christie craig
christie craig christie craig
christie craig
christie craig christie craig
christie craig
christie craig
christie craig christie craig christie craig christie craig christie craig christie craig

fiction

Christie Craig's the junkyard cowboy THE JUNKYARD COWBOY
by Christie Craig
Featured in the anthology: When Things Got Hot In Texas
Release date: June 5, 2017 (available for pre-order now!)

Jennifer Peterson has been unlucky in love, but now thanks to an Internet search she's found a sure-fire formula for identifying the perfect man. Focusing on career to physical traits, she's on the hunt for not-so-well-endowed, short and hairy podiatrists or funeral directors, who've been dubbed less likely to cheat than their tall, good-looking counterparts. Yup, she's narrowing her playing field to the "safe" guys.

But nothing feels safe when a hit man runs Jennifer off the road and chases her into an old junkyard. The sexy cowboy who runs the place may be the best man to keep her alive, but he's also the type to most likely put her heart in jeopardy. Should she trust her head and keep playing it safe, or throw all logic out the window for the one guy that may be worth the risk?

Click here to read the excerpt.

available at

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christie craig's excerpt of The Junkyard Cowboy

Chapter One

Jennifer Peterson sat alone fighting the desire to bite her nails. She needed three things and she needed them now—a stiff drink, the support of her two best friends, and a man. Not just any man. A podiatrist or a funeral director. Oh, an optometrist would work as well. The bell over the door dinged.

Jennifer looked up toward the front of the restaurant, expecting it to be Bethany or Savanna. It wasn't. A big guy walked in, stopped, and stretched his neck, searching the tables for someone. A spider-web tattoo peeked out of his collar as his head moved left to right.

He didn't look like a podiatrist or optometrist. She didn't hold out hope he was a funeral director, either. Not that it mattered. He was too tall. And bald. Her guy had to have hair.

Jennifer checked her phone for the hundredth time. It was almost three.

She only had two hours to whine and receive Savanna's and Bethany's blessings on her new plan. And yes, she needed their blessing. They'd long ago pledged to not only be friends, but to be each other's support systems.

Which worked just fine for Jennifer since she'd already spent thousands of dollars attempting to fix herself.

The bell over the door rang again. It wasn't them. By eight, she needed to be in Dolly, Texas for a much-needed job interview with David Brockman. The new B&B owner wanted to completely redecorate his property.

After practically being blacklisted in Pipersville by the almighty rich piece- of- shit Larson Mitchell, her career had gone into a slump. Who knew reporting a child abuser to Child Protective Services (CPS) was bad for the interior-design business?

Well, she'd known. Or feared it might. But she didn't have a choice. It was . . . a child.

The financial slump wouldn't be so bad if not for her recent relationship-status change. Now she had to make ends meet by herself. She hated those damn ends! No, what she really hated was the by-herself part.

She drummed her fingers on the table, eyeing the door. They'd be here any second. Well, everyone except Macy, the newcomer to the group, who was out of town and due back later tonight.

The text Jennifer had sent to her Got-Your-Back-Club: 911 Juan's Place ASAP was a cry for help and a guarantee they'd show. Friends like hers—more supportive than a new pair of Spanks—helped each other. They'd been doing it for twenty years. Armed with love, wisdom, and alcohol, they'd gotten each other through divorces, the loss of parents and jobs, and even a murdered ex-husband by a Santa serial killer.

Leonardo, their much-loved half-Hispanic, half-Italian waiter, spotted her and started sashaying across the room.

On a tray, held dramatically on the very tips of his five fingers of his right hand, balanced an extra-large, problem-solving lime-infused frozen margarita. Was it too much to hope that it had her name on it? Probably, since she hadn't ordered one. Yet.

Much to her pleasure, Leonardo marched on and placed the drink in front of her.

"Whatever's got your aura that murky brown color, this is going to solve it. And it's on the house."

She pulled the straw to her lips. "I love you." She sucked, hard and fast.

Leonardo smiled. "That just tickles my fancy, and I'd like to take credit, but the drink was Juan's idea. And while I don't have eyes in the back of my head, I'm betting my silk boxers he's still standing at the bar gazing into your blue eyes, dreaming of you two naked and doing the mattress mambo."

Jennifer inhaled deeply and closed her eyes.

"You dreaming it, too?" Leonardo asked with a tease.

She opened her eyes. "No, brain freeze." Still in defrost mode, she glanced back at the bar. Yup, Juan was there. Brown bedroom eyes aimed right at her. She waved and mouthed the words, Thank you.

