By Sandra Brown
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Mean Streak
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"Ma'am, is anything wrong? Can I help you?"
Leigh Bransom didn't even see the man until he knocked on the window of her car. Overwhelmed by the pain that gripped the lower part of her body, she had been incognizant of all else. Now, lifting her head from the steering wheel and swiveling it toward the voice that had distracted her, she moaned in renewed agony. Her would-be rescuer looked like anything but a knight in shining armor.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
No, she wasn't, but she didn't want to admit it to this rough-looking man who could easily get away with any crime he chose to commit on this lonely stretch of highway. His clothes were filthy, stained with grease and sweat. His large brass belt buckle with the state seal of Texas on it was at Leigh's eye level as he bent from what must be a height of at least six feet to peer at her through the window. The well-worn jeans and short-sleeved plaid cotton shirt fit a large muscular frame. A battered straw cowboy hat cast a sinister shadow over the man's face. Amid the pains Leigh felt her heart contract with terror.
Perhaps if it weren't for the dark sunglasses that prevented her from looking into his eyes—
As though discerning her thoughts, the stranger took off the glasses, and Leigh stared into the bluest eyes she'd ever encountered. She saw no threat in that anxious blue gaze, and the spasm of fear passed. The man might be dirty, but he didn't seem to be dangerous.
"I'm not going to hurt you, ma'am. I only want to know if I can help." Leigh heard the concern in the stranger's voice, which, like his eyes, was oddly reassuring.
Another pain rippled through her, starting at her spine and creeping around her middle to her abdomen. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth to bite off the scream she felt rising in her throat and slumped forward, bumping her head on the steering wheel.
"Godamighty," she heard on an anxious rasp before the door was flung open. When the man saw her distended stomach, he whistled through his teeth. "What in the world are you doing out here by yourself in your condition?" he asked. Carelessly he tossed the sunglasses onto the dashboard over the steering wheel.
Leigh panted, trying to count out the seconds until the contraction subsided. His question was apparently rhetorical, as he seemed not to expect her to answer it. He laid his hand on her shoulder. It felt hot and dry against her cool, damp skin.
"Take it easy now. Okay? Easy. Better?" he asked when she sighed and leaned back against the seat.
"Yes," she said. For a moment she closed her eyes, trying to regain some strength, some dignity, with which to face the stranger while in the throes of labor. "Thank you."
"Hell, I haven't done anything yet. What do you want me to do? Where were you headed?"
"So was I. Do you want me to drive you there?"
She looked at him quickly, cautiously. He had squatted on his haunches between her and the car door. One strong, tanned hand was on the car seat, the other on the steering wheel. Now that the sunglasses were gone, she could study the deep blue eyes looking up at her with solicitude. If the eyes were truly the windows to the soul, Leigh knew she could trust this man.
"I… I guess that would be best."
He glanced over his shoulder. "I think I should drive your car and leave my truck here. Its—Oh God, another one?"
She had felt the contraction coming even before the pain hit her. Pressing her hands against the taut sides of her abdomen, she tried to remember to pant, forcing relaxation and control. When the contraction was over, she sagged against the seat.
"Ma'am, it's forty miles or so to Midland. We're not going to make it. How long have you been in labor?" He was speaking soothingly, calmly.
"I stopped about forty-five minutes ago. I had had some pains before then, but I thought they were indigestion."
He almost smiled, and she saw a hint of laugh lines around the startling eyes. "No one stopped to help you?"
She shook her head. "Only two other cars drove by. They didn't stop."
His eyes scanned the interior of the car to assess its limited space. "Do you think you can walk? If not, I'll carry you."
Carry her? To where? He read the panicked questions in her eyes. "You can lie down in the bed of my pickup. It's not a delivery room, but the baby won't know any better."
This time the smile was for real. The laugh lines were prominent and deep, the creases white in contrast to the rest of his skin, which was darkly tanned. His teeth flashed white and straight in the coppery face. Leigh realized that under other circumstances she would have found the face disarmingly attractive.
"I think I can walk," she said, sliding her legs from under the steering wheel as he stood up and moved aside. His hard, strong arm went around what at one time had been a slender waist. She leaned into him gratefully.
Taking tentative, short steps, they walked toward the rear of her car. The heat rolled up from the west Texas plains in suffocating waves. Leigh could barely breathe the scorching air into her lungs.
