Riding for Redemption
A rodeo queen who can’t walk, a lovesick cowboy, and their friendship that suddenly becomes more…
Riding horses anchors Sara Beth. It’s something she can always count on–until a near-fatal accident leaves her paralyzed from the waist down. Not only is her back broken, but her spirit is crushed as well.
When Johnny rides into her life and they become fast friends. He’s hired by Sara Beth’s family and it isn’t proper to be seen dating family of the boss. Johnny has to hide his feelings for Sara Beth or lose his chance to get the ranching knowledge his family sent him to gain.
But Johnny soon has Sara Beth convinced that she isn’t defined by her ability to walk and she’s fast losing her heart to the tall, hardworking cowboy.
The dark chocolate mare should’ve been named Satan’s Wench instead of Sugar.
Sara Beth couldn’t stop staring at the horse as it jumped and kicked for no apparent reason inside the training ring on Michael’s ranch. She leaned against the top rung of the fence surrounding the well-used stomping ground.
All of Michael’s new horses came through the ranch until they’d been broken or retrained. He only took the difficult ones – the ones no one else was willing to work with. The one good thing about Rourke Ranch was how much her sister’s boyfriend included Sara Beth in training the horses and anything else that had to do with the majestic animals.
“Sara Beth, I know you. Don’t even think about it.” Rosie, her older and extremely bossy sister, yelled from the porch. Blonde hair pulled into a half-bun, Rosie lifted her hand to shade her face from the early afternoon sun.
Shadows spilled across the sprawling rancher-style home nestled between large Aspen trees and a hulking Bull Pine.
If she weren’t so irritated, Sara Beth would admire the beautiful plains beyond the house and the grays and blues of advancing clouds in the sky.
Rolling her eyes, she waved Rosie off and turned her attention back to the near-wild animal. Since moving out to Rourke Ranch, Rosie had been nothing but high-and-mighty. She’d even taken to telling Sara Beth what she could and couldn’t wear because of how it might reflect on the Rourke family. Bossy old biddy.
And ever since they’d moved in – eighteen months after being evicted from their apartment – Sara Beth couldn’t wait to get out on her own.
At graduation, Sara Beth had grabbed her diploma and high-tailed it out of the high school gymnasium. She didn’t have girlfriends and the last thing she wanted to do was wait for Rosie to come hug her and congratulate her in front of so many people who would only talk. Let the Scott sisters provide more gossip fodder for the masses.
Living in the same house as a falling-in-love couple had a way of dividing and conquering any closeness sisters may have. All the girls did anymore was argue.
Sunlight warmed Sara Beth’s shoulders, but kept off her face and head with a dark Stetson Rosie had bought her for Christmas. Sara Beth tapped her toe. Oh, man, she’d give anything to ride the beautiful animal still fighting in front of her.
“You know, your sister’s right, Sara Beth.” Michael walked slowly up from the barn, wrapping a rope from his elbow to his open palm and back down. Black Stetson atop his equally ink-colored hair, Michael made ranching look easy. From sun up to sun down, he worked the land whether that meant managing the horses, working in the fields, or maintaining everything on his ranch.
He climbed up to join her on the railing. “I know it’s not what you want to hear. I couldn’t agree more that horse would be fun to ride.” He patted the metal railing, the ding of his glove clasp muffled under the leather. “But, it’s for your safety… psh, it’s for mine as well. But most importantly, for the horse. No one on Rourke land is allowed on Sugar. She’s not ready yet. She doesn’t let anyone on her without trying to buck and that’s not good for her.”
“Yeah.” Sara Beth bit back her requests to at least be able to try. She listened while Michael continued talking. She wanted to learn from him, even if it meant she didn’t get her way… yet. Plus, she didn’t really think Sugar would try to buck her. There was something about the horse that called to Sara Beth – like they were meant to ride together.
“Did you hear the rodeo Circuit is coming this way? Are you still going to try for Miss Wrangler Montana?” Michael tied off a knot to hold the wound rope together and looped the mass around a post to his left, all while balancing on the worn rung he stood on.
