“It’s so dark outside. Why won’t the rain stop? What if the lightning hits the car?” The small voice was brittle with fear, even though the speaker was trying desperately to not show how afraid she was of the predicament they had landed in.
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 the ground literally shook underneath them. Rain poured from the skies in buckets and had done so for the last few 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.”
“I’m Jamie, remember? And you said it would play itself out hours ago.”
“Sorry,” 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 coupled 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 Hill Country region of Texas. Not to mention the fact 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 have the ability to lay her head down on a soft pillow and shut her eyes in blissful peace. Perhaps then, she might wake and find the last few weeks were all a terrible dream and all would be well with the world once again. A long sigh escaped her. It was useless to wish for such things that could never be.
“I thought this road would be a shortcut and we could save some time. The storm will pass and we'll be on our way again soon.” 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. She needed to try to stay positive for Jamie's sake.
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 a more apt description. That thought was quickly replaced by another reality. They probably faced a tow truck bill and another car repair. The car she had purchased for them in California was on its last leg. Their cash was almost depleted. 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, where hopefully she could find a job and settle them into a cheap place to live. Maybe then, they could finally find some peace again. Beyond that, she didn’t dare to think. It was enough they were able to get this far without detection. Annie was just so tired of being constantly worried, looking over their shoulders for strangers who might be her stepfather’s henchmen sent to bring them back to Nevada. That was something that must not happen. At all costs, she had to protect Jamie. Annie had promised their mother she would keep her sister safe…just before she was killed by their stepfather.
* * *
Wade Lomax uttered another curse word as he used his jacket sleeve to wipe the moisture gathering inside the windshield and, coupled with the onslaught of rain pelting the glass, was making it hard to progress more than five miles per hour in the dark. Even in the enormous ranch truck, which was raised higher than most regular vehicles off the roadway, the water 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 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 on the radio, 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.
Immediately, another string of colorful words 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. Wade 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. Wade took a couple of calming breaths, but they didn’t work too well in light of the anger suddenly taking root in his chest. Jamming his plastic covered Stetson onto his head; he jerked the collar of his rain slicker 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 hitting his face felt like small pellets, leaving a sting in their wake. His flashlight took in the California license plate. Figures. Texans, and locals in particular, would have more sense than to be out in such a storm, much less put themselves into such a fix that their vehicle created a road hazard to others. 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, he had to deal with whatever idiot was behind the wheel.
* * *
Annie hadn’t realized she had dozed off, her head against the steering wheel, until a sudden loud banging at the window beside her, startled her, making her jump back in her seat, eyes wide in sudden fear.
“Who is that?!” Jamie 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. Whoever the person was, he was most insistent on getting their attention.
“Just stay still,” Annie spoke, finding her voice and trying to keep it calm for Jamie’s sake. “Let me do the talking.” Jamie’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 and nothing remotely kind in it. So much for the Texas friendliness she had read about. 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 were able to get unstuck, I knew I needed to be able to have my car actually move. Sorry, we inconvenienced you. If you can tell me where to find the nearest house, I can get help.”
The word ‘we’ registered in Wade’s brain and he moved the flashlight, shining it on the speaker briefly, noting deep green eyes and lots of dark lashes in a pale face, 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. He experienced a pang of instant remorse for being so heavy handed with the pair, but it was a miserable evening all the way around.
“The nearest house happens to be Lomax Ranch. Even if you found the gate, which is another four 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 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, and it’s already way past flood stage. You’re essentially cut off.”
The news was almost 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 energy draining away much the same as her car battery had done. What was she supposed to do?
“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 her voice. She summoned every last ounce of strength she had to face the arrogant stranger.
The light from Wade’s flashlight, which he held to the side, so as not to blind the two in the car, did pick up the flare of brightness that sparked from the eyes in his direction. The woman had some spirit in her; he had to give her that. He also felt something strange flit across his senses as he watched the eyes attempt to put him in his place. No one had ever dared to come close to doing that, at least not someone who wasn’t related to him, and even then it was only his aunt who could get away with it. Wade supposed he deserved her remarks and that was an irritant also. He needed to take charge of the situation and settle it as soon as possible so they could all get on their way.
“I’m going to pull my truck closer. Then I’ll get you both transferred inside it and get you to the Lomax Ranch. This storm is going to get worse before it gets better. We need to all get out of it. Gather up the things you must have this evening, and get 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.
“There isn’t much of a choice, Jamie. 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 backseat.”
“How do you know it’s a safe place? He could be an axe murderer or something.”
Annie shook her head. Up to a few weeks ago, she would have asked her sister where she got such ideas in her head or told her she watched too many of the wrong movies on cable. Unfortunately, it wasn’t from television her sister had gathered her experience with the darker side of human nature. 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 just 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 to the door. “The water is cold and getting deeper. I’ll carry you over to the truck. Who’s first?”
Annie turned to Jamie. “Crawl over me and you go first. Be quick. It’s okay.” She reassured the girl with a smile she was far from feeling.
Jamie moved, hesitantly at first, until the man could get a hold on her and then she was lifted quickly and carried to the large truck, disappearing into the back seat, the door closing behind her.
Within a matter of moments, he had returned. Two arms reached out for her next and Annie raised her arms and slid them over a pair of broad shoulders, and around a strong column of 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 almost an eerie daylight. Annie’s face came up, and her eyes widened in her face as she looked up into the face just inches from hers.
Dark eyes set in a strong face of high cheek bones, straight nose, and a squared chin bore into hers, equally assessing of her, quietly watchful. Another streak of lightning came, and she caught her breath in her throat. A slight turn of his head and she saw the scar that arced from just above his right eyebrow downward to disappear into the hair above his ear. It was wider than most 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 chiseled mouth. He dropped her into the seat and stepped back, his hand going to the door of the truck.
“Don’t worry. I may look like a monster, but I’m not. At least not one you need to worry about.” The door shut between them. She could see him step back to her car, securing the doors.
“Who is he, Annie?” Came the small whisper from the back seat. “Did you see his face? How do you suppose that happened? Maybe a fight?”
“Shhhhh,” Annie responded. “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 backseat.
“So do I, honey.” 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 in front of them. She had no idea where home would ever be again.
Have a wonderful weekend and you can expect another excerpt from one of my soon-to-be-published books in the upcoming days!