Cover of the new book "Gentle on my Mind "

Gentle on my Mind


Excerpt from “Gentle on my Mind”

Chapter 1

Brooke Kincaid hung up the phone and hugged herself. Beaming, she danced a few steps across the kitchen floor in time to Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” the song playing on Caribou Crossing’s country and western radio station. Her marmalade cat, Sunny, watched from a windowsill, tail twitching, golden eyes asking a question.

“A grandmother!” Brooke told him. “I’m going to be a grandmother.”

Well, in fact she’d become a grandmother last fall when her son, Evan—newly returned to Caribou Crossing—married Jessica and became stepdad to her daughter, Robin, a wonderful ten-year-old. But now Jess was pregnant!

Oh Lord, Jess was pregnant. Brooke stopped dancing as all the fears rushed into her mind. Would Evan let her near the baby, given what a terrible mother she’d been to him? And would the baby be okay? What if Evan did have a predisposition for bipolar disorder even though the disease had never manifested itself in him, and he passed it on to the baby?

Sunny yowled, breaking Brooke’s train of thought. He hopped down from the sill and came to wrap himself around her ankles.

The gesture calmed her, and so did bending to stroke his sun-warmed fur. She’d acquired Sunny four years ago as a rescue cat, but the rescuing really worked the other way around.

“You’re right,” she told him. “I need to focus on the positive.” Evan and Jess had made the decision to have a child, they knew about her own bipolar and alcoholism, and the decision was theirs to make. And yes, of course they would let her be involved. Her son had called her right away, the morning after Jess had shared the news with him and Robin. Brooke beamed again, remembering the joy in his voice.

As for her, at the age of forty-three she’d been granted a second chance, and she’d do things right this time.

She was fourteen when she got pregnant. Naively, she’d expected a pink-and-white girl doll, but what she’d received was a bellowing, demanding boy-child. She had messed up royally with Evan, and she blessed him for being generous enough to forgive her.

After ten years of estrangement, she had her son back, plus a wonderful daughter-in-law, a delightful granddaughter, and now a brand-new baby on the way. No clouds of worry were going to spoil this amazing day.

Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” came on the radio and she smiled. “So do I, my friend, so do I.” She had stayed sober, gone to A.A. meetings, and taken her bipolar meds for almost five years. Now, she had even more motivation.

She ran her hand down her cat’s golden coat and tugged gently on his tail. “It’s all good, isn’t it, Sunny?”

He pulled his tail from her grip and narrowed his eyes in mock annoyance, then began to purr.

Brooke laughed at his game. Until Evan had come back, she hadn’t laughed–not this way, with genuine pleasure–in at least a dozen years. Now laughter came easily. “Life just couldn’t be more perfect,” she told the cat, reaching out to stroke him again.

But Sunny’s ears twitched and he shook her hand off. His hair rose, his eyes slitted, and he stared intently into space, at nothing visible to her.

* * * * *

Jake Brannon clung desperately to the handgrips of his Harley, fighting to stay conscious. He’d been losing blood for going on an hour now. Thank God for the fierce pain in his side; it helped him focus.

When he’d made his getaway he’d left his helmet behind, and now the wind made his eyes water and whipped strands of hair across his face. He squinted to see the road. It twisted away in front of him like a snake. A rough-skinned snake. Every time he hit a pothole the bike jerked and a fresh wave of pain radiated from the wound.

He hoped to hell the bullet wasn’t still in there. If only he could stop to examine the injury and staunch the bleeding. But the man in the black truck was chasing him, and by now there were probably others.

His own fault. He’d been sloppy. Should have been in and out without anyone seeing him. Should be back in his motel room right now, sound asleep. Instead of riding the never-ending snake in the frail light of dawn toward,

toward . . .

Damn, he was losing focus again. Where the hell was he? He’d avoided the highway in hopes of evading his pursuers, but the roads out here in the middle of British Columbia’s Cariboo country were a maze. Would he ever find his way to the Gold Rush Trail Motel, to the sanctuary of that kitschy little room where sepia photos from gold rush days decorated the walls?

Jake narrowed his eyes against a pale rising sun. The sun was off to his right, which meant he was riding . . . north? He groaned. His brain was so damned fuzzy.

The bike’s tires skittered over a spill of gravel and jounced into another hole. Pain slammed through him and he let loose with a string of curses. The wind whipped them away, and he imagined them streaming behind him in a series of little balloons like the speech in cartoons.

Focus, damn it. Best as he could figure, he needed to head northeast. The sun rose in the east, and the sun was hitting the corner of his aching right eye, so northeast had to be straight ahead. As the crow flies. If only the Harley were a

crow . . .