Sara Beth hunched her shoulders, unable to fight the excitement the topic hummed through her. “Yeah, I’ve been practicing all the riding maneuvers and even made Rosie pretend to interview me for the horsemanship portion.” She quirked her lips to the side, seriousness dulling her fervor. “I know I won’t fit in with the pageant chicks, but at least I’d get to be around horses and see places, you know?” She slumped, resting her chin on her arms. “Rosie doesn’t want me to do it.” Sara Beth would never admit that she pouted like an eight-year-old girl, even though she did.
Michael chuckled. “Rosie doesn’t want to keep you back from anything fun, girl. She just thinks there’s more to your riding than placing in a pageant.” He held up a hand. “I know it’s not an old-school pageant. But your sister doesn’t see it that way.” He patted her shoulder and stepped down from the rung. “I promised Rosie I’d help with the garden fencing in back. Why don’t you saddle Miss Sadie and take her for a ride. She misses you. Wait on Sugar. I promise we’ll get there soon.” He winked and sauntered away.
Miss Sadie defined boring. And safe. Ugh. Sara Beth leaned her head back and then lowered her gaze. She was sick of waiting for something exciting to happen in her life. Not dangerous exciting, but fun and thrilling exciting. Riding horses seemed to be the only outlet Sara Beth had to keep in touch with her dreams and who she really was.
She glanced up at the suddenly silent ring.
Sugar had stopped jumping and kicking, and instead watched Sara Beth with large black eyes. She turned her head and blew, the snort thrown out like a challenge.
Dang it. Sara couldn’t pass up a dare. She couldn’t. Especially one from a horse named after a baking ingredient. Turning to the right, just enough she could see if anyone approached, she waited. And waited.
Laughter drifted on the slight summer breeze from behind the barn where Rosie wanted to put the garden.
Sara Beth looked again at the feisty creature. She wouldn’t even need a saddle. The first month she’d been at the ranch, Michael had taught her to ride bareback. Because she was being retrained, Sugar had a bridle on almost all the time. According to Michael, he wanted her to get used to the feel.
One more glance over her shoulder, and Sara Beth slipped the rope from the gate over the post. The gate swung open on oiled hinges. She ducked inside the well-trodden circle.
Arms widespread, she approached Sugar, softly clucking and murmuring, “Good girl. Okay, girl. You’re okay.”
She had to ride Sugar. She had to prove to them all she could do it. She could ride the most difficult horse on the ranch. Maybe then, Michael would let her help train.
If she couldn’t have the chance to train and be more involved at the ranch she had to get into Miss Wrangler Montana. The winner toured with the rodeo – all over the state of Montana.
One thing Sara Beth wanted more than training horses was out of Colby, away from her sister’s babying, and more importantly, to be around horses as much as possible without always feeling like she needed permission.
The dark horse scuttled a few feet back, out of Sara Beth’s reach, but didn’t do anything drastic. She watched as Sara Beth approached slow and steady.
Foot by foot, Sara Beth moved closer.
Sugar didn’t retreat any further, but held her ground and only jerked slightly when Sara Beth’s fingers grazed her nose.
“Thatta girl. You’re alright. I’m good. I just want to ride you. I’m the one who brushes you every day. We got this. We can do this.” Sara Beth took control of the reins and gently led the horse to the mounting block. Climbing up, still clucking and cooing, Sara Beth lowered herself to a crouching position and rested her hand on the horse’s back, applying pressure for the horse to adapt to.
Sugar’s muscles bunched and shivered. She shook her mane, the black strands shaking with the head toss. But she didn’t balk and didn’t push Sara Beth away.
Careful to keep the touch constant, Sara Beth sidled her leg over the dip in the horses back where the saddle would rest.
They adjusted to each other. Sara Beth tried not to move too much as Sugar accepted her weight and body onto her own.
Lightly tapping Sugar’s flank with her heel, Sara Beth pushed her hips forward just enough to indicate she wanted to go. Sugar responded like they’d been riding partners for years.
A large grin broke through Sara Beth’s usual glower. She wanted so badly to be good at something, preferably this.
“Michael’s wrong about you, isn’t he? You’re just a sweet thing that doesn’t need to be broken, huh?” Sara Beth trotted Sugar out of the ring and past the barn, careful to keep the large structure between herself and her sister’s watchful eye.