"Hang in there. Not much farther." His breath struck her cheek in warm, staccato puffs.
She focused on their feet. His long legs were comically matching her short, unsteady gait and he wobbled with the effort. Dust from the gravelly shoulder of the highway rose in clouds that powdered the well-manicured toenails that peeked out from her sandals and the scuffed, cracked leather of the stranger's boots.
His pickup was as dirty as he, covered with a fine layer of prairie dust. The blue and white paint had faded together into one dull beige. It was a dented rattletrap, but Leigh noted with relief that there were no obscene or suggestive bumper stickers on it.
"Lean up against here while I lower the tailgate," the man instructed, propping her against the side of the truck. Just as he turned away, another pain seized her.
"Oh!" Leigh cried, instinctively reaching for the stranger.
His arm went around her shoulders and a callused palm slid down her tightening abdomen to support it from beneath. "Okay, okay, do what you have to do. I'm here."
She buried her face in his shoulder as the contraction split her in two. It seemed to go on interminably, but at last diminished. She heard herself whimpering.
"Can you stand up?"
A scrape of rusty hinges, a clang of metal against metal, and then he was back, supporting her, gently lifting her into the bed of the truck. She sat with her back against the side while he hurriedly spread a tarpaulin out onto the ribbed floor of the vehicle. It looked none too clean, but it was better than the rusted bed of the truck. He cursed softly and muttered self-reproachfully as he spread out the army-green canvas.
"Now," he said, taking her shoulders in his hands and lowering her to the tarpaulin. "This is bound to feel better."
It did. She sighed as her back settled on the hard surface, not even minding that it was hot. Her body was filmed with perspiration that made her sundress stick to her cloyingly.
"Have you been taking classes to teach you how to breathe like that?"
"Yes. I couldn't attend as regularly as I wanted to, but I learned a few things."
"Feel free to apply anything you've learned," he said ruefully. "Do you have anything in your car that might be useful?"
"I have an overnight bag. There's a cotton nightgown in it. Kleenex is in the glove compartment." Her mother would be proud of her, Leigh thought wryly. Ever since she could remember, her mother had drilled into her that no lady was ever without a tissue.
"I'll be right back."
He vaulted over the side of the truck and Leigh noticed distractedly that for a man his size, he moved agilely. When he came back into her field of vision, he had her nightgown slung over one shoulder like a Roman toga. He handed her the box of Kleenex.
"I bought this newspaper this morning. I saw in a movie once that a newspaper comes in handy during an emergency birth. I think it's supposed to be germ-free or something. Anyway, you might want to slide this under your… uh… hips." He handed her the folded, unread newspaper and then turned his back quickly and climbed out of the truck again.
She did as he told her, feeling acutely self-conscious. Her embarrassment quickly dissolved when her abdomen cramped with another strong labor pain. Suddenly he was there, kneeling beside her, squeezing her hand between the two of his.
She stared at the watch he wore on his left wrist as she panted. It was stainless steel with all sorts of dials and gadgets, and ticked loudly. The intricate, expensive instrument was incongruous with the mud-caked cowboy boots and dirty clothes. Leigh's gaze slid from the watch to the stranger's long, tapering fingers, and she noted the absence of a wedding band. Was her baby to be delivered by a man who was not only not a doctor but not even a father?
"Are you married?" she asked as the lingering pain slowly ebbed.
"No." He took off the cowboy hat and tossed it against the cab of the pickup. His hair was long, and dark brown.
"This must be terrible for you. I'm sorry."
He smiled as he reached into his back jeans pocket and took out a bandanna handkerchief, which he tied around his forehead like a sweatband. Leigh was startled into an awareness of how handsome the man was. His shirt front hung open where he had unbuttoned it for coolness. Over the dark skin, his chest hair was spread like a finely spun web. "Aw, hell, this isn't so bad. I've done worse." His teeth gleamed behind his wide, sensual lips.
He popped a tissue out of the box and with gentle fingers dabbed at the perspiration beading her forehead and upper lip. "Only next time, you might pick a cooler day," he teased, coaxing her to smile.
"It was Doris Day," she said.
"It was a Doris Day movie. James Garner was her husband. He was an obstetrician. Arlene Francis went into labor in a Rolls-Royce and Doris Day helped him deliver the baby."
"Is that the one where he drives his car into the swimming pool?"