When the group first started coming here, Juan had the hots for Savanna. Now that Savanna was married and extra pregnant, he'd turned his attention to Jennifer.

She hadn't even considered Juan an option because until last night she'd been on the fast track to marital-two-kids-white-picket-fence bliss with Charles. She reached for the margarita again.

And sucked.

That train had derailed.

No, it hadn't just derailed. It'd had a head-on—or a genital-on—collision with another, younger, no-spanks-needed train.

Leonardo shifted closer. "I know you're engaged. However, I accidently walked in on Juan changing clothes in his office. I told him right then and there that if he'd swap sides, I'd leave Pablo and marry him."

"Don't even say that! You wouldn't leave Pablo. And if you did, I'd kick your ass. I like Pablo." Brain now completely unfrosted, she asked, "What does Pablo do for a living?"

"Works for an optometrist."

"Definitely a keeper!" It validated everything she'd learned last night.

Leonardo inched closer. "I know Pablo's special, but what Juan's hiding in his jeans is special, too."

And that seals the deal. Juan was completely out of the running. Not that he had ever really been in the running. His mixed-drink talent hinted he'd done a stint as a bartender. Which was worse than a roofer. And he was too tall, too rich.

"Why couldn't he have been a middle-class, short, and . . ."

"Say what?" Leonardo asked.

"Nothing," Jennifer moaned as Leonardo was summoned to another table.

The bell over the door rang, and Bethany stormed in. No one stormed quite like Bethany. A skill she'd acquired after years of facing jurors a dozen at a time.

Bethany hadn't gotten to the table when the bell dinged again. Savannah hot-footed it in, moving as fast as a nine-months-pregnant woman could hot-foot it. Her wonky movements reminded Jennifer of the catch phrase of an old toy commercial—Weebles wobble but they don't fall down.

Jennifer hated admitting it. She was envious of that wobble. She wanted that. Savanna was living Jennifer's dream life. Albeit, Mark, Savanna's homicide-detective husband, didn't quite meet up to Jennifer's new qualifications. But he had damn well better prove the statistics wrong.

Savanna sent her a quick wave and headed to the bathroom.

Bethany, her red hair swinging around her shoulders, stopped abruptly at the table. "What did he do this time? I swear to everything holy and my Christian Louboutin Bianca platform pumps, that I'm going to get that bastard."

What? How did…? "How do you know?"

Bethany stared at her as if Jennifer's right ear had suddenly sprouted a penis. "If you threw away evidence this time, I'm going to--"

"Oh. No," Jennifer said, "this isn't about Mitchell, the child abuser."

Right then Jennifer saw Savanna swing back around and hurry to the table. Jennifer peered up at Bethany and pressed her fingers to her lips.

Savanna wobbled to a stop. "What bastard? What evidence? And did you mean the red shoes? Answer fast because I've got a nine-pound baby drop-kicking my bladder."

Savanna might not be able to walk or go five minutes without a bathroom, but obviously pregnancy hadn't affected her hearing. She plopped down into a chair, rubbing her extended belly. "Spill it."

"No bastard," Jennifer said.

"No evidence?" Bethany added. "And yes, the red shoes."

Savanna's suspicious gaze shifted between Bethany and Jennifer.

A low, gruff growl seeped out of Savanna's lips, and her blue eyes brightened to a dangerous pregnant hue.

There is no fooling Savanna. "Bethany is overreacting," Jennifer said.

"I'm not overreacting." Bethany dropped into a chair.

Savanna crossed her arms and rested them on top of her watermelon-sized baby bump. "What are you not overreacting about? Talk, or I'm gonna pee my pants right here, right now. And I swear, I'll make it look like one of you did it."

"It's the Mitchell case," Bethany said. "Now go pee."

Savanna let go of a little gasp. The kind that came from her heart and was so emotion-loaded it hurt to hear it. "I almost forgot. That's next week."

Jennifer put her hand on Savanna's shoulder. This was exactly why they kept the whole case hush-hush. A nine-months pregnant woman should never have to hear anything about child abuse. Well, no one should. But especially a pregnant woman who cried for a week after seeing a Hallmark commercial.

Savanna, brow creased with worry, looked at Bethany. "I thought you said the case was a slam dunk?"

"It is. But he's got some dumb-ass, depraved four-hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyer from Dallas who needs a new car and decided to try to fight it."

"How could anyone defend him?" Tears filled Savanna's eyes, and she caressed her belly as if to protect the child from the evils of the world. "What about the x-rays that proved past abuse and what Jennifer witnessed?"

