Authors: Patricia Rice
Still holding the truck cab with one hand, the boy eased the other down to the door handle. It opened a crack and dug into the dirt.
“He's going to be mad about those computers,” the boy muttered as something inside slid around.
Nina figured the heat had affected her hearing. Motorcycle thugs didn't know the word
as far as she knew. For that matter, ninety percent of Madrid thought computers a necessary evil designed by the outside world for the single purpose of making their lives crazy. She didn't respond but pushed from a different angle. The hot metal scorched her hands.
A furious curse roared out of the interior. Nina blinked, and the boy jumped. The cab slipped back to the ground again. This time a stream of curses sailed through the open window, each one more inventive than the one before.
“Jackie!” the voice roared. “Where the fuck are you?”
Now that was one particular word Nina never used, even in her own head. She didn't think anyone should fling it around a teenager. Swiping at the perspiration pouring down her face, she yelled at the truck roof, “Trying to get you out of there, you puling fool! Where do you think he is?”
The boy's eyes widened in surprise and admiration as if she'd invented a new curse word. Nina knew the reaction. That particular word never failed to send half her class to the dictionary. The other half threw it around for weeks, sometimes months after. She'd even had one valedictorian work it into his graduation speech. The power of words never ceased to amaze her.
The silence in the truck grew so long that Nina feared he'd passed out again. But then a blunt-fingered, sun-browned hand clamped over the edge of the driver's door at the top, and she heard another onslaught of swear words, only slightly less loud than the first outburst.
She glanced at the boy. “Maybe we'd better climb up there and see if we can help him out.”
The boy nodded and scrambled back up the engine side of the pickup. Nina didn't see how both of them could fit up there, but she didn't see how a seriously injured man could pull himself out either. Cautiously, she judged the nearness of the truck bed to the door. Maybe if she lay flat against...
Another hand wrapped around the doorway edge. Before she could contemplate climbing up, a pair of powerful shoulders emerged, followed by muscular arms in a tight black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She hadn't seen anyone roll up T-shirt sleeves since the last James Dean movie. She stared as muscles bulged with the strain, and then a narrow waist and a blue-jeaned rear end settled over the side.
He looked ready to tumble backward off the truck. Nina leapt on the pickup bed and crawled up beside him while the boy looked on helplessly from the engine end. For just a second, long-lashed brown eyes stared into hers. Wide and momentarily unguarded, his gaze reflected a pain that pierced her soul. Then, with blood still running down his face, the stranger closed his eyes wearily and murmured, “Send in the clowns,” before slumping backward into her arms.
A fine way to greet a rescuing angel. Nina could tell right now she'd just rescued one of those smart-mouthed hillbillies who couldn't utter a gracious word. She just couldn't immediately think why a hillbilly would know the words to Stephen Sondheim's music. Send in the clowns, indeed.
“Jackie!” she screamed as her patient began to slide back down. But the boy had already jumped up beside her and grabbed the man's other arm.
Between Nina and Jackie, they laid him on the side of the truck. A combine stopped on the side of the road, and Nina whistled in relief as Gary Thomas slipped down the embankment toward them. She didn't think she had the strength left to drag a full-grown man up that hill. In fact, she figured she'd pass out from the heat and exertion in another thirty seconds.
The boy beside her stiffened nervously, but he simply didn't have a choice. They had to get his brother somewhere cool and sale, then have a doctor look at him.
Gary was a stocky farmer, father of two little girls in her Sunday school class. Nina nodded, gave him a hasty explanation, and let him take over. Gary seldom said much. At the moment she rather admired that particular trait.
“Lay him in the back of my car,” she ordered as they hauled the unconscious man up the hill. “I'll drive him over to the clinic.”
“We've got to get the bike first!” the boy yelled as she opened the back door. “And the computers! Dad would kill me if they got stolen.”