Straight ahead. He tried to grasp that thought and hang on to it. But damn, his vision was as blurry as his mind. He blinked but the view got foggier, not sharper. There was something white . . . vertical white shapes marching in a row straight ahead of him. A fence? Oh, Jesus, the road curved and he was heading straight for a fence!

He tried to yank the bike around the curve, but his sweaty hands had no strength. His world was turning gray and he was barely aware of the bike going down, spilling him free. Screaming pain roused him momentarily as his leg and hip scraped along the road. His head hit next and the gray turned charcoal. He heard his bike crash into something, and then the engine abruptly cut out.

His eyes closed and the blackness took him.

* * * * *

“Sunny, what’s wrong?” Brooke asked, just as the peaceful country morning was shattered by a horrible screech of metal, then a crash. Not metal on metal but metal on . . . wood?

Wood? “My white picket fence!” She dashed to the front door, flung it open, and darted down the steps in her bathrobe and flip-flops.

A huge black motorbike was jammed partway through her fence amid a confetti of shattered white wood. Where was the rider?

Brooke rushed through the gate and found him sprawled on the gravel verge of the road, facedown, like a broken, abandoned toy. He was dressed in black—sneakers, jeans, and leather jacket. No helmet over that tumble of shoulder-length black hair.

Mo. He looked just like Mo. She flashed back to the age of fourteen, when she’d been utterly fascinated by the sexy nineteen-year-old bad boy. Back then, she’d had no idea how bad he’d turn out to be.

“Get a grip,” she told herself. This man was not Mo, and he might be dying. She had to call 911. But what if he died while she was phoning?

Staring at the biker, she forced herself to take a deep breath. Although she’d taken a first-aid class, she couldn’t remember a blessed thing. Another breath. She had to control the crippling panic.

Pulse. Yes, make sure he was breathing. If not, she’d have to start mouth-to-mouth and CPR.

Kneeling, she stroked his hair out of the way and slipped two trembling fingers around his neck to press against his throat. His pulse leaped strongly, so strongly that she jerked back in shock. Then she let out her breath in a low whistle of relief.

The man groaned and his body moved convulsively, turning so he lay on his back.

No, despite having bronzed skin, he didn’t look like Mo, who’d been half Indo-American. He didn’t look like a thuggish biker either. In fact, he was strikingly handsome, with strong, carved features. His mouth, framed by a dark beard, added contrast with full, sensual lips. If she’d had to administer the kiss of life . . .

Her cheeks burned. The thought of touching a man’s lips with her own was shocking. It had been more than fifteen years since she’d shared any degree of physical intimacy with a man. Her ex husband had soured her on men so thoroughly that she was positive she’d never be attracted to another one.

And yet there was something enticing about this particular face, this mouth.

She shook her head briskly, trying to recall the checklist the first-aid trainer had taught them. Immediate danger. Make sure he wasn’t in immediate danger.

There was blood—he’d scraped himself up pretty badly—but no arterial spurts. He wasn’t bleeding to death. He wasn’t likely to be run over either, as he was well onto the gravel shoulder of the road. This end of Wellburn Road was quiet, down past the entrance to Bly Ranch. Her little patch of rented land was on Jessica’s parents’ ranch, and past her there was only Ray Barnes’s place and a couple of other small spreads. Horses and riders often used this road, and people knew to drive cautiously.

So the motorcycle man was in no immediate danger. Now she needed to assess his injuries so she could tell the ambulance crew what to expect.

She studied his sprawled body. No broken limbs, as far as she could see. Head injuries? She rested her fingers gently on his skull and his eyes flickered open.

They were unfocused, dazed. An intriguing shade of gray with hints of blue and mauve. Wood smoke, she thought, on an October day. Gentle, dreamy eyes, belying the beard and black leather.

“Hello,” she said. “Can you hear me?”

The muscles around his eyes twitched as his gaze sharpened. She read confusion, pain—then something that looked like fear. And then anger. Wood smoke turned to storm clouds.

* * * * *

When Jake’s eyes first opened he figured he’d died and gone to heaven. Lord knows why a sinner like him would end up there, but a fair-haired angel was peering down at him. His vision was still blurry but he could see that her eyes sparkled blue-green like a tropical ocean. Rose-petal pink lips opened and she said something, but he was so entranced by her face that he didn’t catch the words.

He wanted to reach out and touch a strand of that curly golden hair and see if it felt as silky as it looked. Or maybe she was a vision with no substance and his hand would slide right through her. The thought that he might never touch his angel almost made him cry.