Bethany leaned in. "I don't think he's going to get away with it. But kids break bones. And . . . Jennifer didn't actually witness it. She heard it."

Jennifer's spine tightened. Isn't that bad enough? That little girl's scream still haunted her. "He's not going to win." And God help her, but she prayed she was right.

Savanna looked at her. "I'm so sorry you have to do this, but you are that girl's hero."

Jennifer swallowed. She hadn't intended to be a hero. Mitchell's live-in girlfriend, Susie Burton, had let Jennifer into the house to measure for the window treatments. Then Susie slipped out to pick up the swatches of material she'd left at a neighbor's. A nanny was supposed to be caring for the little girl upstairs.

Jennifer heard when Mr. Mitchell had arrived home. She'd never met the man, so she'd stayed in the couple's library, waiting for Susie to return and introduce them. Apparently, the man went straight into the office and had found Susie's three-year-old little girl there.

As terrible as the scream was, Jennifer tried telling herself nothing bad had happened. But the next day when she saw the little girl wearing a cast, and a haunted look in her eyes, Jennifer knew that to ignore it made her just as bad as the monster who'd done it.

Savanna put her hand on her swollen belly. "When I hear stuff like this I worry about the kind of world I'm bringing my baby into."

"Your baby isn't ever going to be anywhere close to scum like Mitchell," Bethany said. "She'll be smothered in love by me, you, Mark and Aunt Jennifer and Macy and Jake."

"She's right," Jennifer said.

Savanna gave her belly another pat. "Wait. What did you mean by evidence?" That worry crease reappeared.

"That's where overreacting comes in," Jennifer said. "Two weeks ago, I went to the mall, and when I came out someone's receipt was stuck behind my wipers. Someone had written on it, Do and Die. I'm positive it was some kid playing pranks. It didn't have my name or say anything about testifying. And I was in Atalla. I think I'd have known if someone had followed me all the way across town.

Savanna's frown deepened. "Did you turn it over to the police? They can check the handwriting. Mark just had something analyzed for another case."

"Yeah they could." Bethany cut Jennifer a told-you-so look. "She threw it away."

"Why?" Savanna's mouth dropped open in disappointment.

"It didn't dawn on me until the next day that it could have been about the case. And considering I haven't gotten another threat or anything, it seems even less likely."

Savanna leaned back. "Unlikely, but still scary as hell. If that guy can hurt a three-year-old, he wouldn't have any qualms—"

"I'm fine. Mark even said it sounded more like a coincidence. He has a black-and-white drive by my place two or three times a night. Nothing has happened."

"Mark?" Savanna's brows puckered. "My husband Mark?"

Now she'd really stuck her foot in it. "I made him promise not to tell you."

"Doesn't matter. He should've told me. You two both should've told me. We don't keep secrets."

"We do when you're nine months pregnant." Bethany used her jury-calming voice. "Don't take this personally, but pregnancy has made you an emotional wreck."

Savana didn't look calm, so Bethany went in for a quick save. "I hear it's normal. Once you pop that kid out your vajayjay, you'll go back to being you." Bethany put her hand on Savanna's belly, but just as quickly pulled it away and eyeballed Jennifer. "Wait. If this isn't about Mitchell, what's this about?"

She hesitated then tossed it out real fast like ripping a Band-Aid off. "Charles broke up with me."

Savanna gasped.

Bethany . . . smiled. "About damn time! Let's celebrate."

It was no secret they weren't Charles' fans, but that stung.

"Stop!" Savanna said to Bethany then looked at Jennifer. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. And I've got a new plan. I stayed up most of last night researching it."

"Is the plan to neuter the bastard?" Bethany asked. "I'm in."

"No. The plan to find a man who's husband material. I'm turning thirty-one next month. I'm running out of time. I can't play the odds anymore. I'm taking the safe route." She pulled her drink closer and took another hard, long pull of her margarita.

* * *

Clay Connors took off the cowboy hat that had belonged to his grandfather and wiped the sweat off his forehead. Then, slapping it back on his head, he plugged the two extension cords together and let go of a hoot when he saw the sign with the words "A Piece at a Time Junkyard" light up. A sense of accomplishment, one of the first he'd felt in a long damn time, surged into his chest.

Footsteps sounded behind him. "Well, I'll be a son of a gun. I didn't think you'd do it. Your grandpa piddled with that sign for years and never got it working. He's in heaven looking down on you with pride."

Clay looked at bowlegged Pete Tippins walking up with his dog, Devil, a half coonhound and half something hairy, ugly and scary looking, but who was about as fierce as a stuffed animal. "Heaven?"

