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“Road Runner is on the move. Hold on to your hat, Sheriff.” The voice crackled over the radio in Gray Dalton’s SUV.
He keyed the mike. “Ditch the cartoon names. I’ve got this. Move over to the river highway and monitor the early weekend traffic.”
Gray shook his head and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. This wasn’t a joke. And it was time it came to an end. Then he realized the words hit on another sore subject of late. The time was coming to put an end to a lot of things with this offender. But first things first.
Five minutes later, the heavy black rig flashed past his location behind the dilapidated old gas station clocking at eighteen miles over the speed limit. Gray blew out a heavy breath of frustration mixed with anger and flipped on the light bar, hit the siren. Dust flew up from his tires as he left his observation spot and pulled onto the blacktopped, two-lane highway.
“Pull over, Tori. I’m in no mood today.” Gray ground out the words to no one in particular except himself. Another half mile flew by. Then a flat stretch of roadway loomed ahead. Finally, the lights on the back of the fifth wheel and horse trailer combo rig flashed on as brakes were being applied by the driver. But she still didn’t stop, only slowed. That only raised his anger another five notches.
The red lights in front of him blinked a few times with her probably watching in her side-view mirror as she teased him, laughing at her little joke. Well, she wouldn’t be laughing when he did get her stopped. Not this time.
At last, the vehicle slowed enough to move over to the shoulder of the roadway. There was a turn in to where a wide area had been cleared for the row of mailboxes all situated on the same long beam that indicated several ranches were in the area. Tori had the good sense to aim for it, where the big rig would be off the roadway and he could exit his vehicle safely, too.
Both vehicles killed their engines. Gray reached for his Stetson on the dashboard and pulled it onto his head. Next, he grabbed the ticket book out of the console beside him. He didn’t write too many tickets, leaving that job to his numerous deputies. But today was the day to teach a lesson to a certain headstrong female. He exited his vehicle and then took his time walking the distance between the two.
The window was already rolled down on the driver’s side. He noted that there were no animals in the trailer. The rig was not even a year old. It’s black, silver, and red markings were the same as the rest of the Four T ranch vehicles, except this one touted their rodeo stock producing logo emblazoned across its side panel. Gray knew the rig carried a price tag of six figures. But it also served as Tori’s business office on the road and her living quarters. The special compartment on the end had been outfitted to carry either her horse or sometimes, her prize bull, Maximus. It was chock-full of safety features and everything else her protective brothers could think of—along with his valued lawman’s input—to make certain Tori was safe in the thousands of miles she often covered on the rodeo circuit. Her dog, Gypsy, a strategic gift to her on Valentine’s Day from Gray, was her only companion on most of her trips. Her brothers were usually onboard one of the three semis or flying off to another site ahead of their arrival.
“Geez, Gray. It’s a little hot out here you know. Why did you pull me over right now? Couldn’t wait to see my smiling face?” The words came from the woman who hooked her elbow on the open window beside her and tossed a saucy nod of her head as he came to a standstill beside her door. For a moment, his intentions faltered. Those sky-blue eyes and flash of dimples always had a way to hook him. But he had practiced this moment quite a bit in his imagination and that included not letting her beauty and infectious laughter steer him away from his plan.
That was one reason he had kept his aviator sunglasses on. Just an extra layer of protection against those baby-blue eyes that made a man…made him…want to volunteer for a drowning death in their depths on any given day. Keep it business.
“You were clocked at eighteen over the posted limit. Seems we’ve had this discussion before.”
“You pulled me over to tell me how fast I was going? This could have waited until I got home, and we could have a couple of glasses of iced tea in my air-conditioned living room.”
His tone lowered and it was the one that usually caused offenders to be quiet and hope for leniency. “License and registration.”
The smile hesitated…and then faded on Tori’s face. She wasn’t finding the matter amusing any longer. “Are you serious? This joke isn’t funny anymore.”