Dad again. Either this boy had a strange notion of what fathers thought important, or he had one mean bastard of an old man. Nina was inclined toward ignoring him, but Gary turned and answered reassuringly, “Your trunk will hold them. Go unload the computers. I'll take care of the bike later.”
Obviously Jackie trusted strangers more than his old man did. After watching fearfully while they arranged his brother partially across the backseat and into the hatchback's trunk, he dashed down the hillside and began lugging boxes up the hill.
There for a while, Nina thought the kid contemplated putting a few of the boxes on top of his unconscious brother in his efforts to pack them all in, but he finally stored the last one under his feet on the passenger side of the car. Then he looked anxiously at Gary. “You won't let anyone steal the bike?”
Gary wiped his sweating brow with his handkerchief and shook his head. “I'll haul it over to Miss Toon's while you're at the clinic. It'll be safe enough there.” He glanced at Nina. “Should I call Bob to tow the truck out?”
Nina slammed her door and turned the key in the ignition. “Not yet. The sheriff may need a look at it. I'll call him when we get back. Thanks, Gary.”
Checking the road before pulling out, Nina didn't notice the boy's silence until she had the car under way. Her heart thumped nervously at the look on his face when she finally turned in his direction. “What's wrong?”
“You can't call the sheriff,” he said adamantly.
“That van ran you off the road. The driver has to be caught before he kills someone.”
“We can't call the sheriff.” He crossed his arms over his scrawny chest and glared out the windshield. “They'll put Dad in jail.”
Behind them, the injured man groaned and began swearing again.
Remembering the ice cream, Nina sighed. This had certainly turned out to be one of those days.
JD clenched his eyes closed and groaned. Lord, he ached. He thought he'd given up drinking. He didn't have a masochistic bone in his body, and he had an aversion to pain. Drinking led to pain; ergo, he didn't drink. But he still ached.
His head felt muggy. He heard voices, but he didn't feel inclined to tune them in. If he didn't think too hard, maybe he could drift back to sleep again. He could count line numbers in the banking program. That usually worked, if he didn't get caught in a particularly sticky loop command.
The voices jogged other memories. He winced and tried forgetting, but the memory slashed a fresh gash across his brain, and the wound still bled. How could Uncle Harry do this to him? He still couldn't believe it. Maybe he didn't trust people much, but Uncle Harry? Harry had been closer than a father to him. There was something wrong with this picture, only he couldn't put his finger on it.
Finger. Fingers. On his forehead. Cool ones. Smooth and slender. JD instantly jerked back from whatever world he drifted in. The voice that spoke over his head had no resemblance whatsoever to Harry's.
“He's not feverish. The doctor said he'd come around soon. Go ahead and finish your hamburger. He'll be all right.”
JD didn't think so. He thought he might die first. Imps of hell pounded sledgehammers in his brain, and now that he'd been dragged back to consciousness, he realized his foot throbbed and ached as if he'd pulled it off and stuck it back on wrong. He couldn't remember a time when he'd hurt worse. Maybe that time when the horse threw him... Or the day he slammed the bike into a tree. But that had been a long while ago. He was too old for those stunts now. Remembering the son he hadn't known he had, he groaned. Entirely too damned old.
The cool fingers slipped away, but he sensed their owner hesitating beside him. He didn't suppose he'd see the face of an angel if he opened his eyes. His luck didn't run that way. But a she-devil might be just up his alley.
Wincing against the pain of movement, JD squinted into the dim light of the room. The slender figure outlined against the glare through the window blinds reminded him of someone, or something, but he didn't strain his brain remembering.
“Awake?” she asked quietly, stepping farther away, almost out of his sight.
He tried nodding and realized the mistake at once. He closed his eyes again. “Jackie?”
“He's wolfing down a pound of hamburger right now. I'd say he's fine. Can I bring you something to drink? The doctor said you shouldn't eat anything just yet.”