No, damn it, that was pain that brought a rush of moisture to his eyes. Pain, shrieking through his body. He couldn’t isolate it, couldn’t assess his injuries; he was on fire in so many places. He wasn’t dead—or if he was, this was hell, not heaven. What the fuck had happened? He must have been hit by a semi. No, he’d been riding his bike. . . . And it crashed. But he was a good rider. . . .

Ah, now he remembered. He crashed because he’d been shot. He’d messed up when he snuck into the grow op in the dark hours before dawn. Someone had heard him, come after him, shot him. He’d barely made it to his bike and escaped.

Hellfire and damnation! Drug traffickers were after him and if they found him they’d kill him. If he was right, one of them was the man who’d murdered Anika, the teen prostitute whose body had been tossed in a dumpster down in Vancouver.

His body was in agony, a killer was after him, and his angel was either a hallucination or a real live woman he was somehow going to have to deal with. He had three choices: cry, scream, or cuss. For a man, that narrowed down to one. He let loose with a string of curses.

She froze like a terrified animal poised for flight.

He studied her more closely, realizing his vision had sharpened. Now he saw the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. The angelic face was older than he’d thought, and fear etched the lines even deeper. Damn it, she really was scared of him.

The black leather, the bike, some foul language . . . Did she think he was a member of a biker gang like Hell’s Angels or Death Row?

Her eyes closed briefly, and when they opened their expression was calm. The tension in her muscles eased as she breathed deeply. But Jake sensed she hadn’t truly relaxed; she was disciplining her body to hide her anxiety.

“I can see you’re conscious and more or less lucid,” she said evenly. “I’ll go call for an ambulance.”

An ambulance. Hospital, doctors, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He suspected the killer he sought was a prominent, supposedly respectable member of this community. Maybe even a member of the local RCMP detachment. Caribou Crossing was a small town; chances were, this woman knew the man. His angel might even be the devil’s woman. Maybe that was why he made her so nervous.

Shifting her weight, she started to rise.

His hand shot out and grabbed her arm. “No!”

She tried to pull away. Under his firm grip, she was trembling.

He was sorry to hurt her, sorry to scare her, but he had no choice. He had to keep his presence in Caribou Crossing a secret or it’d blow the undercover operation. No police; no hospital; no drug-dealing murderers. No one could know that he–Corporal Jake Brannon, working U/C for the RCMP–was here.

Except that angel-face already did.

Suddenly she yanked hard, almost pulling her arm from his grasp.

The movement jarred his entire body, and pain made him gasp and bite his lip. She was strong for such a slender, gentle-looking woman.

She jerked again and agony weakened his grip. Exploiting his weakness, she wrenched herself free and scrambled backward.

He had to stop her from reaching the phone. There was only one way.

Struggling to stay conscious, Jake fumbled for the Beretta in the shoulder holster under his jacket. He pointed it at her. “Stop, or I’ll shoot you.”

She froze, swaying on her feet.

Grimly he wondered which of them was going to pass out first. “Get back here.”

After a long moment, too long for his sanity, she stumbled toward him.

He felt powerless lying there, his only weapons a firearm he would never use against her, and the force of his own personality. But he knew she was afraid of him and he had to play on her fear. “Kneel down.” He needed her close, where he could read her face.

She obeyed, her movements jerky. “I was just going to call an ambulance.” Her gaze flicked between his face and the Beretta.

“Don’t call anyone.”

“But you’re hurt. You need help.”

“I don’t need doctors or cops.”

She glanced at the firearm again, her eyes wide, and he could almost hear her brain working.

“Got it?” he said.

“You’re an escaped criminal!” She spat out the words.

He’d miscalculated; somehow he’d tipped her past fear to anger. When he’d cussed and grabbed her arm she’d been scared, but now she was glaring at him like she’d love to get her hands on his firearm and shoot him between the eyes.

She might get her chance, because his vision was blurring again, his world once more fading to gray. He had to control her. Now. And fear was the key.

He shifted position and got a firmer grip on the Beretta. The movement hurt his side, but the bright edge of pain helped him focus. “If you call anyone, talk to anyone, you’ll regret it.” Trusting her was not an option. Even if it had been, he didn’t have the time, the strength, to explain. He might pass out at any moment, and then she’d have the Beretta. He needed a threat that would bind her even if she got his firearm.

What did every person value the most? Their life.

“They can lock me up, but not forever,” he hissed. “I’ll get out and come after you.”

“Then get it over with and shoot me now,” she dared him, and he saw it had turned into a battle of wills. She was stronger than he’d expected. His beautiful, feminine angel was strong. It made her even more appealing.