Guiding the horse to the riding trail along the perimeter fencing that led to the forest line and the hills, Sara Beth leaned down and patted the tight muscles of Sugar’s neck. “Well, I won’t tell anyone. Promise.”
She relaxed her grip on the reins and as she sensed the release of the bit, Sugar claimed it in her own bite. The horse yanked her head forward and dug into her stride, lengthening her neck as she lowered her head into line with her body.
The new position pulled Sara Beth into a crouch and she tightened her legs while trying to lean back in the slope of Sugar’s back. “Whoa. Whoa! Come on, Sugar, slow down.”
But Sugar had control.
And Sara Beth was only along for the ride.
With ferocious speed, Sugar tore over the prairie path as if sensing the freedom and camouflage to be had in the forest bordering most of Clearwater County.
Sara Beth stole a glance over her shoulder, but no one had seen her leave. She’d made sure of that.
Hopefully, Sara Beth could hang on until Sugar either slipped and released control of the bridle or she tired and returned them home of her own accord.
Gripping the leather straps so tight they cut into her palms and the creases of her fingers, Sara Beth held on. She bit out between gritted teeth. “You’re really an evil horse, aren’t you?”
They reached the forest and all its black, green, and brown splendor faster than Sara Beth had been prepared for.
Sugar didn’t even slow as they galloped through the brush bordering the tree line.
Low-lying branches and needles whipped Sara Beth, clawing at her clothes. One came out of nowhere and whacked her hat off. Hunkering down behind Sugar’s head did little to stave off the clutching limbs.
A fallen log the width of the horse’s abdomen crossed their path. Sara Beth couldn’t see the forest entrance behind her and she didn’t see anything familiar around.
She’d never jumped bareback – didn’t know the territory.
She curled her toes in her boots, longing for the stability of stirrups.
That horse was going to take the log, regardless of how hard Sara Beth pulled on the reins.
The distance shortened…
Twenty yards. More branches reached for her, scraping her.
Ten yards. Sara Beth gritted her teeth.
Five yards. Okay, she closed her eyes.
In less than an instant, she felt weightless. The body of the horse left the ground and Sara Beth opened her eyes in wonder. The reins slipped from her sweaty grasp. She really was weightless as she hung suspended in the air for a split second while the horse galloped away from under her.
Reality moved into slow motion.
The log. The rocks collected beneath it like a memorial ring. Moss decorated the log and the trunks of the trees around her.
She fell. The horse had abandoned her high in the air – a good seven or eight feet.
Landing on her back on the solid trunk, Sara Beth’s breath left her chest, whooshing from her mouth. Her head hung back limply and she stared at the trees upside down.
Stupid evil wenchy horse.
Her eyes closed and she gave into the pain.
Johnny groaned at the number of trucks and men gathered together in groups at Rourke Ranch. The group watched him roar up on his street bike, losing interest when he stopped beside the large wraparound porch.
Sliding from the black leather seat, Johnny removed his half-helmet and studied each man, searching for one Michael Rourke or his grandfather the ornery Mr. Rourke who’d terrorized Johnny’s childhood.
Boots thudded on the wooden slats behind him. Spinning, Johnny passed his helmet to his other hand. Ah, the prodigal grandson. “Michael Rourke. How you doin’, man?” Johnny waved down his once wayward friend.
Michael stepped down the stairs, coming to a stop beside the bike. A slow smile reached his eyes and he held out his hand for a strong shake. “Jonathan Mayfair. Holy crap. I can’t believe it. It’s been, what? Six years since you came to Rourke land?”
“Seven.” Johnny looked around at the group and removed his sunglasses. “What’s going on? You have something happen?”
The joy slid from Michael’s face. He jerked his head. “Yeah, my girl’s sister took off on Sugar—”
“Sugar? Not the horse Uncle Tim wanted to put down? When we sold her, we thought she was going to a small-time rodeo. I had no idea you bought her.” Johnny’s jaw slackened. Who the hell would climb on that horse? The animal was half devil.
“Walk with me.” Michael waited for Johnny to fall into step with him as they headed toward the barn where the majority of the men gathered. “I bought Sugar as an outreach. We buy undesirables and retrain them. This girl’s been trying to get on Sugar for a long time now. The horses I take in… no one else can handle them. Mostly it’s a rescue mission and gives them a place to live but also a second chance at being a riding horse.” He studied Johnny as if he sought his understanding. “They have a lot of life left to give.”