"Don't believe everything your dad told you. There's more to the story."

Maybe some day Clay would want to hear it, but this wasn't the time.

Three years before, when he'd been notified that his estranged grandfather had died and left him a junkyard and a run-down ranch worth less than the unpaid property taxes, he hadn't known it came with an old cowpoke.

Hell, Clay had never dreamed he'd even set foot on the property. And it wasn't all because of his dad's constant jabbering about how his grandpa wasn't worth a shit. It wasn't because Clay didn't know the ins and outs of ranch life either. He'd helped his dad run their ranch until he went away to college. It was because Clay had already forged his own path in life.

He'd been a young Houston homicide detective, next in line to be sergeant, married to a woman whose only goals in life were to be the perfect wife and sell enough makeup to get a pink Cadillac. And damn it if she hadn't accomplished it. One of them at least.

After supporting her seven-year makeup-queen climb, he'd hit his own career rough patch—well, more like quicksand—and he'd learned that the support didn't go both ways.

What was it Sheri had said? "You're broken, and I don't have the patience or time to fix you." Of course, she didn't. She had makeup to sell.

It'd hurt, but he'd loved her and tried seeing it as a much-needed kick in the ass. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps—or tried to—and went back to work. Before he got his first paycheck, he'd been served divorce papers. That added another layer of hurt.

After almost a year of living footloose and fancy-free, he still wasn't happy. Then, going through the boxes he'd never opened, he discovered reports Pete had been sending bi-annually that his wife must've filed away without showing him. He'd even been sending checks. Barely enough to pay for his gas here, but Clay saw it as a sign. A way to start over.

Hell, he'd practically forgotten he owned this place. When first notified of his inheritance by a lawyer and then by Pete, he'd told them to stick a for-sale sign up and sell off most of the stock to pay the back taxes. He kept Pete on the same salary his granddad had given him, and if any extra profits rolled in, they were used to repair the house in hopes of selling it. If not enough profits rolled in, the state could take the property back.

Pete had done exactly what Clay had suggested. He'd arrived to find an old, but not-falling-down farmhouse, a herd of eight cattle, and two old horses. The junkyard was the only thing Pete hadn't kept up and running. But since the ranch barely made enough to support Pete, Clay decided to get the junkyard going again.

And for the first time in two years, Clay felt good about his life.

"I hear from a little birdy you got a job in a fancy detective agency in Atalla."

"What little birdy?" Having lived in Houston for the last nine years, he'd forgotten about small-town gossip.

"Don't matter none. What I wants to know is how you gonna run a ranch, and a junkyard, while you're out playing Magnum PI? I thought your cop days were over."

"Stop worrying Pete." But Clay was worried, too. Not about juggling the jobs, but about making enough for him and Pete to both live on. He had a cushion. A ten-thousand-dollar one. But that could disappear quickly. Especially when taxes were due in a few months.

"It's part-time, sort of as needed, and the agency pays well enough that I can pay someone to sit on their ass here while you run the ranch. Plus more detective work is done sitting in front of a computer than out on the road anyway." He'd proven to be decent at it, too.

"You into the internet stuff?"

"Enough to catch a few criminals." When he'd gone back to work, he'd transferred from homicide to the cyber division. There, he was less likely to screw up. Less likely to kill another fifteen-year-old kid.

Pete rubbed his chin. "I heard there's a lot of porn on there."

Clay shot the old man a frown. "I promise I won't be looking at the porn."

"Party pooper." Pete leaned back on his boots. "That reminds me, the DAR gals are bringing dinner tonight."

Clay studied his sign to make sure it was still flashing. It was. "Who the hell are the DAR girls? And why does porn remind you of them?"

"Uh, it didn't. Not really. I mean, they're women. And DAR means the Daughters of the American Revolution."

"Why are they bringing us dinner?"

A chicken-shit grin spread across Pete's lips. "They're coming to size up the newest bachelor in town. There's a lot of single gals here looking for a husband."

"Just tell them no thank you."

"Whoa," Pete said. "Slow down, Buster. You ain't telling them nothin' until you tries their pies. Hell, I'd marry one of them if they'd have me. Well, anyone but Old Lady Johnson. That lady's meaner than a snake"

"It's still a no. I don't want any mother hens pecking around me looking for a son-in-law."

"Some of their daughters aren't that ugly."

"The answer is still no! Besides, I'm meeting someone for a drink at Bo's Bar tonight."

"Huh, what's her name?"

