Authors: D'Ann Lindun
This edition published by
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
10151 Carver Road, Suite 200
Blue Ash, Ohio 45242
Copyright © 2012 by Christine D. Linscott-Dunham
ISBN 10: 1-4405-4611-8
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-4611-2
eISBN 10: 1-4405-4612-6
eISBN 13: 978-1-4405-4612-9
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © 123rf.com/Sarah Nicholl, curaphotography
Because you never stopped believing…
… and all the wild horses
“Damn, it’s hotter than the devil’s backyard out here.” Castaña Castillo took one hand off the steering wheel just long enough to swipe at the trickle of sweat running down the nape of her neck and adjust the volume on the radio. One of her favorites, “Amarillo by Morning,” wafted from the speakers.
Not even George Strait’s silky smooth voice helped ward off her exhaustion. Castaña’s hands felt like twisted claws wrapped around the steering wheel, and the space between her shoulders ached until she prayed it would go numb. The AC gasped out its last breath of cool air somewhere in the middle of Texas yesterday afternoon. Both windows in her old Dodge were down, blasting June air through the cab like a roar from an open furnace. An enormous red and orange sun sinking out of the Arizona sky made a blinding glare on the bug-splattered windshield.
Her eyes burned from keeping them open. She tried to rest last night, parked near the highway and huddled in her combination camper horse trailer, but worrying about her missing brother kept her awake until almost three in the morning. According to a woman who refused to identify herself, no one had seen Martin for a few days. The mystery caller implied he might be lying out in the forest hurt … or worse.
If the horses hadn’t needed to rest, she would’ve pressed on through the night. Bringing her expensive show horses along might have been foolish, but she didn’t know how long she would be in Arizona. She hated leaving her animals in someone else’s care for more than a day or two. More importantly, she needed the horses in order to search the rough forest terrain.
Something large flashed in the corner of her eye. The pines made it impossible to see exactly what. An elk? Deer? If one of them jumped out in the road —
The animal shot toward her and she jerked the steering wheel. The pickup’s front left tire dropped into the loose gravel beside the road, making the rig slide. She had no control. Fighting the truck back to the right, she said, “Stand up, boys.”
The pickup refused to cooperate, skidding for at least another hundred feet. In spite of her best efforts to fight it back, the rig flew forward at an alarming rate. Desperately, she tapped the brake in an attempt to keep the trailer from flipping. The truck finally lurched to a stop; the trailer jackknifed across the road.
After a moment to catch her breath, Castaña grabbed her pistol out of the glove box, opened the door, and jumped out on noodle-weak legs. A cloud of swirling dust surrounded the stalled truck and trailer and she sneezed. Wiping away dust-filled tears, she ran for the horses. If one of the geldings had been gravely injured, she’d have to put him down.
Jumping inside the trailer, she checked over both of her passengers. The horses rolled their eyes and pawed, but otherwise seemed unharmed. She sagged with relief and tucked the gun in the back of her jeans. Back on the pavement, she noticed something next to the road. She rubbed her sand dry eyes with her fists and stared.
A man staggering to his feet. Had she clipped him? No, she would’ve felt the bump. Was he the big blur she’d noticed?
She hurried toward him. “The sun — I couldn’t see.”
He came toward her, weaving. Was he drunk? On drugs? Maybe dangerous? Did she need to go for the gun?
“Some … body … tried …” He swayed again.
“You need to sit down.” What kind of idiot thought a truck and horse trailer could come to an instant halt? Didn’t he know she couldn’t slam on her brakes when hauling horses? “I truly didn’t see you.”
“Obv … ‘sly,” he growled, leaning a little.
“I couldn’t see — ”
“Fast. Goin’ too fassst.”
“I was not driving too fast. Why were you standing beside the road?” Looking over his shoulder, which wasn’t easy considering he towered her own five-nine by at least four or five inches, she searched for a vehicle. “Where’s your car?”
“I need,” he swayed like a tree about to come crashing down, “help.”
Castaña slipped by the stranger so she was standing in the road, and gave him a gentle push so he leaned against the truck. She considered his brightly sunburned face, neck and arms. He looked like hell. The slurred words meant he was about to wilt. She’d lived in hot, dry climates long enough to recognize signs of heat stroke. He could still be dangerous, though. She and Martin had spent most of their childhood roaming the woods and no one had ever harmed them, but times had changed.
He didn’t look like a serial killer, but by most accounts Ted Bundy had been clean cut, even handsome. For a minute, she wondered if she was making a terrible mistake not getting away from this guy. She glanced around. There was nothing out here but Martin’s ranch and the forest surrounding it. Because there was no public access or camping, almost no one traveled out here. The gun against her back reassured her. “What do you want from me?” she asked.
“You don’t have one?” Going into the mountains alone with no phone seemed foolish.
He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a familiar model. “No … ser …visss.”
She reached in her front pocket and pulled out her cell. Handing it over her said, “Here. Help yourself.”
He looked at it and slowly shook his head.