“Yeah, I’d heard you were running a horse mission here. In fact, that’s why I’m here. But that can wait. What about this girl?” His reasons for returning to Rourke Ranch weren’t to be overlooked and if Michael was distracted while Johnny explained, well… he’d have a heck of a time getting Michael to agree.
Michael sighed, his shoulders drooping. “Sara Beth… she’s in love with these animals and doesn’t believe they’re bad. She took the horse this afternoon. We haven’t seen her since.”
Slowing beside the building, they faced each other. Johnny understood the worry. Sugar wasn’t a normal riding horse. She wasn’t even a normal rough rider – she surpassed even the meanest of stallions – on a cranky day. On a regular day, her docility rivaled the sleeping horses. Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe she’s out for a long ride. You and I used to do that all the time, remember? Even pulled a few overnighters.”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t worry, except Sugar returned three hours ago from that direction. Sara Beth had to have ridden her that direction to remain unseen. But we made it to the forest and got a call from the river. Someone reported seeing a rider on a horse that way down by the riverbed.” Michael pointed east toward the plains past Clearwater County. “We’ve been searching, but I had to call in more men. It’s too much ground to cover.”
Johnny didn’t hesitate. “Can I help?” He hadn’t been on a horse in a long time, but for Michael, he’d jump back in the saddle. They’d been close before they’d gone off to different colleges and ran with different crowds. Michael used to like the party scene while Johnny had enjoyed his weekends in the library.
Studying his long ago friend, Michael tilted his head. “Are you sure? I would appreciate it.” He eyed the bike before looking at Johnny again. “You can’t take that on the search, but you’re welcome to pick an animal from the stalls. Tack is hanging up. Just like always.”
Pulling off his tight leather jacket, Johnny laughed. “Like old times, huh? Hey, how’s your grandpa? I didn’t see him when I pulled in. Is he running the search?” Mr. Rourke had been crotchety as hell, but he’d always kept an out for the Mayfair kids when they’d been on the ranch. He’d appreciated respect and manners and hadn’t hesitated to make sure anyone on his ranch displayed both – in abundance.
Michael looked over Johnny’s shoulder, the skin around his eyes tightened. “He died about a year and a half ago. Stroke. It’s just me at the ranch with Rosie and her sister. You’ll meet Rosie when we’re finished. She’ll have my head, if I don’t find that sister of hers.”
“Oh man, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” Significant loss filled Johnny. How he’d missed out on that bit of information, he had no idea. Mr. Rourke had been a stalwart fixture in Clearwater County. His passing would’ve made front page news.
“Well, you know, life happens.” Michael patted Johnny’s shoulder and pointed toward the milling crowd. “I’m going to get this started. We don’t have much light left with this storm comin’.”
While evenings were longer in the summer, dark clouds had rolled in late in the afternoon and the sun had disappeared. Johnny had had to choose between sunglasses on for dirt and wind while riding or none because of visibility. He’d gone with the aviator-style but had to squint most of the drive there to see in the near-dark.
Michael climbed onto the downed tailgate of a nearby Ford pickup. He whistled, piercing the murmuring and shuffling of the men. “Thank you all for coming. The girl we’re looking for is Sara Beth. Most of you know her from town. She’s blonde and petite. She’s been gone a while. The horse came from that direction. We’ll form a line and head out that way until we hit the river. Once there, we’ll spread out and search the banks. It’d be best not to worry, but just in case anything has happened to her, I have radios that you’re to take with you. Call for help and we’ll get to you as soon as possible.” He cleared his throat, looking down at riding gloves he pulled on. “Thank you, gentlemen.”
Most of the men mounted their own rides, moving to wait where Michael had indicated.
Michael jumped down from the truck bed. “We’re going to head out. Grab a horse and follow, Johnny. I’d appreciate any extra eyes we can get.” He picked up a handheld distance radio and thrust it into Johnny’s hand. “Everyone’s on channel six. Thirty mile radius. Just holler, if you find her.” He patted Johnny’s back once more before striding for his own large gelding tied off at the porch posts just past Johnny’s motorcycle.