"It's a he. An old friend I went to the police academy with." Frankly, Clay'd had enough women, willing and accommodating women, this last year in an effort to forget his wife. Then about three months back he'd suddenly realized he wasn't even enjoying sex anymore. Well, he'd enjoyed it, but afterwards the regret was more than the pleasure. And frankly, he was tired of regretting things.

Right now, all he wanted to focus on was making Dolly, Texas his home.

 

Chapter Two

 

When Savanna came back from peeing, Leonardo had delivered Bethany a margarita and Savanna a Shirley Temple. Jennifer filled them in about Charles' younger model. Then she explained her plan.

"It's been available all along. I don't know why women haven't picked up on it. There are statistics of divorce rates in almost all careers. I mean we all know someone like movie stars marry and divorce willy-nilly, but who would have guessed that a bartender, or a roofer, would have such a high divorce rate. We should be looking for funeral directors, or podiatrists, or clergymen. And then there's other data, too. You don't want one who is rich or tall or bald. Or who came from a broken home. They tend to follow in their parents' footsteps. Oh, and . . . he needs to have . . . a small male part."

Bethany had just downed her first sip of margarita and spewed it all over the table. Jennifer handed her napkins to wipe off the drool.

"What part?" Bethany asked behind the napkin.

"You know…"

"Penis?" Bethany asked. "You can say it. It's the official name."

Savanna chased her cherry around her glass with her straw. "You're joking, right?"

Jennifer frowned. "I've never been more serious in my life. A woman can almost guarantee a good man by checking off all the right boxes. Isn't it time we grew up and stopped measuring a guy by how big of a diamond he can buy, or the size of his joystick? This is about finding someone to share your life with. To have a family with."

"Wait." Bethany said. "Are you saying you're looking for a short, hairy, poor, small-penised funeral director?"

"Joystick?" Savanna snickered. "But hey, I have to tell you, Mark's the best husband in the world, and the only category of yours he fits into is that he isn't bald. Believe me, his joystick isn't lacking."

Jennifer exhaled. "I'm not implying he's going to divorce you. I'm saying I'm tired of playing the normal odds. I'm saying there's more to life than what's in a guy's pants. And I didn't say poor. He needs to be middle class. And he can be an agricultural engineer, or an optometrist. I think anyone in a career with less than a ten percent divorce rate is fairly safe. Maybe even twelve. But how do I go about meeting one of those men?"

"That's easy," Bethany said.

Jennifer internally sighed. She'd known her friends would understand. "How?"

"You pretend someone you loved died, go to all the local funeral homes getting quotes. If he isn't short, you…" she reached over and ruffled Jennifer's hair, "check to see if his hair is real, then sneak into his office and take a peek at his checkbook. If all's good, offer him a fracking blow job!" She held up both arms as if she was about to say amen at church service. "Are you freaking nuts?"

"No, what I am is almost thirty-one. I want two kids. My clock's ticking. I'm done playing the field. I need a sure thing." Jennifer felt that knot rise in her throat again.

Bethany continued to stare. "Answer me this..."

"No. Do not interrogate me," Jennifer snapped.

"I'm just asking. Are you even upset that Charles cheated on you?"

"Of course, I am. I wouldn't be searching for a replacement if he hadn't."

Savanna again poked at her Shirley Temple with her straw and locked gazes with Bethany. "Oh, this is bad."

"What's bad?" Jennifer asked.

Bethany continued to look at Savanna. "Didn't I tell you I suspected this?"

"Suspected what?" Jennifer leaned in.

Bethany's lawyer gaze shot to Jennifer. "You never even loved Charles. You've been settling all this time so you could create your warped vision of happily-ever-after."

"There is nothing warped about happily-ever-after. And I . . . I did love Charles. I just stopped loving him when he told me he'd been screwing someone ten years younger than me." She noticed then that she still had his ring on and tried to take it off. It caught on her knuckle, and she stopped. Charles had sworn he would take it back to have it upsized. He'd never done it.

"That's not how it works!" Bethany said. "If you love something, you get hurt. You get mad. Your heart breaks. You don't immediately start looking for someone safer with a small penis!"

"It's the penis that's disturbing you, isn't it?" Jennifer snapped.

"Duh! But that's not the point." Bethany shook her head. "Don't you remember what you felt when Todd called off your wedding?"

"Todd was four years ago."

"Doesn't matter. You cried for a month. You tried to get him back. Then we hid a dead fish in his spare tire and hired a male prostitute to knock on his door when he had a girl over. That's normal. This. Is. Not. Normal."

Jennifer felt assaulted. "Why do you have to do this?"

"Do what?" Bethany asked.