God, his mind was drifting again. Focus, man! Her strength could endanger his mission. He had to find a threat that had meaning to her. “Your family. Everyone you love. If you betray me now, I’ll kill your family. I won’t be in jail forever. I’ll come back.”

She flinched as if he’d struck her, and her face went dead white.

Thank God. He’d found the right threat. She had family and she loved them. The threat was a complete lie, but she had no way of knowing that. To her, he was a violent criminal on the lam with a gun he had no qualms about using.

He was so exhausted he could barely think. Was there anyone else in her house? No, or they’d have run outside, too.

“I’m going to tell you what to do.” He forced the words through gritted teeth. “And you will obey to the letter, or I promise you, I will kill your loved ones. If you call the police, if I go to jail, I’ll come back as soon as I get out. If you leave town, I’ll find you. You and all your family.”

“I’ll d-do it,” she stammered, her whole body quivering. “Whatever you want.”

“Get me into the house, then hide my bike. You have a garage or shed?”

She nodded.

His world was out of focus but he saw the movement of her head. “Patch up that fence. No one can know I’m here.” He knew he was speaking, but the hollow rushing sound in his ears drowned out the words. “Cover up all traces of the accident. They can’t find me. They’ll kill me.”

“The police won’t—”

“No! Can’t trust the police.”

What was he saying? He didn’t know anymore. Damn, he was losing it. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t think. Had to stop talking before he said too much. What else did she need to know? “Then see if you can . . .” He paused, fighting for breath, for the end of the thought. “Keep me alive. Got it?”

Chapter 2

“Got it,” Brooke whispered.

Keep him alive? The man with the gun had to know it was in her best interests to let him die. Did he know, too, that she couldn’t let even an injured bird die without trying to save it? Not that it was likely the biker would die from a few scrapes and maybe a concussion.

His arm dropped heavily. Had he lost consciousness again? Pray God, he had.

She grabbed the gun out of his lifeless grasp and leaped to her feet. She stepped a couple of paces away and trained his weapon on him. He didn’t move.

After a few minutes she began to feel ridiculous. She darted forward, kicked his leg, then leaped back. There was no response. Clearly he was no threat to her now. She could run inside and call the RCMP.

She gnawed her lip. The police. She avoided them. It was a holdover from the days when she’d been a drunk. If she told them she was holding a criminal at gunpoint, they’d assume she’d leaped off the wagon and was on a bender.

She could persuade them otherwise. They’d lock this man up and solve her problem. But only her immediate problem.

How long would he stay in prison? Long enough so he could be released to carry out those threats? She shuddered violently. If he hurt Evan! Or Jessica, Robin, the baby.

Surely his threat wasn’t a serious one. But did she dare dismiss it and risk putting her loved ones’ lives in danger?

She could call Evan. He was only a couple of miles away, up at the house he and Jess had built on her parents’ ranch land.

No, she didn’t want the biker anywhere near her family.

What she wouldn’t do for a drink . . . Thank heavens she didn’t keep alcohol in the house. Right now she’d have a mighty hard time resisting the temptation. She glared at the man. Why couldn’t he have crashed into someone else’s fence?

Can’t trust the police, he’d said. Trust was an odd word for a criminal to use. No doubt he had reason aplenty to fear the RCMP because they’d jail him, but why would he say they couldn’t be trusted?

They’ll kill me.

Who? Not the RCMP, of course.

Maybe he wasn’t an escaped criminal. Perhaps he was a gang member, and a rival gang was after him. Some biker gangs were involved in the drug trade and violence was a way of life for them.

She remembered the expression in those wood-smoke eyes when he first opened them. Dreamy. Gentle. Surely those eyes couldn’t belong to a gang member.

She shook her head impatiently. The profanity that had issued from that mouth—the cusswords that reminded her so vividly of her abusive ex-husband—certainly did. As did the gun she clenched in her hand, and the threats he’d hissed at her.

If he belonged to a gang, how would his cohorts react if she had him arrested? They might carry out his threat and come after her and her family. For vengeance, or even as a sick, twisted matter of honor.

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How could she decide what to do when she didn’t have all the information? Lord, but she was an indecisive, gutless fool. When she’d thought him a criminal, when he’d threatened her life, she’d found the courage to stand up to him. But she’d crumbled the moment he turned the threat on her family.

If only she could lose herself in drink and forget all these worries. Except that was what she’d done for years, and look at how her behavior had hurt Evan.

She heard the far-off sound of an engine. What if a car came along? It would stop, and her ability to choose would be taken from her. The driver might even be Evan or Jess.

No, she realized the noise was coming from the sky, from a little plane flying low, a mile or so to the south, in the clear morning sky. Was it headed her way?

