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“It’s so dark outside. Why won’t the rain stop? What if lightning hits the car?” The small voice was brittle with fear, even though the speaker was trying desperately not to show how afraid she was of the predicament they had landed in.
Once more thunder rumbled and crashed around them while lightning lit the landscape and seared into the ground almost on top of the small car. It struck so close that the ground literally shook underneath them as if it could rip open at any time. Rain poured from the skies in buckets and had done so for the last couple of hours. It was the constant deluge which caused the water to rain down too fast to be absorbed into the ground. The roadway soon became a river. Annie had misjudged where she thought the edge of the road was and the depth of the water, and that landed them in the mess they found themselves in at the moment.
“We’re going to be okay, Marissa. The storm will play itself out soon.” She had no way of knowing this to be the case, but she needed to grasp onto whatever shred of hope she could.
“I’m Jessie, remember? And you said it would play itself out hours ago.”
“Sorry. I meant to say Jessie. I know this is all hard right now…the fake names and trying to remember our stories. But it’s to help keep us safe and buy time until we can get settled,” Annie said, rubbing her neck again, trying to ease the tenseness in the muscles which were coiled into hard knots throughout her body. She was tired and mentally stressed from the storm. Couple that with having been on the road for the last eighteen hours, the final two in the downpour that rendered her windshield wipers helpless and had them stuck in deep mud on a dark road somewhere in the middle of the Texas Hill Country.
Not to mention the fact that her lungs felt heavier in her chest, and she knew her fever had risen. There was also a dull throb at her temples, and she would give anything to lay her head down on a soft pillow and simply shut her eyes in blissful peace. Perhaps then, she might wake and find the last few weeks were just a terrible nightmare and all would be well with the world once again.
She would be in her safe, dry office in Reno, planning another event for a client. Marissa would be home chatting on the phone or laptop with one of her friends while their mother…and there went a familiar sharp pain that caused both those scenarios to vanish in a heartbeat from her mind. Reality crashed into the moment with another streak of lightning. A long sigh escaped from deep within her. It was useless to wish for such things that could never be again.
“I thought this road would be a shortcut, and we could save some time,” she added. The shortcut turned out to be a road that was barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and she had her doubts about that. There had been no sign of inhabitants or other drivers on the road for over an hour. When the rain did stop, she had no idea what she could do to get them back on the road.
Nothing seemed to go right for them, at least not in the last four weeks they had been on the move. On the run was the more apt description. That thought was quickly replaced by another reality. They probably faced a tow truck bill and another car repair. Her car had chosen to show its age, and she was afraid it wouldn’t make the long road trip.
Annie had purchased another one for them from a friend’s mother who wanted to get rid of her current car. In a hurry, Annie had trusted all would be as stated about the car, and she had paid cash. It turned out to be a lemon. Which was probably the real reason the woman had wanted to get rid of it. The car had broken down in New Mexico, and their cash was fast disappearing. She didn’t dare try to remove any funds from the trust fund account. It could lead people to know where they were. They couldn’t take that chance. She kept telling herself that God never gave a person more than they could handle. If that was the case, she really hoped He knew that she was at her max and holding on by a very slender thread.
It was imperative they get to San Antonio. They could get settled and map out a new life. Maybe then, they could finally find some peace again. Beyond that, she didn’t dare to think. It was enough they could get this far without detection.
Annie was just so tired of being constantly worried, looking over her shoulder for strangers who her uncle might have hired to track them. Her mother had been estranged from her family since marrying Annie’s father…a person “far below her station in life,” according to her brother and their mother’s parents before him. The grandparents had passed away, but her mom’s brother had stepped in and become even more overbearing—making her mom’s life difficult, tenuous. They were strangers more than family to Annie. But for whatever reason, they had become fixated on Marissa, her younger sister. Her mother had made her promise more than once that if anything happened to her, she was to protect Marissa from them.
Annie had promised, never thinking that time would ever come. But it had. And while her mother had named her guardian in her will, her uncle had a lot of influence and money to challenge her. Even before her mother had been buried, the childless couple had begun their move to be named Marissa’s guardians. The fact that her uncle was an assistant attorney general with ties to judges and attorneys and corrupt law enforcement had jolted Annie into realizing that Marissa was not safe nor could Annie trust the usual legal channels in California to help her.
Her mother had described her influential family as an octopus with tentacles that reached into local and state houses of power. What could Annie do against people that corrupt? At all costs, she had to protect Marissa. Annie had promised their mother she would keep her sister safe. She and Marissa had to disappear so that Annie could take the legal steps necessary to protect her little sister, and that would take money and time. This was why they were now stranded on a lonely Texas road in the middle of a storm with no help in sight.