"Use logic. I don't need that!" She swatted off a few tears from her cheeks.

"So, you admit it," Bethany said. "You never loved Charles."

Jennifer held up her hand. They didn't understand. No one understood. They hadn't had the perfect family and lost it.

"I did." The lie crawled up her throat. "Okay, so maybe it wasn't love, yet. I cared . . . and it was growing. I respected him enough that I wanted a family with him. I didn't care if it wasn't the traditional ooey-gooey romance. I wanted a partner in life, and it could have been him! That's more important than . . . than romantic love."

Bethany frowned. "We're your partners."

"That's not enough. I love you both so much. But I need this. And I need your support."

* * *

"I thought I told you not to call me!"

Bundy tightened his hold on the phone. He really hated this employer. Frankly, he hated a lot of his employers because the majority were rich snobs. He'd learned long ago that money didn't make someone smart.

Not that his poor clients were any smarter. If they were, they'd be taking care of their own businesses instead of paying him to do it. So, in a way, he was grateful for stupid people.

But this guy raked over his nerves like glass. It was the child abuse thing. Mitchell was like Bundy's father. He picked on people smaller than he was. But Mitchell was rich, and Bundy was accustomed to living in a certain lifestyle.

"I wouldn't be calling you, but I'm leaving in five minutes, and you still haven't told me what you want."

He heard the man breathing hard, as if making a decision was some kind of workout.

"If you can't convince her to back off, just do it."

"Got it." Bundy started to hang up.

"Ted?" the man's voice rang out.

"Yeah?"

"Swear to me this isn't going to come back on me."

"I don't mess up," Bundy said. He'd found the perfect location—no cell service—there wasn't even a house or business open for several miles. No witnesses.

"Then why were you in prison?"

"Don't worry. I learn from my mistakes." He'd been solving people's problems for the majority of his adult life. Even in prison, he'd done a few jobs for other inmates who hadn't had the balls to do it for themselves.

What else was a guy with a name like "Ted Bundy" supposed to do? He blamed that on his old man, too. Not that he'd named him after the serial killer. The famous Bundy hadn't been arrested until 1974. Ted had been born in 1972. But his dad had given him his name. As if having a son made him happy.

His dad hadn't given a shit about him. His dad could rest in hell. The fact that Ted had sent him there still felt good.

Ted hung up and walked out of the hotel. It was almost dark. He preferred working in the dark. But when he got into the car, he sensed something was wrong. The car felt uneven. He got out, and when he saw the flat tire he let out a string of curses.

Damn it. He was going to be late.

* * *

Jennifer left in plenty of time to go home, get her portfolio, change her clothes, and have a little extra time to find the B&B. David Brockman had warned her a GPS wouldn't pick it up, but he gave detailed directions. Unfortunately, this was her fourth time down FM 2020, and she only had five minutes or she'd be late. Where the hell was Cattail Road?

Her mistake. She should've made the appointment in the daytime, so she'd have been sure to find it. Then again, David had assured her it wasn't that hard to find.

Maybe in the daylight, but it was pitch dark now. It felt isolated, but kind of pretty, too. The stars seemed extra bright. She pulled over to text Mr. Brockman, but found she had no service. Crap.

When she passed the "A Piece at a Time Junkyard" sign for the third time, she decided if she still didn't find Cattail Road, she'd stop on the way back and ask for directions.

She drove back another mile, slowly, looking for the road. Still missing it, she turned around, hoping whoever ran the junkyard could help her.

A car suddenly pulled up behind her. At least she didn't feel so isolated just then. No sooner did she think that and the car started tailgating her.

Okay. Not nice.

She sped up. The car, practically kissing her bumper, sped up too. And then it did it. It bumped her car. A hard bump. And nothing felt accidental about it. Her thoughts ran to Savanna's words. If that guy can hurt a three-year-old, he wouldn't have any qualms—"

Heart instantly racing, blood rushing, lungs shrinking, she put the pedal to the metal.

The car's high beams raced after her. It rammed her. Again. And again.

Her car skidded off the road into a ditch. She tried driving out, but the wheels spun. Shit! Shit! Shit!

The car passed her, but then turned back around. The headlights went bright and almost blinded her.

She grabbed her phone, only to remember the dead zone.

Shit!

She glanced around and saw some lights behind her to the right. The junkyard. The sign was no longer flashing, but there were still lights on in a building behind the gate. Please God, let someone be there. Please God, let the gate be open.

Please God, don't let me die.

She bolted out of her car and took off.

She heard a car door slam. She heard footsteps racing behind her. Heavy, mean footsteps thudding against the hard ground. Footsteps getting closer.