She couldn’t do anything that might put her family at risk. Not again. When the man regained consciousness again, she’d deal with him. After all, she had the gun. For now, she would obey his commands to the letter, just as he’d said.

The decision gave her a sense of relief. Structure and rules were the tools she used to keep her life in balance. What threw her was the unexpected. Uncertainty meant danger, risk, the fear that she might tip back into the world she’d once known—where alcoholism and bipolar disorder controlled her, rather than the other way around.

She remembered one of the slogans her A.A. sponsor had taught her: God never dumps more on us than we can handle.

Life-and-death threats from a gun-wielding stranger were terrifying—but the biker had also given her a structure. Rules to follow, the means to cope. She could handle this situation, and keep her family safe.

First, get him into the house, out of sight.

She examined the gun, hoping the safety catch—if it had such a thing—was on. She tucked it in the pocket of her bathrobe. Then she studied the inert body. He had to weigh half again as much as she did. How on earth was she going to get him inside?

Brooke bent down and tugged experimentally at the collar of his jacket. His body shifted. She kicked off her loose flip-flops and set the soles of her feet firmly on the ground. Then she bent over, got a good grip with both hands, and began to pull, moving slowly backward and dragging him after her, inch by painful inch across the gravel.

Five years ago she wouldn’t have been able to budge him. She was fitter now than she’d ever been in her life—from regular workouts, riding, and gardening—but even so they’d traveled only a foot when she had to stop. She straightened, gasping for breath as she stretched her fiercely aching back. Grimly she thought that her efforts might well kill him, but at the moment she wasn’t sure she cared. And if she didn’t care . . .

She did have the gun. The means to shoot him and ensure her family’s safety. Could she make the police believe he’d attacked her and she shot him in self-defense?

Glancing down at the body that lay at her feet, Brooke let out a frustrated sigh. She could no more shoot him in cold blood than she could pick him up in a fireman’s lift and cart him into her house.

A giggle escaped. The white picket fence she’d so proudly built last fall, when she’d moved into the rental house on Jess’s parents’ ranch property, had been split to kindling. A criminal’s unconscious body sprawled on her front walk between the neat borders of impatiens, lobelias, and alyssum she’d planted on the weekend.

The giggles filled her throat and she pressed her fist against her mouth. She couldn’t afford to indulge in hysterics. She had made her decision and she would stick to it. Besides, she had the gun. It gave her a power of her own—the ultimate power, if she could bring herself to pull the trigger.

She began dragging him again, feeling as if her arms were pulling out of their sockets. After another foot, she gave up. “Look, mister, you’re going to have to give me some help,” she muttered, nudging him with her bare toes.

When he didn’t stir, she let out a frustrated hiss and dashed inside the house to get a glass of cold water.

Kneeling beside him, she said, “Last chance to wake up.” Receiving no response, she splashed the water onto his face.

Choking and spluttering, he came to, glaring at her. “What the hell? You’re no damned angel!”

Oh great, now he was delirious.

“I’m no angel and I’m no weight lifter,” she retorted. “I can’t get you into the house unless you help.”


“I’m not too thrilled myself.”

They’d invented new swear words since Mo’s time, she reflected as she helped the man stagger to his feet.

Grimacing, she put her arm around his waist and he wrapped his own arm around her shoulders, leaning so heavily she almost toppled. Together they lurched up the front walk. It reminded her of herself and Mo tottering home from The Gold Nugget Saloon. Home to Evan, whom they’d left alone. Evan, who would have done his homework and fixed his dinner, if they’d left any food in the house.

No, she was never going to drink again.

The worst part was getting the biker up the three steps to the porch. She was almost in tears from the ache in her shoulders. They had just made it through the front door when he began to fall. Her fingers scrabbled against the leather of his jacket, but she couldn’t stop him as he crashed to the floor.

She squatted and, with trembling fingers, felt for his pulse.

Still alive.

Her instinct was to tend to his injuries, but she remembered his instructions. She could even understand his logic. If “they” found him, they would kill him. The chance of him dying from his injuries was far slimmer.

Leaving him lying on the floor, she dashed outside, slipped her feet back into her flip-flops, and surveyed the mess. Her closest neighbor, Ray Barnes, a widower and retired pharmacist, often rode his horse the ten miles into town for breakfast.

She didn’t have a lot of time to hide the signs of the accident.

Thank heavens the motorbike was partially propped up by her fence or Brooke never would have managed to get it upright. But, once she’d extricated it and had it rolling, it proved more tractable than the man. Soon it was locked in the garden shed.