He thought he heard a trace of amusement in a voice almost as slender as the figure he'd seen. Or could voices be slender? Thin? Tinkly? He concentrated on the words rather than the sound.
He definitely didn't want to eat anything. He didn't particularly want to sit up either, but his mouth felt like the inside of a toaster. “Beer?” he asked cautiously.
“Not likely. This is a dry county. How about Coke?”
He grimaced and regretted the effort. “Water.”
JD had managed a semi-sitting position by the time Jackie bounded in with a tall glass of ice water. The mysterious voice had evidently closed the window blinds, and he could open his eyes a little better. He still couldn't focus on Jackie without narrowing them. “You all right?” he asked gruffly. He hadn't yet acclimated himself to this tall young man who claimed him as father. He'd certainly set a hell of an example so far. Lack of paternal behavior must be another of those genetic flaws he'd inherited.
“I'm fine,” the boy acknowledged. “It's you they sent spinning off the road. The bike's dented, but the engine still starts. I don't know about the computers, though.”
The computers. Oh, shit. JD sipped the water and nearly gagged. Tap water. Or worse. But he was too thirsty to argue. He drank some more and tried to orient himself. The truck had died on a road to nowhere. He'd shifted to neutral and had started climbing out to help Jackie push. He couldn't remember any more than that. He squinted back at the boy.
“What the devil happened?”
“Some clown pulled out and rammed right into us, sent the truck flying. I've been trying to persuade Miss Toon not to call the cops.” He lowered his voice. “I used some of the cash in your wallet for the doctor and told them your name is John Smith. Was that okay?”
Oh, shit. Oh, double shit. JD gritted his teeth and leaned back against a surprisingly comfortable pillow. He wasn't in a bed. He'd gathered that much. His elbow poked against a couch back. A man could get used to a couch as soft as this one. Even his legs fit on it without coming off the other side. Which was a good thing, he decided, peering blearily at his feet. The damned arms of the couch must be a foot high. He blinked as he looked at his feet again. Instead of seeing the black square- toed boots he favored, he saw a bundle of white bandages. Oh, shit.
“What's wrong with my foot?”
“Cracked a bone when it hit the gearshift, apparently. Doctor said he couldn't do much for it but keep it wrapped so you couldn't bang it around more. You're supposed to stay off it, though.”
Shit. Horse manure. Chicken droppings and cow flop. He couldn't think of a word bad enough. He sipped the nasty water again and wished for whiskey. Maybe he should take up drinking again. It couldn't make his life any worse than it had become this last month or so.
“Where are we?” JD calculated how much cash he'd brought with him. Would they trace credit card receipts? Bank card transactions? He couldn't imagine Uncle Harry or his cohorts being that smart, but he sure as hell didn't like taking chances when the odds were against him. And then he remembered Nancy and the police. Double damn hell.
“We're just across the lakes. Miss Toon saw the accident and took you to the clinic. They don't have hospital beds or anything there, and I told them you didn't have insurance, so she brought us back here until you could wake up and decide what you want to do.”
“Good thinking.” He reassured the anxious boy while his brain whirled. Miss Toon must be the slender shadow he'd seen when he woke up. The image of spiky white-blond hair surrounding a petite face of sharp bones and huge green eyes came to him, but he couldn't place it. He and Miss Toon needed to talk. Calling the cops wasn't such a hot idea.
He could do surface charm. It was relationships he bungled. He didn't want a relationship with Miss Toon. He just needed her temporary cooperation. Maybe charm would work. “Go get Miss Toon.”
Jackie disappeared, and a moment later JD caught the fresh scent of some flowery fragrance. It made him aware of his own ripe aroma. Rubbing his eyes, he focused on the woman drifting on the edge of his vision. He wanted to yell at her to get over where he could see her, but in his experience women frequently didn't respond well to orders. They were a mysterious gender he'd avoided whenever possible. Obviously, if Jackie were any indication, he hadn't avoided them enough.