And closer.

She ran hard. Fast. Didn't breathe. She ran like her life depended on it.

Because she was pretty damn certain it did.

* * *

Clay, standing under the spray of water, had just sudsed up his hair when he heard it. Crack. Pop. Squeal. Sounded like his front door slamming open, followed by a squeal from a dying squirrel. A feminine dying squirrel.

"Help me!" The two words came out half-screamed, half-breathless.

What the hell?

He bolted out of the shower, went to grab a towel, only to realize he'd left the towel and clean clothes he'd brought from the house in the bag beside his desk.

He tore out for the tiny bedroom, reached for his dirty jeans on the twin bed, but another scream, more desperate than the first echoed from the front office. Then a loud slam, bam, crash followed that sounded like someone had just broken down the door. Never mind that he hadn't locked it.

The screamer must have.

Someone must be after her.

He snatched his gun, also on the lumpy mattress, and took off bare-assed and baffled.

As he cut into the hall, he heard another scream and a clunk as if someone was being slammed against a wall.

And yup, that was exactly what was happening. And that someone was a dark-haired woman small enough to be described as petite, and the man slamming her was a big guy who needed to be taught a lesson. Clay's gut knotted.

"Stop right there!" Clay held out his gun.

Big and bald guy swung around, and when he did he pulled out a weapon. A .45 if Clay saw it right.

The minuscule increment of time stopped. Guns drawn, they stood there measuring each other. The guy's size, a good three-hundred pounder, gave Clay a start. No doubt Clay's nakedness did the same for the man.

"Drop it!" Clay spoke in his official-sounding police tone. His finger on the trigger tightened, but goddamn it, he didn't know if he could pull it. The last time he had, he'd killed a kid.

Not an innocent kid, but a kid nevertheless.

Unfortunately, the big guy didn't seem to have a problem. He lifted his gun. Clay dove behind the desk, and when he hit the floor, his weapon slipped from his grip and skidded across the room. The man fired his gun, and the bullet found a home in the wall.

The woman screamed.

Shit!

"What's your problem?" Clay yelled to keep this asswipe's attention on him and not the woman. He rolled to the edge of the desk and peered out cautiously. Big dude was focused on the other side the desk. The woman saw Clay, then he and she both saw the big guy aim his gun toward the desk.

"You're my problem," the guy spit out.

"No!" The brunette screamed and bolted forward and jumped onto the man's back. Her legs barely wrapped around his middle. She latched one arm around his neck, and with her free hand scratched at the man's face.

It wasn't the best move, but it was the distraction Clay needed. He shot up and grabbed the guy's wrist, pointing the gun away.

"Run," he screamed at the woman still piggy-backing the guy.

But like most women Clay knew, she didn't listen. If anything, she hung on tighter.

The asswipe, unable to see due to her hand and nails in his face, reached back with his free hand, grabbed her by her hair and flung her across the room. She flew like a rag doll and crashed against the wall. Clay saw her land, limp and possibly unconscious. Furious at himself for not shooting the bastard earlier, a wave of rage washed over him.

He always fought better when mad.

Still holding the guy's wrist, forcibly pointing the gun away from him, and now the girl, Clay kneed him in the balls. The bastard dropped the gun and cupped his privates. Clay gave the guy his best right hook.

His best wasn't enough. The bastard stumbled backwards, but didn't fall. Clay's knuckles throbbed, but then he saw the guy's gaze shift to the gun. Clay dove for the weapon, got it, rolled over and aimed it. But the attacker's back was to him as he ran out.

Gun tight in his hand, Clay bolted to his feet and raced to the door. He saw the guy sprint through the gate. A car sat right on the other side. Another one was in the ditch.

As angry as Clay was, he couldn't shoot the guy in the back.

Holding the gun tight, in case the perp returned, he ran across the room to the woman. "Hey, you okay?"

She moved, attempted to sit up, but looked dizzy, disoriented, innocent. And beautiful.

"It's okay." He knelt down beside her, his gaze flipping from her to the door. He heard a car start up and tires squealing. "It's okay. He's gone."

Her head dropped forward and blood, lots of blood, came pouring down her forehead.

"Shit," Clay muttered.

Almost right beside her was the bag he'd brought from the house. He pulled out a towel and went to press it to her head.

She pushed it away. Her round blue eyes blinked. "You're . . . naked."

"And you're bleeding. I'm going to look at your head." He kept his voice calm, in spite of the fury roiling inside his gut. Fury at the bastard who'd hurt her. Fury at himself for not stopping it sooner. "Lean forward, okay?"