She took it back and examined it for herself. She should’ve known there wouldn’t be any bars out here in the middle of nowhere. “I can call someone from my brother’s ranch, but I can’t go back to town right now. I’m kind of in a hurry.”
“How fa … r?”
“About fifteen miles to Payson.” There wasn’t time to run this stranger back to town, but she couldn’t let him collapse out in the Arizona sun either. “I can give you a drink and a lift to the ranch where you can wait for help. But I can’t do more than that.”
He swayed a little. “Thanks.”
Why couldn’t she just drive away and leave him to deal with his own problems? That’s what Pop would’ve done. But she was nothing like her father. She straightened her shoulders. “I’m Castaña.” She didn’t offer her last name. There wasn’t any reason for him to know because as soon as someone picked him up she’d forget about him.
“Cas — ?” His chapped lips couldn’t form the word.
She sighed. Why hadn’t her parents named her Jane? Because Ramon and Magdalena Castillo were too traditional for a name like Jane, that’s why. “Castaña. Run
together. Fast.” She demonstrated. “Castaña. And you are?”
“Jake.” Like her, he didn’t mention a last name. He held out his hand, and when she took it, his skin felt clammy. His sage blue eyes met hers squarely and her stomach twisted a little. Sunburn aside, this guy was sexy as hell.
“That’s an ugly burn, and I bet you’ve got blisters, too.”
He glanced at his feet and grimaced. “A drink … be fine.”
Was he kidding? He looked like a piece of meat someone had overcooked twice and all he wanted was a drink? “I have water and soda inside the trailer.”
“Gre — ” His eyes rolled back in his head, and before she could react, he slid down the truck’s fender, landing at her feet.
“Crap!” Castaña dropped to her knees and shook his shoulder. “Jake? Jake? Wake up.”
His eyes slowly opened and found her face. “Wha — ?”
“You fainted. Can you get up?”
“Yeah,” he grunted. He struggled to stand, but fell back. “Dizzy.”
“Let me help.” Wrapping her arm around his waist, wobbling under his weight, she wrestled him into the truck. He was solid as a side of beef. She breathed a huge sigh of relief when he collapsed in the seat. “We’ve got to get you cooled down.”
Eyes closed, he nodded.
• • •
In less than half an hour, Castaña pulled into the ranch and killed the engine. Even in twilight, it looked as if the place hadn’t changed much since the day she drove away six years ago. Blinking back tears of regret, she took in the familiar wood hewn ranch house with its wide porch that offered shade even on the hottest day, the small barn and the attached corrals. Farther, she saw horse pasture, and surrounding it all the Apache-Sitgreave National Forest. Up here, on the rim, it was forest, not desert. A lump formed in her throat and she fought to swallow. The day after her eighteenth birthday, she’d packed up and set off for Dallas planning never to look back.
The last place she wanted to see ever again was this dusty old ranch that held very few happy memories and less opportunity. After a lifetime of being told by her father she wasn’t good enough, she was beginning to make something of herself as a horse trainer in Texas. Martin had been the only child her father wanted, or desired. Men in the Castillo family didn’t rely on women for anything more than physical pleasure.
Wouldn’t Martin be horrified to know she was the one he depended on now? But no matter how much he’d rejected her in the past, she couldn’t just leave her brother to die. Finding him safe and sound was all she asked. She knew better than to hope for acceptance from him. A low moan to her right reminded her she had another headache. She shot a glance toward her passenger. He rested, half slumped against the door, eyes closed.
Sighing, she opened the door and stepped out into the baking Arizona evening. As she walked toward the house the front door swung open and a young, very pregnant blonde stepped out. Was she Martin’s girlfriend? He hadn’t mentioned a serious relationship in any of their infrequent talks. But they hadn’t spent a lot of time talking about relationships; their discussions nearly always ended up with them arguing about horses. Specifically, wild horses.
Castaña wrinkled her brow, remembering the last time she spoke to her brother. Christmas. She told him to give up trying to save the mustangs and come work with her in Dallas. He hung up angry she wouldn’t support him; she hung up hurt by his refusal to give up a lost cause.
Taking a few steps closer, she waved. “Hello. I’m Castaña Castillo. I think we spoke on the phone a couple days ago.”
The girl didn’t reply.
Castaña could barely stifle her impatience. “I’m Martin’s sister. Is he back?”
The girl rubbed her belly with both hands. “Uh … no.”
Castaña went back and opened the truck door. The girl appeared at her shoulder, peering at the stranger. “Can you tell me where to put this guy once I get him inside?”
Jake’s mesmerizing eyes fluttered open for a minute and focused on them, but he wasn’t seeing them. He needed to cool down immediately.
After Castaña tugged him out, she staggered under his bulk. As the girl led the way, Castaña half supported, half dragged him into the house and into her old room. Stark white walls replaced her posters of Garth Brooks, Toby Keith and Charmayne James, but the bed was made with the same flowered quilt Castaña used during her childhood. Wrestling Jake onto the bed took a huge effort, but somehow they managed to get it done. He moaned once or twice, but he didn’t open his eyes again.