Truitt Tremayne uttered another curse word as he used his jacket sleeve to wipe away the moisture gathering inside the windshield. The onslaught of rain pelting the glass was already making it hard enough to progress more than ten miles per hour in the dark without the windows fogging too, and adding to the problem. Even in the enormous ranch truck, which was raised higher off the roadway than most regular vehicles, the water level was still deep enough to make him use caution. Having been born and raised in this part of Texas, he knew quite well what a danger flash flooding was to human life. He had learned that lesson the hardest way possible. As quickly as they threatened to come, he slammed the door shut on those sharp memories. There was nothing to be gained from reliving the past. Nothing that could be changed.
Pushing the buttons on the radio, trying to find a station that wasn’t just static, he hoped to hear the latest weather report. There was still no reception, and he slapped his hand back on the steering wheel. At the same moment, his eyes caught the flash of his lights reflected in the metal bumper of a dark car that sat at an odd angle…half on, half off the road in front of him.
Another string of colorful words immediately filled the truck’s cab, along with the swift application of brakes which caused the truck to shudder as the rear end lost traction and began to fishtail. Truitt held on to the wheel and managed to avoid losing control, bringing the vehicle to rest within inches of the rear end of the small car. For a few moments, only the sound of the slapping of the windshield wipers filled the cab along with the incessant beating of rain on the truck’s roof. Truitt took a couple of calming breaths, trying to stuff down a long ago memory of another storm and a stranded car, but the breaths didn’t help much considering the anger taking root in his chest. Jamming his plastic covered Stetson onto his head; he jerked the collar of his rain slicker upward around his neck, grabbed the flashlight from the console beside him, and pushed open his door.
The water rushing across the pavement covered the top of his boots above the ankle. The rain hit his face with the force of small pellets, leaving a sting in their wake. His flashlight swept over the California license plate. Figures. Texans, and especially local folks, would have more sense than to be out in such a storm, much less put themselves in a fix that made their vehicle a road hazard to others in the low visibility. His jaw clamped down hard as his temper flared at the interruption in his own plans of getting back to the ranch before midnight. First things first…he had to deal with whatever idiot was behind the wheel.
Annie hadn’t realized she had dozed off, her forehead against the steering wheel, until a sudden loud banging at the window beside her startled her, making her jump backward in her seat, eyes wide in sudden fear.
“Who is that?!” Jessie gasped, grabbing Annie’s arm in a vice grip. The rain on the outside and the fog on the inside of the windows combined to make it almost impossible to make out who might be outside the car.
“Just stay still,” Annie spoke, finding her voice and trying to keep it calm for Jessie’s sake. “Let me do the talking.” Jessie’s only response was to increase the hold she had on Annie’s arm.
Annie turned the key in the ignition one click, then pushed the button beside her and lowered the window about three inches. She had a sense of a tall figure; face fairly concealed by the brim of a cowboy hat, his chin almost buried in the folds of the collar of his yellow rain slicker.
“Lady, what the blazes do you think you’re doing? I could have plowed into you. Why don’t you at least have your flashers on to warn other drivers of the hazard?”
The voice was a deep rumble with nothing remotely kind in it. So much for Texas friendliness. Irritation began to rise as her sense of fear began to subside to a lesser degree. Did he think she wanted to be there?
“I did have my lights on until I realized they were drawing my battery down. If help came along and we could get unstuck, I knew I needed to be able to move my car. Sorry if we inconvenienced you. If you can tell me where to find the nearest house, I can get help.”
The word “we” must have registered in the man’s brain, and he moved the flashlight, shining it on her briefly, before moving to the smaller female huddled in the passenger side, her face clearly registering fear, her hands locked on the upper arm of the driver. Was that a hint of remorse flitting across his face for being so heavy-handed with his gruffness? But, almost as soon as she sensed it, it disappeared. Could she really blame him? It was just a miserable evening all the way around.
“The nearest house happens to be on the Four T Ranch. Even if you found the gate, which is another three miles ahead, you wouldn’t be able to get through it without a code.”
“My cell has no signal out here. Do you have a radio in your truck by any chance?”
“No, I don’t,” he replied shortly. “Look, you two can’t stay here like this. Someone else could come along from one of the side roads and hit you or run off the road trying to miss you like I almost did. More importantly, the creek behind you has gone over the banks and blocked the road by now, and the river a few miles in front of you hasn’t even crested yet, but it’s already way past flood stage. You’re essentially cut off.”