Inside the meticulously kept barn, Johnny scraped his fingers through his hair. He didn’t have long to groom and prepare an unfamiliar horse. He clipped the radio to his belt and headed toward the tack room.
If he found the girl, chances were Michael would add gratitude to the “long-time friends” bit and listen as Johnny explained why no one else in the state of Montana would hire him. Maybe Michael would give him a job. Gratitude traveled far in the Montana mountains. And Johnny wasn’t above exploiting it when he needed to.
Johnny saddled a sorrel mare and was ready to go in short time. He grabbed a slicker from the closet inside the tack room and an extra black Stetson hanging from a hook in the same closet.
Leading the horse from the barn, Johnny stopped beside the ring and swung himself up into the saddle. Standing in the stirrups, he adjusted his jeans and slicker. Neither would be his first choice to head out into a burgeoning storm on horseback, but given the circumstances, he’d deal with it.
Sugar watched him from inside the training ring as if she recognized him. Knew he was there and where he’d come from. And maybe even what he was hoping to accomplish.
“I know your secrets, too, old girl.” He whispered, his warning captured by the wind and whipped around with the droplets of rain just beginning to make themselves known.
She’d been a runner. Had run all over when she could escape her stall. The damn horse never stayed where she was supposed to. In fact, Johnny had no doubt that she had come from the direction they said. The problem was, she’d probably skirted the entire acreage, looking for a way out.
But the river enclosed most of Clearwater County. Sugar had arrived from the east. Because Michael and his searchers had only gone to the forest line, Johnny had to go further in. West became his destination.
He prodded the borrowed horse toward a well-traveled path along the fence. The clouds watched him, studied him, waiting for the right moment to dump their treasures down upon him.
If he didn’t find that girl, it was going to be a long night.
Rain picked up, dousing him and the horse with sheets that coated them from top to bottom and sometimes bottom to top with each new gust of wind. Johnny ducked his head, the hat doing little to keep water from his face. Hell, when rain fell upward, nothing was staying dry.
They reached the tree line and Johnny pushed the animal under the protection of the thick canopy of needles and leaves. At least the wind abated, becoming a stiff breeze, leaving the rain to fall straight down. The change in the rain from thrusting, needle-like streams to a soft, massage-like drizzle was welcome.
Shaking off his slicker, Johnny wiped his face and eyes. He wouldn’t have seen anything out on the prairie with the deluge of water obstructing his vision so completely. He’d have to count on Michael’s assertions that they hadn’t seen her and they’d reached the tree line.
He refused to climb down from his seat and abandon the last dry thing around for miles. The saddle offered warmth as well, holding the body heat radiating from the horse in its thick leather build.
Nudging the mare’s flank with his heel, Johnny watched for any sign that maybe the girl, Sara Beth, had taken the poorly developed trail his horse followed without guidance. Trees blocked out the worst of the wind while clouds covered the night sky, preventing light into the forest.
Johnny withdrew the Mag Lite flashlight from under the slicker and pointed its beam around him, into the forest and ahead up the trail. Dark shadows crept across the path.
Minutes passed. The rush of falling water cascading onto the varied forest surfaces turned into white noise. The mare pushed further forward, ears folded back.
A flash from Johnny’s right caught his eye. He trained the light under a bush with thick leaves and a ground clearance of about a foot. Reflective hat band embellishments shined innocently in the moss.
The first real sign he just might be on the right path.
He dismounted from the horse, bending and claiming the abandoned hat from the mud. Flashing the light around him and down through the trail, Johnny yelled. “Sara Beth! Sara Beth! You out here?”
He waited, the patter of rain his only reply.
If nothing else, he’d follow the path until he either saw something or the river forced him back.
Hopefully he found her. He wouldn’t wish this rain and cold on anyone.
Especially alone in the forest.
Sara Beth, where are you?
When had she rolled off the log?
Sara Beth blinked at the rivulets of water running up her face. She hung at a precarious angle – half-on and half-off the root base of the fallen tree. Rough bark scraped her soaked skin, tearing into her shoulder blades and elbows.
