moved. It looked like a giant feather duster had come to life. A tiny head bobbed on a long neck. A beak opened and chirped. What was that thing? Some kind of bird, judging by the beak. A large bird, with a body the size of a basketball.
She looked around. No one in sight. So this wasn’t a bizarre prank. She was pretty sure she wasn’t dreaming, since she had the presence of mind to wonder if she was dreaming. Her memory might be shaky, but it had yet to give her hallucinations.
She crouched for a closer look. The animal chirped and tried to get up, but it quickly pitched forward, flapping short wings. It must be caught or injured somehow. She could do something about that. Many animals calmed down if you covered their eyes. That made it easier to handle them. She didn’t have a towel in the car, and on this warm spring day, she hadn’t brought a jacket. Oh well. Hallie checked again for anyone in sight. She appeared to be alone, so she peeled off her long-sleeved T-shirt, leaving her in a sturdy sports bra in cheerful purple and turquoise.
Hallie duckwalked into the ditch and tossed her shirt over the creature. It jerked its head away on that long neck, but she’d gotten one shoulder of the shirt over its head. She twisted to kneel beside the bird and wrapped her shirt around its head, loosely tucking the long sleeves around the neck a few times to hold the shirt in place.
The animal gave a few last pathetic peeps and settled down. She put her arm around its body. The gray-brown feathers were downy, silky against her bare skin, so it must be young. She gently straightened at the waist, still on her knees, revealing the bird’s long legs with knobby knees and two large toes on each foot. It might be young, but it would stand about three feet high. An ostrich? She’d never seen a young one, but she thought she recalled hearing about an ostrich farm around here.
Well, they apparently weren’t very attentive ostrich farmers, because this little critter had escaped and was far from the herd or flock or whatever ostriches had. It also had a gash on its leg, shallow but long, still oozing blood. Hallie didn’t have first aid material with her, but her aunt had plenty.
“Okay, let’s get you help.” She rose to her feet with a grunt. The bird must weigh fifty pounds.
It squirmed as she carried it back to her car. Great, she’d left the driver’s door open, but she didn’t want to put the bird in the driver’s seat. She needed to open a back door without letting go of the bird. She shifted its weight, got her fingers under the door handle, and pulled. The baby bird kicked, and the door slammed closed again. Hallie huffed out a breath, shifted the burden in her arms, and tried again. This time, she got the door open a few inches so she could tuck her shoulder along the side and open it the rest of the way.
She got the squirming bird in the car, dodging its bobbing head. Its beak might be covered with cloth, but it would hurt if it hit her. At least the thrashing hadn’t opened its gash any further. She glanced down at her jeans, which were covered with baby ostrich poop. It figured.
As she shifted toward the driver’s side door, she glanced down the road. An oversized red pickup truck was coming up fast. Hallie hadn’t noticed the truck approaching, and now it was within fifty feet. She slid into the car, yanked the door shut, and turned the ignition.
That truck was almost on top of her. She’d wait for it to pass.
She glared as the shiny red truck pulled past. It was enormous, so apparently somebody felt the need to compensate for something.
The truck swung across the road and stopped in front of her. A door slammed. A tall, lanky cowboy strode around the front of the truck, scowling.
Hallie gave a squeak worthy of the baby ostrich and hit the automatic door lock.
The man stormed up to her door. He had to lean way over to peer in at her. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
Hallie gaped at him. How was she supposed to answer that? She thought she was minding her own business. Granted, she was lost, maybe, but she didn’t want to ask this angry man for directions. She was pretty sure she hadn’t passed any signs marking this as a private road.
He rapped on the window. No way was she going to roll it down.
Hallie put the car in reverse. He was blocking the road ahead, so she’d go back the way she came. But she’d have to back up far enough to get away from him and then try to turn around on the narrow dirt road. Could she make a smooth U-turn, or would she have to make a three-point turn? His truck was bigger, so he’d take longer to make a turn, unless he simply drove into the ditch and through the edge of the field, which he probably could do with those big tires.
He tried her door handle. Thank goodness she’d locked it.
He knocked on the window again, his fierce face a foot away. “Open up!”
Hallie shook her head vigorously.
She eased off the brakes so the car started rolling backward. It was tempting to go fast and hope she rolled over his foot. That would distract him for a minute or two! But she couldn’t bring herself to hurt a stranger who had so far only yelled and scowled.
He skipped back from the car. Hallie let out a shaky breath and touched the gas. She couldn’t go too fast in reverse, though, or she might back into the ditch. Then she’d really be in trouble.
The angry cowboy ran after her, shouting something.
It took a moment for his words to penetrate.
“Give me back my ostrich!”
End of Excerpt