The news was just about the last straw for Annie. She was tired, her bones ached, and her throat was growing more painful by the moment. She had tried to ignore the signs of impending illness for the last two days of their travel, but she could feel her last bit of energy draining away much the same as her car battery might have done. What was she supposed to do?
The storm, coupled with how terrible she felt physically and how tired she was mentally, was all coming together like a perfect “storm” of its own. She summoned every ounce of strength she had remaining to face the arrogant stranger.
“Look, Mr. Whoever-you-are, instead of giving me bad news, do you think you might try to act like John Wayne, instead of just dressing like him, and tell me how I can find help?” Her chin came up, as did the tone of her voice. The tall stranger stood silent for a long moment…but only a moment.
“I’m going to pull my truck closer. Then I’ll get you both inside and take you to the Tremayne Ranch. This storm is going to get worse before it gets better. We need to move. Gather up the things you must have this evening and be ready to move. I’ll be right back for you.” He didn’t wait for a reply but went trudging back through the rain and the deepening water to his truck, his body almost bent double against the howling winds.
“Are we seriously going with him? Why can’t we just stay here?” Her little sister’s voice ended on a tremble. She was trying to be brave but was having a battle of it. Even Annie was about at her wit’s end.
“There isn’t much of a choice, Jessie. Just remember our story and let me do the talking when we get there. At the very least, it will be a dry, safe place for a few hours. Get your bag from the back seat.”
“How do you know it’s a safe place? He could be an axe murderer or something.”
Annie shook her head. Up until a few weeks ago, she would have asked the girl where she got such ideas in her head or told her she watched too many of the wrong movies on cable. Annie hadn’t been able to protect her from that.
“Sometimes, you just have to go with gut instincts. For whatever reason, I think this man is a Good Samaritan that was sent our way to help us out of this spot we landed in. Maybe he’s a guardian angel in disguise. We just need to be thankful he came along when he did. We’ll get help for our car and soon be on our way again.”
The truck pulled beside the driver’s side of the car, leaving enough room for the doors to open and allow him room to maneuver between them. With a movement of his hand, he indicated she needed to unlock her door. Once opened, he leaned in and motioned for her to hand over the two small bags and their purses. With quick steps, he secured them in the back seat of his truck and soon returned. “The water is cold and getting deeper. I’ll carry you over to the truck. Who’s first?”
Annie turned to Jessie. “Crawl over me and you go first. Be quick. It’s okay.” She reassured the girl with a smile she was far from feeling.
Jessie moved, hesitantly at first, until the man could get a hold on her and then she was lifted quickly into his arms and carried to the large truck, disappearing into the back seat, the door closing behind her. Her small face appeared at the fog-smeared window.
Within a matter of moments, he had returned. Two arms reached out for her next, and Annie raised hers and slid them over a pair of solid, broad shoulders, linking her hands around a strong column of a neck. Automatically, with the sting of rain hitting, she buried her face as best she could against a wet shoulder. Reaching the truck, he swung her around to enable her to slide onto the seat just as a loud clap of thunder shook the ground again and lightning lit up the skies, turning the darkness into an almost eerie silver-edged daylight. Annie’s face came up, and her gaze widened in her face as she looked up into the face just inches from hers.
Darkness filled the eyes set in a strong face of high cheekbones, straight nose, and a squared chin as his gaze bore into hers, equally assessing of her, quietly watchful. Another streak of lightning came, and she saw the scar that arced from just above his right eyebrow downward to disappear into the hair above his ear. It was maybe pencil-width and jagged. Moving her eyes away from it in a self-conscious sweep, she caught the look in his eyes at that moment, the sardonic twist of his mouth. He dropped her onto the seat and stepped back, his hand going to the door of the truck.
“Don’t worry.” The door shut between them. She could see him step back to her car, securing the doors.
“Who is he, Annie?” The small whisper came from the back seat. “Did you see his face? How do you suppose that happened? Maybe a fight?”
“Shhhhh,” Annie responded, gathering her own composure. “It’s not the outside of someone that matters, remember? It’s none of our business, either. All we need to know about him is that he’s helping us when he doesn’t actually have to do so.”
“You’re right. I just wish we could go home.” The wistful voice faded into the back seat.
“So do I, honey… So do I.” Annie whispered the words to herself more than to anyone else. Except, she knew there was no home left to go back to…and none yet in front of them.
End of Excerpt