She laughed. "I think so."
"Who would have thought that a movie like that could be educational?" He ran the Kleenex around her neck.
"What is your name?"
"Chad Dillon, ma'am."
"I'm Leigh Bransom."
"It's a pleasure, Mrs. Bransom."
When the next pain came, it wasn't so bad, because Chad's capable hands stroked the hard, torturous ball her abdomen had become. As the contraction subsided, he said, "You're close, I think. Luckily I have a thermos of water in the cab of the truck. I'm going to wash my hands with it."
He got the large jug of water and, hanging his hands over the side of the truck, washed them as well as he could.
"What were you doing this afternoon?" Leigh asked tactfully, wondering how his clothes could get so dirty.
"I was tinkering on an airplane engine."
So he was a mechanic. Funny, he didn't seem…
"You'd better take off any underwear you have on," he said softly.
Leigh closed her eyes, too humiliated to meet his gaze. If only Chad weren't such an attractive man…
"Don't go shy on me now. We've got to get that baby here."
"I'm sorry," she murmured. She raised her dress. Having worn no slip or bra because of the heat, she had only panties to take off. With Chad's assistance, she peeled them down her legs and pulled her sandaled feet through them.
"Would you feel better without the shoes?" he asked.
"No. They're fine… Chad," she cried on another pain.
He quickly knelt between her raised knees. "I can see the head," he said with a relieved half-chuckle. "Are you supposed to push or… or something? What?"
Panting, she pushed with all her might. "That's the way," he encouraged her. "You're doing fine, ma'am." His low, steady voice was like a balm over her twisted insides.
"We're almost there, Leigh," he said, leaning forward to blot up her perspiration with another tissue. The bandanna he had tied around his forehead was wet with his own sweat. He swiped across his thick brows with the back of his hand. The hair on his chest was damply curled.
Quickly he took a pocket knife out of his jeans pocket, straightening his leg to work his hand down between the tight fabric. He poured water from the thermos over the knife, then cut a shoulder strap off her nightgown. "You're something, you know that?" he said. "Most women would be crying and carrying on. You're the bravest woman I've ever met."
No, no, I'm not! her mind screamed. She couldn't let him think that. She must tell him what a coward she really was. But before she could form the words, he went on, "Your husband's going to be proud of you."
"I… I don't have a husband," she said through gritted teeth as another labor pain bore down on her.
Stunned, Chad stared at her for a moment before her contorted features alerted him. His eyes dropped to the birth area, then opened wide in delight. "Oh, this is beautiful. That's it. A little harder. The head's out," he cried, laughing.
The baby choked, spat, then began to wail.
"Come on, Leigh, you're doing great. All we need is to get the shoulders out. There, there, that's it. Now! Oh, God!" he said, catching the slippery new baby in his capable hands. "Look what you've got. A beautiful baby girl."
Tears of relief were rolling down Leigh's cheeks as she looked at the man beaming down at her. "Let me see her," she breathed weakly. "Is she all right?"
"She… she's perfect," he said gruffly. "Just a minute. Let me take care of this cord." She felt the beating of fists and feet against her as he laid the baby between her thighs. "How are you doing?" he asked anxiously after a moment. He didn't look up. He was concentrating on what he was doing. A bead of sweat clung precariously to the tip of his chiseled nose.
"I'm wonderful," she said drowsily.
"I'll say you are. You're terrific."
Crouched between her legs, he worked. He raised his arm so his sleeve could absorb the perspiration on his face. Then he was lifting up the red, wet, wrinkled, squirming, squalling infant and laying her tenderly on Leigh's breast.
"Oh, Chad, thank you. Look at her. Isn't she a miracle?"
"Yes." His voice was rough.
The mellow look in her eyes changed to one of pain again.
She felt a gentle tugging, then relief.
"There. Is that better?" Chad wrapped the newspaper around the afterbirth.
The knife sliced deftly through the cotton of the nightgown. The baby mewed against her mother. Leigh was no longer aware of the heat, only of the wiggling flesh that she held in her arms. Her hands examined the baby's damp body. She counted toes and fingers. She kissed the beating soft spot on her daughter's head. Her daughter! Leigh was awed to think that this tiny, perfectly formed little girl had come from her body.
Chad was pressing the pad he had made of the nightgown between her thighs. He secured it with a makeshift belt around her waist.