Night had fallen and rain had been coming down long enough to soak through her leather chaps and make the ground a muddy mess.
“Psht.” She spit at the water slipping over her lips toward her nose. Chilled, she shivered. If she didn’t get down from her position soon, she might pass out. Constant pressure in her head added an ache she couldn’t identify while it warred with the rest of her pain from the fall.
Get down, Sara Beth. Ignore the rest of it. Just get down. Figure out what to do when you’re lying flat on your back – or something! Move, girl! Getting her feet under her might be the only way to warm up. If she could walk home, she wouldn’t freeze to death. Well, it wasn’t that cold, but she’d heard stories about hypothermia. A common killer in the northern states.
At least her legs didn’t hurt.
Oh man, but her shoulders burned.
She dragged in a deep breath, stretching out her arms to reach for thick roots protruding from the ground. Hopefully they’d be solid handholds.
Her fingertips just barely grazed the curve of the closest root before she slumped back to her spot. If she could just stretch enough to… yes! She finally clutched a knobby root enough to heave herself from where she’d been lodged.
Tugging, she tightened her stomach, and her body slid to the ground with a thud.
Holding on to the root, she adjusted to the cold, hard ground.
Pain shot from her back to the rear of her neck. “Oh, crap.” She sobbed, turning her head to the side just enough to tuck under the overhang of the log. She’d take it as long as the rain wasn’t pummeling her face anymore.
She couldn’t feel her legs.
They didn’t hurt – but that wasn’t the problem. The cold and wet that had plagued her from head to toe while she’d lain on the log had disappeared at least from the waist down. She lifted her head and looked down the length of her body.
Her toes pointed in a V-shape.
Blowing water off her lips, she blinked to see through the spikes of her lashes. She had to just be cold. So cold her legs and feet had grown numb. She willed them to move, even reached down with pruning fingers and jiggled her upper thighs to help.
Sara Beth covered her mouth and nose, inhaling long and slow. Hyperventilating had become a very real possibility. Keep it together, girl. Sara Beth closed her eyes. She had to be too cold – nothing else.
It’s not like anything could be permanently wrong, right? Not for real.
Rain roared around her. There was no difference between the cold mud under her and the chill of her skin.
For a split second, she could have sworn the thunder called her name.
If she couldn’t get up and walk, how was she going to get back to the ranch? A more violent shiver struck her and her lips trembled. Hands crammed to her mouth, Sara Beth huffed air on her fingers. But it was like aiming an A/C unit on ice – little to no effect.
The hopelessness of her situation compounded the knot in her stomach. Her willfulness and obstinance in doing whatever she wanted had finally gotten her nothing but pain. Being punished for stealing a dang horse, her sister’s boyfriend’s horse didn’t seem fair. Well, okay, yeah she deserved to be punished but not that bad.
Her life hadn’t been filled with the best kind of fair.
“Stop it. Stop it.” She yelled at the rain. The downpour didn’t answer. “Why are you even worrying about the past? Get up! Figure something out!” But the cold wouldn’t listen and her pity party had grown lonely. No one was around to listen.
“Get home.” She whispered. Why hadn’t she taken that cellphone Rosie kept pushing on her to use?
“Sara Beth?” A man hollered from just up the trail. The hoarseness suggested he’d been yelling a while.
No way was that thunder.
She angled her head from under the protection of the log, blinking at the onslaught of more rain. Twisting the hem of her shirt in her hands, she held her breath to hear better.
Had she imagined it? Someone might be looking for her! “Help!” Weak, her voice only carried a few feet in front of her before drowning under the storm.
Again! Keep trying. “Help. Please… Help…” She ended on a whimper, her tears mingling with the chilly rain. Rocks dug into her back. Sobs shook her shoulders and chest. “Please, help.”
Fear became her driving force and she wrangled deep inside for strength she didn’t think she had. Reaching out to pull herself more onto the trail, she dug her fingers under pebbles and clumps of soaked moss. “Help!”
A light bobbed in and out of the dark shadows.
Sara Beth rubbed at her eyes, gritty mud scratching her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.
Yes! Someone was there with a flashlight.
Thrusting her hands behind her, she pushed or tried pushing herself to a seated position, but when she moved her back, a tight pinch sent a spasm to her waist. She bit back a cry.