Her hands were coated in dirt, oil, and blood and so was her robe. How could a couple of pavement scrapes generate so darn much blood? She ran inside, using the kitchen door and avoiding the man who might be bleeding to death in her front hall, and hurried upstairs to the bedroom.

Sunny, sitting on the windowsill, turned to watch as she ripped off the filthy robe. “Stay there,” she told him. “Keep out of his way and be safe.”

When she tossed her robe onto the floor, a clunking sound made her remember the gun. She pulled it gingerly from the pocket and scanned the room for a hiding place. In the end, she placed the ugly black weapon in her laundry basket and bundled the stained bathrobe on top of it.

She pulled on an old pair of jeans and a T-shirt, then ran outside again. The damage to her fence wasn’t as bad as she’d first thought. Only three boards had shattered. She had a few leftover boards in the shed, and some white paint.

The man had lost so much blood, perhaps he really would die while she was fixing her fence. But he’d given her his list of orders, and concealing his presence ranked first.

Brooke kicked the gravel around to hide the bloodstains. Then she cleared up the shattered boards, nailed the new ones in place, and splashed on paint. Once it dried, it would be almost impossible to tell the new pickets from the old.

She’d just put the lid back on the paint can when she heard the steady beat of hooves on the dirt shoulder of the road. Hurriedly she shoved the can behind a fence post and stood in front of the freshly painted boards.

Ray Barnes slowed his chestnut gelding, Timony, from a trot to a walk, then pulled to a stop beside her and touched a hand to the brim of his Stetson. “Mornin’, Brooke.”

He was a touch deaf, so she spoke up. “Good morning, Ray. Hello, Timony.” Normally, she’d have stroked the horse’s neck, but she didn’t want to step away from the fence. Hoping to divert her neighbor’s attention, she gestured to the sky. “Another fine day.” The small plane—or another like it—was back and headed in their direction.

He glanced up. “Yep, it is.” Then he gazed into her yard, pushing his horn-rims up his nose. “Notice you put your bedding plants in on the weekend. Early for that, isn’t it?”

She ground her teeth. Normally, she enjoyed chatting with him, but today she just wished he’d go away. “This place is pretty sheltered. I think they’ll do all right.”

“Maybe so.” His voice told her he didn’t agree but was too polite to come right out and say so. His eyes narrowed. “That’s fresh paint on your fence. You repainting already?”

She sucked in a breath. Telling lies went against the grain of the new person she’d made herself into. Besides, if she said yes, she’d have to repaint the whole darn fence. “No, I, uh, there was a little accident and I had to make repairs.”

He frowned. “Backed into your own fence?”

“I feel so stupid.” And that was the truth: stupid for not handling this situation better. “Don’t go telling folks, all right?” If he did, people would wonder if she was drinking again.

Ray scrutinized her face, eyes sharp behind his thick lenses. Looking for signs of a hangover? He grinned suddenly. “You didn’t tell on me when I fell down my own back steps. Just brought me food until I got on my feet again. Guess I owe you one.”

She smiled with relief. Back in January, when the snow had been so deep she’d had to shovel her driveway every morning before she unplugged her car from the block heater and drove out of the carport, she hadn’t seen him either ride Timony or drive his truck down their plowed road in a couple of days. She’d gone to check on him. He’d been holed up, nursing a badly sprained ankle, low on food and barely able to hobble out to the barn to look after his horse. The elderly man hadn’t wanted his children to know because they were after him to give up his house and move into an apartment in town. She’d helped him out and kept his secret, figuring he knew the lifestyle that was best for him.

“You need any help with that fence, just say the word,” he said.

“Thanks, but I’ve got it finished.”

The roar of a plane’s engine made them both glance up. The small plane was right overhead now, flying low. Wondering if the pilot was someone they knew, Brooke waved. When Ray did the same, the plane dipped a wing and rose in the sky.

“Might be the Paluski boy,” Ray commented. “Heard he took up flying.”

After her neighbor rode away, Brooke glanced at her watch. Darn, it was nine-thirty. On a normal morning, she’d be finishing up her routine at the women’s fitness center, all ready to have a shower and dress for work. The beauty salon opened at ten and Betty Anderson was coming in for highlights and a trim. But Brooke couldn’t go to work with that man lying on her floor.

She went in the back door and tiptoed through to the front of the house, hoping a miracle had occurred and somehow he’d recovered and disappeared.

Unfortunately, he still lay there. She bent down again, her whole body aching from the strain of the last hour’s activities, and pressed her fingers against his throat. His pulse beat steadily. A strand of long black hair, damp from the water she’d splashed on his face, lay across his cheek and she smoothed it back.