"It feels strange to have a flat stomach again." She sighed.
He chuckled. "I'll bet it does. Are you too uncomfortable?"
Only now was she beginning to realize the throbbing ache. "No," she answered, but she knew hesitancy told him that she was.
"We've got to get you two to a hospital." Chad spoke almost to himself.
He pulled her dress down over her legs and awkwardly handed her the discarded panties. "If you'll get baby, I'll get you," he said. Easing her down to the tailgate, he caught her behind the knees and around her neck and lifted her off the truck's bed.
His long stride had them to the passenger side of the car within seconds. When he opened the door, the heat of the enclosed car struck her in the face. After seating Leigh, Chad ran to the driver's side and started the motor. "The air conditioner will cool this off in a minute. I'd take you in my truck, but the ride wouldn't be as smooth and it's cluttered with junk."
"This is fine, but how'll you get your truck back?"
"I'm not worried about that, but hold on while I secure it."
He was back within a minute. He slid the driver's seat back as far as it would go to accommodate his long legs. "Doesn't that seat recline?" he asked.
"I think you'd be more comfortable that way."
He adjusted the seat and aided her as she resettled into it, holding the baby. When he was sure they were as comfortable as possible, he put on the sunglasses again. The cowboy hat had been left in the back of the truck, but he was still wearing the bandanna around his forehead, and he had rebuttoned most of the buttons on his shirt.
"Chad, could you please hand me my bag? I think I should wrap her in something."
"Sure," he said, glancing down at the naked newborn. He braked long enough to haul the small suitcase onto the front seat. "All set? Are you okay?"
She smiled across the interior of the car at him. "I'm fine."
Her smile was returned. He seemed about to speak, but changed his mind and steered the small car onto the narrow highway. It bounced over the bumpy shoulder until it gained the pavement. Leigh bit her lip against the discomfort.
"I'm sorry. I know you're sore, but you didn't seem to have much bleeding or anything. I don't think you'll suffer too much once you get treatment."
Leigh rummaged through the overnight bag on the seat. In it she found an old comfortable T-shirt and wrapped the baby in its softness. "Lucky I had this along," she said absently.
"Where had you been or where were you going as the case might be?"
"I had been to Abilene. A sorority sister of mine got married last night. I had taken my one good maternity dress to wear to the wedding," she said, indicating the garment bag hanging on the hook beside the back seat. "But I knew when some of us got together, it would be like a slumber party. So I packed some other clothes for comfort."
He grinned down at the orange University of Texas T-shirt she had covered the baby with. "It was Providence." His brows lowered over his eyes, and he shifted them off the road long enough to look at her seriously. "You had no business driving alone like that. When were you due?"
"Not for two more weeks. But you're right. I was asking for trouble. I wanted to go to that wedding so badly, and there was no one to go with me, so…" She let the end of the sentence trail off.
"Why didn't you stay on I-twenty? It goes straight from Abilene into Midland."
"I was driving a friend home from the wedding. She lives in Tarzan. I had to see a town named Tarzan, Texas. My pains didn't start until I'd left there."
He cursed on a soft laugh.
She looked down at her fretful daughter. "I only hope my baby's all right."
"Her lungs are okay," Chad said, grinning.
The baby girl wailed. Her face became mottled as small limbs thrashed against her mother. Worried the baby's crying would irritate him, Leigh looked nervously at Chad. He was concentrating on his driving, which wasn't difficult since there wasn't another car on the highway. What would have happened to me if Chad hadn't come by when he did? Leigh thought as she shifted the baby from one arm to another.
They were still twenty miles from Midland when the baby's cries became even more strenuous. Leigh looked at Chad, who met her worried gaze across the seat. He slowed the car, stopping in the middle of the highway. On this stretch of road there was nothing between Leigh's car and the horizon in any direction.
"What should I do?" Leigh asked in consternation. What would this man know about babies? He wasn't even married. Yet she found herself turning to him and not even examining why it seemed so natural to do so.
He ran a weary hand around the back of his neck and pushed away a loose strand of sun-bleached hair from his forehead. "I don't know. Maybe if you… uh… fed her…"
Leigh was grateful that the violet light of dusk covered her confusion. "I won't have any… any milk for a few days."
"I know, but maybe just… you know… an instinctive need for… comfort." He shrugged.