“On that we can agree. It’s neither a joke nor is it funny. License and registration. It’s time you learned a lesson.”
Tori reached for the paperwork from the console. Gypsy’s tail was beating against the leather seat cushion of the passenger side as it had been since Gray walked up. “Sit still, Gypsy, or he might nail you for disturbing the peace or some such nonsense.” She shoved the papers at him.
He took them without a word. She watched as he began to write on the form in the tablet in his hands.
“This is a fine way to welcome me home after a month on the road.”
“Yes, it is a fine way. And one long overdue. It’s a reminder that might save your life…if you learn a lesson from it.”
“I’m a good driver, Gray. You know that. I’m five miles from the ranch. I’m not even carrying any animals with me. I sent them on ahead with one of the trucks. I just was listening to some George Strait on the radio and in a hurry to get home to see my family…and a certain friend. A friend that I thought would be glad to see me and treating me a lot nicer right now.”
Gray removed the ticket from the book and handed it over to her. She took it from his fingers, none too gently.
“Tori, I’ve warned you more than a few times about that lead foot of yours. And I am glad to see you. I want to keep on seeing you, alive and well. Last month, we lost the Beaumont twins, Matt and Jeff, along with the Hall’s girl, Sydney. All under the age of eighteen, all invincible, and all with speeding tickets in their file. I don’t intend to have you be another statistic…not in my county. Maybe this will get the point across.”
Tori’s face had sobered, and her attitude had simmered some. “I hadn’t heard about those kids. I know all of them. How terrible for their families.”
Gray felt a tug in the center of his chest. He resisted the urge to soften his stance. But it was for her own good.
“We’ve played this game one too many times. I’m tired of you blowing through my radar spots, making my deputies begin to expect this as some sort of game of yours each time you return to grace our lives for a few days. It’s a waste of their time and mine. So from now on, you can expect a ticket and if you get too many of those, then you’ll find a judge taking away that license of yours. That would put a damper on you being able to get from rodeo to rodeo. Someone else would have to do the driving.”
The anger was back and flashed out in blue fire. “Thanks for the warm welcome home. And the souvenir,” she said, fanning the piece of yellow paper before tossing it on the dashboard. “Am I free to go now, Sheriff Dalton?”
He bit back what he wanted to say. He wanted to haul her out of that truck and kiss some sense into her head or shake some into it. Maybe both. Either way would be venting his frustration on the whole relationship situation between the pair of them. That showdown was still building.
“You are free to go, Miss Tremayne. Just don’t forget to keep your speed within the posted limits from now on.”
Tori didn’t say another word. She gunned the engine to life. Then she gave him a final parting glare. The rig moved off…slowly…following all the traffic laws until he lost sight of it over the far rise in the highway.
That was one hurdle handled. Gray knew that the next one they would face would be the most difficult. His mind still needed to argue with itself a bit longer. But in the end, he knew what was going to be the outcome. He had loved Tori Tremayne for as long as he could remember. Everyone…family, friends, neighbors… They all had watched him fall hard. And he was always there in the background, supporting her and cheering her on in dreams that most people thought were a bit insane.
Why would a smart, pretty thing like Tori Tremayne want to raise the biggest, baddest bucking bulls in the country? Did she have a few screws loose? That’s what the usual conversations were among those who didn’t know her so well. She was determined to the point of almost being fanatical in her hunt for the Nationals ranking for her “babies”…to prove something to the sport she had cut her teeth on, and she wasn’t giving up.
To that end, she was on the road with their rodeo stock more weeks of the year than she was at home. And that didn’t lend itself to any romance having much of a chance. The odds were definitely not in favor of a long-term relationship. But nothing had been able to make his heart understand that fact. Until recently. Until her last brother’s wedding. Until Gray had sat down and looked at where his life was and what his future looked like and he knew he had some decisions to make for himself. And they might not involve Tori. That left him staring down an empty road…and an empty future.
End of Excerpt