Bad Boy Rancher(7)

By: Karen Rock


Her fingers closed on the metallic rectangle just as the dark shape of a biker raced into view, barreling straight at her.

Her pulse slammed in her veins.

Was he crazy?

She entered the intersection and had the right of way. Her heart jumped to the back of her throat, clogging it, stopping her breath.

Had he just lifted his hands from the bars?

Did he want to die?

No!

She slammed on the brakes. Too late!

An explosion of metal colliding with metal boomed and then she heard the sickening thump of something softer, human, hitting her truck with maximum impact. She recognized the sound easily.

For a moment, she smelled Kandahar’s burned refuse, tasted the salty grit of its air, the blood, heard the screams, the groans, and she froze, hands over her ears, her curved body rocking.

Was she alive or dead?

There’d been times when she hadn’t known.

She felt her legs, her arms, her face. No injuries. But how? An IED should have torn the Humvee and her apart.

Only…

She struggled to remember.

This was a van, not a Humvee.

And it wasn’t a bomb, but a biker.

She straightened, scrambled out of the truck and raced to the passenger side. Her heart beat overtime, and her eyes stung.

A body lay crumpled on the ground, a man. Tall and lanky with a bruised, scraped face and a mop of dark hair. Beside him lay the twisted mass of his bike. His cracked helmet rolled a few feet away. She dropped to her knees and felt for a pulse just below his bearded jaw. A couple heartbeats later, it pressed back against her fingertips. Steady. She ripped off her jacket and covered him to stave off shock.

The stranger’s thick lashes fluttered. Yellow-green eyes gleamed at her.

“Am I dead?”

A relieved breath whooshed out of her. “No.”

He closed his eyes again.

“Crap.”





CHAPTER TWO

BRIELLE’S LOW HEELS clacked on the courthouse’s marble-tiled floor as she strode down the hall ahead of the motorcycle driver’s DUI hearing. In her pressed navy suit, her hair scraped into a tight, painful bun, she hoped her respectable, steady image belied her jittering nerves.

Where was room 8A? The hearing started in fifteen minutes and she wanted to arrive early. When the district attorney had contacted her with the date and time, she’d promised to attend. It was her civic duty after all…but deep down she sensed her eagerness stemmed from the rugged man whose tormented face had haunted her these past two weeks. His expression had reminded her of soldiers returning from battle—bleak and raw.

He could have been killed, yet he’d appeared calm and strangely disappointed when he realized he’d lived. He’d only managed to break a rib, tear a two-inch gash in his face and suffer a concussion, but that’d been nothing to him.

Did he have a death wish?

Why had he taken his hands off his handlebars?

Often, soldiers about to leave on patrol had stopped by her office on the pretext of asking for candy. They’d really sought reassurance, hope and faith that they’d return the way they left: alive. Whole. Physically and, with any luck, mentally. They valued their lives and saw each day they breathed as a reprieve until their next tour, and the one after that, the countdown to their deployment’s end feeling like borrowed time. Yet the biker seemed cavalier about this precious gift.

Safety. Many didn’t appreciate it until they’d lost it. Once gone, that faith never fully returned. You couldn’t unknow things…couldn’t unsee them…couldn’t unlive them.

Brielle sidestepped a chattering attorney and client and strolled closer to the window. Outside, fall seemed to be gradually overtaking summer. Yellow now mixed with green aspen leaves. One cluster of red covered the side of an ancient maple. A child and parent stopped beside a spruce, snipped off some needles and dropped them into a baggie.

A student project, she surmised, recalling a happy memory from her elementary school days for a change.

Was her own darkness causing her to read too much into the biker? A traumatic past twisted the present, distorting the new to match the old. She needed a fresh start, something she’d never get if she kept picking the scab over her wound.

Sleep had eluded her since the crash, and she thought of the accident often. When she’d followed the ambulance to the hospital, she’d learned his name was Justin Cade, the youngest son of a ranching family and the town hellion, per an oversharing nurse who staffed an empty waiting room. The bored woman went on to divulge Justin had had a drug-addict twin brother, Jesse, who’d been shot dead by drug dealers on a back road right here in Carbondale. The community’s only murder in over two decades.

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