Flopping back to the ground, she closed her eyes and yelled with all her might. “I’m here! Please.” The spasm spread and the pinch twisted into an overwhelming burning sensation. Shortness of breath followed the chest pain. A heart attack?
Oh, no, was she going to die?
“Sara Beth?” The light moved closer, sweeping back and forth in a steady pattern. Flashing in Sara Beth’s eyes on the down swing, the light moved on and then returned to train on her. “Hey! Sara Beth, I’m coming.”
Boot falls thudded dully through the trodden, soggy grass. He moved the light from her face and knelt beside her. Fingers probed her neck and head. “I’m going to put the light back on you – it might blind you a bit – I need to check you over, alright?”
Sara Beth closed her eyes, the light shining on her face. Her lips trembled. The light shifted to just below her chin. She opened her eyes to make sure he hadn’t left or – her luck – keeled over next to her because he’d been struck down by lightning.
“You can do this. Just a minute. I’m going to radio for some help.” The man’s silhouette lifted a radio and pushed the buttons. “Hey, Rourke Ranch. Johnny Mayfair here. I found the girl west of the ranch along the forest trails. I’ll put out a flare. We need medics in here – immediately. Looks like a bad fall. Might be spinal damage.” He lowered the handheld and moved around, rustling as he did so.
She couldn’t stop shaking. The rain’s persistent downpour sucked the energy from her and she wanted to sleep, even if it meant she had to snuggle into the sucking mud. “I’m…” Teeth chattering. “So. Cold.”
“I know. Just a second. I’m working on it.” He removed his slicker and lay beside her, shifting closer until he could drape the slicker over them both. A moment later, warmth covered her where his body touched hers. He wrapped his arms around her upper body and threw his leg over hers. “Is that better? I’m sorry we’re still in the mud, but I don’t know how bad you’re hurt.”
Sara Beth wanted to sleep. His heat felt so dang good. The rain had disappeared from her face along with the chilly breeze which had whipped around them. He’d created a tent-like atmosphere. Although the ground was slick and wet – and of course freezing – at least they didn’t have the barrage of elements attacking them from above.
He asked if something was better. But she couldn’t focus on exact words.
She shook her head, whispering from under the safety of the modest protection he’d provided. “I’m warmer on top, but I can’t feel my legs, so you might be wasting that energy.” She opened her eyes and tried making out his features in the dark. “Why do you suspect a spine injury?” She hadn’t said anything to him about her fall or anything. Was he going to claim to be one of those clairvoyants who saved kidnapped dogs and knew where the buried bodies were of young girls?
Johnny tightened his hold over her chest and abdomen. “I doubt you’d be lying in the mud during a rain storm by choice. I figure the only thing that could keep you down is injury, right? Well, nothing looks broken or badly mauled. That only leaves your spine.”
He squeezed her upper arm where his fingers clenched her. “I’m sorry you can’t feel your legs. Let’s get out of here first and then we can worry about the details, okay?” He gently pushed her head onto his arm. “I don’t know as much as I should about first aid, but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to move your neck or back.” He paused and then continued. “I’m Johnny Mayfair, by the way. Since we’re so close, I figure it can’t hurt, knowing who’s holding you.” He chuckled, the movement of his chest against her oddly comforting.
The whole situation had become surreal.
Sara Beth almost tried to pull away from him. But she couldn’t. Even if she really, really wanted to, he was too dang warm. She stared into the dark beneath his chin. “I’m Sara Beth Scott.” She fell silent and reveled in his warm touch.
“Nice to meet you, Sara Beth. What are you doing out here on a night like tonight?” Soft and velvety, his voice could pass for a late night radio host’s.
She pressed her lips together. How much did she tell him? How much would he understand? “I’m determined to…” But what was she determined to do? She couldn’t remember.
A moment passed and then another. Sara Beth drifted in and out of sleep, ignoring the pain in her back growing with each heartbeat.
She jerked awake, once, twice, and then a third time.
Johnny cupped her cheek in his hand. “Hey, shhh. It’s okay. Just go to sleep. I won’t let anything happen to you. Shhh.”
Sara Beth smirked into the dark. She’d never fall asleep out there…