Unconscious, it was hard to believe he was a serious threat to her family. But she remembered the “take no prisoners” glare in his eyes when he’d pulled his gun on her. She’d read enough mystery novels to know you didn’t second-guess a criminal; you just obeyed, and hoped he’d let you escape unharmed.

She heaved a sigh and went into the kitchen to phone Kate Patterson, her boss and friend. Years ago, Jessica—the same Jess who had married Evan—had been the first person in Caribou Crossing to give Brooke a chance after she’d made her turnaround. Jess’s aunt Kate had been the second. When Brooke finished her courses in Williams Lake, Kate hired her as a stylist at Beauty Is You.

How could she lie to Kate?

“Mornin’,” Kate said when she heard Brooke’s voice. “Mind picking up some donuts on your way? I’ve got a powerful craving for a jelly donut.”

Brooke winced. She hated to disappoint anyone, and especially Kate. When she spoke, her voice sounded husky. It was strain, she knew, but it lent credibility to her words. “I can’t come in today, Kate. I’m achy and I really don’t feel well. I’m so sorry.”

“No worries, hon. Just look after yourself. I can take a couple of your customers myself, and I’ll postpone the rest. Give me a call later in the day and let me know how you’re doing, then we’ll decide what to do about tomorrow. But my guess is you’re coming down with that summer flu that’s been going around, and you’ll be out a few days. Say, you need any groceries or flu medication? I could drop by after work.”

Brooke shuddered at the thought of putting her friend in danger. “I’m all stocked up. Thanks for the thought, Kate. You’re the best.”

“Take care of yourself. Climb back into bed and have a real restful day.”

Don’t I wish, Brooke thought as she hung up. Right now double pneumonia had a certain appeal, compared to dealing with her escaped criminal or biker gang rebel or whatever he was.

Her body ached from exertion, her heart raced, and she craved a drink.

The radio was playing the Eli Young Band’s “Crazy Girl.” She flicked it off, squared her shoulders, and forced herself to walk into the front hall.

He hadn’t moved from where she’d left him. She squatted down and noted the rise and fall of his chest. And the blood that pooled beside him.

Wearily she rose and went to the upstairs bathroom to gather medical supplies. She added some old washcloths and towels and went back down, pausing at the bottom of the steps. Yes, there was a long-haired, bearded man in leather and black denim lying on her hall floor in a pool of vivid blood. She hadn’t been hallucinating. Her entrance hall looked like a scene from a B grade movie.

And yet she felt an odd sense of familiarity. Uncomfortable familiarity. This man really did remind her of her ex husband. The biker was striking, dangerous-looking, the same as Mo had been when she met him. Mohinder McKeen, the wild young man who’d dropped out of school. He’d worn a black leather jacket, ridden his motorbike without a helmet.

Mo had made her hot and uncomfortable and excited. Sexy. Later she’d learned about his selfishness, his immaturity. Still later—after he’d deserted from the army—he’d become abusive. His drinking had turned into a way of life, one she’d adopted, too. There’d been physical abuse, but even Mo on his very worst day had never threatened to kill her or Evan.

Yes, this biker, with his smoky eyes and sensual mouth, was sexy-looking. But he was far more dangerous than Mo. She couldn’t, for even a moment, let herself forget that.

Nor could she leave him on her floor indefinitely. Likely when she poured disinfectant on his scrapes he would wake up and together they’d be able to get him . . . where? Not upstairs, to her bed or the spare room that Robin used for sleepovers. Stairs would be impossible, plus she didn’t want him in her bed or her granddaughter’s. Bad enough he had invaded her life, her house. That left the living room couch. She ran out to the shed for a couple of the canvas drop cloths she used for painting.

Brooke layered the drop cloths on the couch, added old sheets, and went back to the hall. She couldn’t put this off any longer. She had to find out the extent of his injuries. His jeans were shredded down one side, his jacket was scraped, and his clothes were stained with blood. But, as nasty as the scrapes might be, she doubted they’d have caused him to pass out.

He must have hit his head, and that frightened her. She could disinfect and bandage abrasions but a head injury might be serious. A concussion—and possibly worse.

She wanted so badly to call 911 and get this whole mess off her hands. But if she did, what assurance did she have that he wouldn’t follow through on his threat and destroy her family? Whereas if she helped him and he decided she knew too much, he might try to kill her but he’d have no reason to hurt her loved ones.

Brooke wanted to live. It was ironic that now, when she had the most reason for living—after years when she’d often longed for death—now she might die. But better her life than that of Evan, Robin, Jess, and the unborn baby. That was something she knew absolutely.