She nodded, but didn't do it. He wasn't sure if it was panic or the blow to the head. Either one wasn't good.

He gently guided her head down and carefully parted her hair until he found the wound. The gouge was deep and wide and gushing. At the least, she needed stitches.

"It's just a scratch," he lied and pressed the towel to the cut. "Are you hurting anywhere else? Anything broken?"

"I don't think so." She didn't sound certain.

"Who was that man?" Because no one was screaming or blaming each other for things, he didn't think this was a domestic situation. This felt a lot more sinister.

"Don't know, but…" She blinked. Blood flowed down her forehead.

"But what?" he asked, giving the door another check.

She shifted as if to get up. He stopped her and pressed the towel to her head. "No. Don't move just yet. Okay? Look at me."

This time she did as he said. "I'm testifying. I think…" A weak, scared little noise slipped off her lips. "He was going to shoot you. And me." Tears filled her round, scared eyes.

"He didn't." Clay eyed the door and then put the towel in her hand. "Hold this to your head. Tight." He moved her hand to her head. She held it there.

"You're naked," she repeated.

"I know." He stood up. She looked away. "I'll get dressed as soon as I call the police." First, he moved to the door, which he noticed was half hanging off the wall. He peered out just to be sure the guy was really gone.

"Is that your car in the ditch with its lights on?" He glanced back.

She was staring at him, or his ass. "He hit my car and ran me into the ditch."

She looked so small, so damn vulnerable and bloody, that he got pissed at himself all over again for not shooting that bastard the second he saw him pinning the woman to the wall.

 

"Dead zone." Her voice shook. He heard her teeth chattering. Panic had set in. "My…cell wouldn't work."

"I have a landline."

Her gaze shifted to the door. "He isn't coming back, is he?" Tears filled her large blue eyes again. A couple slipped down her cheeks.

"No. He's gone." Clay moved to the desk and called 911. He stated he needed an ambulance and the police, gave his name, address, mentioned the junkyard, and said there'd been shots fired. They told him to stay on the line. He didn't.

Hanging up, he found the paper he'd written Jake Baldwin's number on and dialed it. One glance back at the woman trying not to look at him, and he set the gun down, grabbed the cowboy hat on his desk, and held it over his privates.

He was supposed to meet Jake at Bo's Bar, only a few miles away, in ten minutes. That meant Jake should be on his way to this area. Jake didn't cover Dolly, Texas, but chances were he knew who did.

It never hurt to have someone on your side. Even if you were on the right side of the law.

"Baldwin," Jake answered the line.

"It's me, Clay. Look, I . . . got a problem." Cowboy hat still in place, his gaze found that problem again, she was visibly shaking and staring at his hat. "Some guy chased a woman into my office at the junkyard. He appeared to be . . . a professional, if you know what I mean."

"Professional? You mean, hit man?" Jake asked, doubtful.

"Yeah."

"Shit. Is she okay?"

"Nothing too serious. I called 911. The police and ambulance should be here shortly. Considering I'm new in town and have a weapon, any way you could come by here?"

"Hell, yeah. It's the one located off Jack Rabbit Road, right?"

"Yeah."

"I'm less than five minutes out."

Clay hung up. He looked back at the woman. She'd dropped the towel, blood flowed down her face, and she hugged herself as if freezing. Hurrying, he set his hat on the desk, found the bag, pulled on his jeans without underwear and grabbed his gun. She watched him the whole time. Then he dropped down beside her.

"It's okay." He wrapped his arm behind her, snatched up the towel and held it to her wound. His other hand kept a tight grip on his gun. Every few seconds, he'd glance back at the door.

"I'm cold." Her voice shook.

She leaned against him. The second that soft weight pressed to his bare side, he felt something turn inside him. It had been a hell of long time since anyone had leaned against him, since he'd taken care of anyone besides himself.

Her dark hair, like threads of silk, feathered across his bare chest. She felt so small, so vulnerable, so feminine, that he felt . . . more like the man he used to be before his wife had emotionally neutered him.

And while there was nothing exactly sexual about what he felt, he found himself looking at her left hand to see if she was taken.

The engagement ring, and not a small one, had him both disappointed and . . . relieved. As nice as it was to feel like someone's protector, to feel more like his pre-divorced self, he knew he hadn't completely stopped protecting himself.

"What's your name?" When he glanced at her face, she had her eyes closed.

She didn't answer. He recalled someone saying a person with a concussion shouldn't go to sleep.

"Come on, stay awake, okay? Tell me your name. Tell me something about you."

 

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