Josh Bryant was back in tiny Wolf Creek. Which meant tour guide Tessa McAllister now had more to fear than drought, wildfire and underhanded rivals. Years ago the handsome photojournalist had broken her heart, leaving her with a secret to harbor alone. And now he was back in her town. Distracting her. Making her remember what they'd shared. But someone was watching them, waiting for the moment to strike. Someone dead set on destroying their hope for a second chance.
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March 10, 2008
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Excerpt from Wildfire by Roxanne Rustand
Somewhere ahead, a branch rustled. Pebbles clattered down a rocky slope.
Tessa McAllister reined her horse to a stop, settling him with a calming hand at his neck. He blew hard through his nostrils, his muscles tense as he edged sideways on the narrow trail.
Around the next bend, she remembered, the path widened as it crossed a lane leading to an isolated cabin, then it disappeared into a heavy stand of pines. Early evening was prime time for wildlife activity, and there could be anything lurking just out of sight.
A mountain lion.
A mama bear and cubs.
A moose protecting her calf--aggressive and more unpredictable than a bear, though at least it wouldn't eat people.
Whatever it was, Dusty wanted no part of it. And with loose rock on the trail and a thousand-foot drop only inches away, backing up would be a dangerous option. "Easy, babe," she murmured, reaching down to unbuckle the strap on her rifle scabbard.
He threw his head and fought the bit, flecks of foamy saliva flying, his tail lashing in agitation as he danced in place.
It was likely that the "predator" ahead was on two feet instead of four--though even the human kind could be dangerous, given the recent rash of thefts in the area.
But growing up on a ranch in the Wyoming Rockies had prepared Tessa to defend her life and livestock at a moment's notice.And whatever loomed ahead, it was blocking the only way down this side of the mountain.
She waited a good five minutes, and when nothing scary came around the bend, she urged Dusty forward, singing, "Oh, Susannah" at the top of her lungs to warn away any wildlife.
The gelding's ears flicked back and forth as he shook his head.
"Everyone's a critic," she muttered as she stood in the stirrups for a better view.
Now, she could see the dense stand of brush flanking the road. The birds abruptly fell silent. She felt Dusty's back tense. She urged him forward, one halting step at a time.
A hint of silver glittered through the bushes.
Someone uttered a harsh curse.
A deafening crack split the air--then something slammed into her thigh with searing force.
A heartbeat later, she glimpsed a dark pickup rocketing down the lane ahead. Stunned, feeling strangely disoriented, Tessa reached down to touch her scuffed leather chaps, then stared.
Her hand was covered with blood.
Sitting on an exam table at the tiny Wolf Creek Medical Clinic, Tessa silently berated herself for taking this trip into town.
Clouds of billowing dust had marked the fast retreat of that mysterious vehicle as it tore away. Surely the shooting was an accident--a stray bullet during target practice, maybe, or someone shooting game out of season. Either way, if the guy realized what he'd done, it would account for his panicked departure.
But with those unanswered questions, the fact that she and Gus were in town--leaving no one to watch over the ranch--filled her with unease. Even his wife Sofia, who was the cook and housekeeper, was away.
"I could've treated this wound myself," Tessa mumbled, watching Mary Andrews, a physician's assistant, finish cleaning her wound. "It's just a scratch."
"No, your hired hand was right. This needed to be taken care of here." Mary looked up at her and smiled. "I suppose you would've used your cattle salve and antibiotics?"
"Right." Tessa gritted her teeth against the pain.
"I--I've patched myself up before."
"Not a good idea. I've seen the handiwork of some of the cowboys who've come in after they've gotten an infection or haven't healed right. Anyway, you were due for a tetanus booster." Mary leaned closer and inspected the three-inch furrow gouged across Tessa's thigh. "You're lucky. A few inches difference, and it could have hit a major vein or shattered your femur. How on earth did this happen?"
"Accident." Tessa shrugged.
But what if it wasn't?
She'd urged Dusty into high gear to put distance between herself and any further danger, then a mile down the trail she'd had to pull him to a halt while she stopped the bleeding. As the initial numbness wore off, the pain had steadily increased, and it had been a long, difficult trip back home.
Mary laid out a tray of dressing materials and tore open a packet of sterile gauze squares. "After I finish this, I'll give you a tetanus booster and an injection of long-acting antibiotic. I'm also sending you home with an antibiotic prescription. Make sure you finish the bottle, okay?"
Tessa nodded. Earlier, she'd been preoccupied with making it back to the ranch. Putting her horse away. Staggering to the house, all the while trying to hold her makeshift bandage in place.
Now, in the quiet of the clinic, the memory of that unexpected gunfire made her shiver.