She really needed a drink. Normally, when she felt this powerful a craving, she phoned Anne, her A.A. sponsor. But if she did, she’d have to explain why she was craving alcohol at 9:30 in the morning. No, she had to get through this by herself.

“I do not need a drink,” she said under her breath. “I only want one, and I have control over my wants. More than a drink, much more, I want to be the woman I have become, not the one I used to be. I, Brooke Kincaid, am strong. I will not drink. This is a test. God wouldn’t dump this on me if I wasn’t strong enough to handle it.”

In the early days of A.A. she had fought with her demons many times every day, but now she had her techniques perfected. She had her job and her workouts at the fitness club. She went to A.A. meetings regularly, attended church on Sunday, and also got together with Anne and with Tonia, the young alcoholic woman Brooke sponsored. Besides, there was always something to look forward to: seeing her family, going for a ride with Robin, working on the board of directors of Jess’s new Riders Boot Camp—a charitable foundation Brooke had invested in, using the money Evan had sent her over the years. At home, in moments when she might feel lonely, there was Sunny, music, reading, cooking, gardening.

Rarely now did Brooke feel a serious craving. She walked the line and kept her life in a healthy balance. In control. She glared at the man on the floor. He might kill her but he would not make her drink.

And she’d do her best to make sure he didn’t kill her. She had so many reasons to live—and she had a gun.

Brooke knelt down and wrestled the leather jacket off him, then gingerly unbuckled the shoulder holster. She sat back on her heels and studied him. Sunshine slanted through one of the side windows. Without the jacket, caressed by innocent sunlight, the man didn’t look so frightening.

Feeling more confident, she carefully lifted his head. He wriggled and moaned. Gently she probed underneath the thick, springy hair and explored his skull. She found a sizable lump and even her softest touch made him groan.

He wrenched away from her, his eyes flying open. “What the hell?” Then his eyes narrowed and she knew he was remembering. Every muscle in his body tensed like an animal collecting itself, ready to spring. But was he predator or prey? Both, she guessed, and she also guessed this macho stranger hated being vulnerable.

“I haven’t told anyone,” she said quickly.

“Where’s my gun?”

She let out air in an exasperated whoosh. “I’ve done what you told me. Your threat was quite effective. You don’t have to hold me at gunpoint.”

His mouth twisted. Did she amuse him or was he fighting pain?

“Tell me what you’ve done,” he demanded.

“What I’ve . . . Oh, you mean . . .” She catalogued her activities, hoping she remembered everything on his list of orders.

“You didn’t talk to anyone?” This man’s steady gaze told her he’d know if she lied.

“I called work and said I was sick. And a neighbor rode by and saw the fresh paint on the fence. I told him I’d had a little accident and had to make repairs. He assumed I’d hit it with my car and I let him believe that.” It still galled her.

His mouth twisted again. “Are you a bad driver?”

“No!” Not since she’d hit that stop sign, been diagnosed as bipolar, and started taking lithium. Not since she’d stopped drinking.

“Me neither.” His voice was weak but she distinctly heard a note of humor.

He was beginning to seem more human, and something inside her softened in response. “You crashed your bike,” she pointed out.

“Not my fault.” The words grated and his eyelids twitched.

She realized he was fighting another wave of weakness. “Don’t faint again!” She needed his help to get him to the couch.

“I won’t.” His eyes flew open and he glared at her.

Clearly she’d offended his male ego. It gave her a feeling of power that did wonders for her morale. “We’ve got to get you to the couch,” she said firmly.

His eyes closed, and for a moment she thought she’d lost him again. Then they opened. “How far?”

“Not far. If you can just . . .”

He was already struggling to rise, his movements awkward and clearly painful. He made it to his feet and swayed. Like a drunk. A drunk who was just about to . . . She grabbed him around the waist before he toppled.

“Christ!” he yelped.

“I’m only trying to help.”

“Get . . . me . . . to . . . the . . . couch.” His jaw was clenched so tight the words barely came through.

Again stumbling like a pair of drunks, they made their way into the living room. She eased him to a sitting position on the couch and released him. Her hand—the hand that had circled his waist—was wet. With blood. So were her arm and her T-shirt. So much blood.

The man sat leaning forward, both hands on his thighs to brace himself.

Brooke focused on his tee, on the blood that had soaked through the dark fabric near his waist. This injury, unlike the bloody scrapes at his hip and thigh, didn’t fit with his accident. How could he have hurt himself in that particular spot when the bike went down? Had he been stabbed by a fence post?

“I . . . need . . .” His words were so soft she could barely hear them.


“A . . . drink.”