The baby screamed louder. The tiny blue veins on her head stood out alarmingly as her flailing fists pummeled her mother. Making the decision for her, Chad slid his hand across the back of the seat and pulled at the tied shoulder strap of Leigh's sundress. Not able to look at him, she shook her shoulder, easing the dress down until her breast was free. Cupping it, she nudged it toward her daughter's angry face. With a surprising accuracy, the baby's mouth found and greedily fastened onto her mother's nipple.
Spontaneously Leigh and Chad started laughing. For long moments they chuckled over the baby's avid, noisy sucking. When Leigh raised her eyes to Chad's, he was no longer looking at the baby, but at her. And his look halted her laughter abruptly.
She saw in his admiring gaze that even in her current state of dishevelment he found her lovely. His words confirmed it.
"Maternity becomes you, Leigh," Chad said softly. "With those long chestnut curls, those gray-blue eyes the color of thunderstorm clouds, that mouth as soft and pink as your baby's—and most of all your expression when you look at your child—you remind me of one of those fifteenth-century Italian paintings of the Madonna. Only you're not a painting." He continued to look at her appreciatively.
Leigh studied him with the same thoroughness. How could she ever have thought this sensitive man posed a threat to her? She had seen only his dirty clothes, his sweat-streaked, beard-stubbled face. Now she saw the gentleness in his eyes. His hands, though callused, seemed sure and strong and capable of tenderness. When she remembered the intimacy with which he had seen her, had touched her, she lowered her dark lashes to shutter her eyes from his.
Looking down at her daughter, she saw Chad's hand extending toward the baby. Closer. She held her breath. His long, well-shaped index finger touched her daughter's cheek. Stroked. Leigh could feel that caress against her breast.
"What are you going to name her?"
"Sarah," she said without hesitation.
"I like that."
"Do you?" she asked, looking at him again. "It was my mother-in-law's name."
He yanked his hand back as though he had been burned. "I thought you said you weren't married."
"I'm not. Not now. My husband was killed."
A full minute ticked by as he gazed out at the setting sun, a huge red ball at the end of the highway. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "How long ago?"
"Eight months. He didn't even know I was pregnant. He was a narcotics agent. He was shot during a raid."
A whispered expletive sizzled through a short silence. Chad looked down at the baby again. She was sleeping, her only movement an occasional sucking motion of her rosebud mouth. "I think you're both very special ladies," he murmured before shifting the car into gear again.
Leigh must have dozed after that. The next thing she knew, Chad was wheeling up to the emergency entrance of the hospital. He honked the horn of her small car long and loud as he braked to a stop and cut the motor. Turning toward Leigh, he lifted the infant away from her breast. "Better fix your dress," he instructed brusquely. With clumsy haste, she tied the shoulder strap. Sarah started fussing again. Chad handed the baby back to Leigh. "Wait right here," he told her.
This was another Chad, issuing orders like a general to orderlies and nurses who had rushed out to see what the commotion was about. The car door was pulled open and eager hands relieved Leigh of her baby. Then she was hauled out and lifted onto a stretcher. The journey from her car to the examination room made her dizzy and slightly nauseated. She was moved to an examination table and her feet were shoved into cold metal stirrups.
Where was her baby? She hurt. Was that blood she felt running down her thighs? How did they know her name? It hurt when they touched and probed. Who was this doctor who kept telling her not to worry about anything? Were they giving her a shot?
Where was Chad?
* * *
She was very sleepy. Her eyelids could barely be coaxed open. The room was dark. There was a tight, pinching sensation between her thighs when she tried to move her legs, and her face felt hot and prickly. Gradually Leigh realized that her hair was being smoothed back by a gentle hand. Everywhere else she felt battered. Her eyes opened wider and she saw Chad Dillon's handsome, concerned face bending over her.
"Leigh, I'm leaving now. I hated to wake you, but I wanted to say good-bye."
He smiled. "She's fine. I just looked in on her in the nursery. She's in an incubator, but they assured me she's strong and healthy. No problems with the lungs. Perfect."
Leigh closed her eyes again to offer up a quick prayer of thanksgiving. "When can I see her?"
"When you're rested. You went through quite an ordeal, remember?" His palm settled lightly and briefly on her cheek before he withdrew it.
Embarrassed, confused, and disoriented, Leigh looked around the room, spotting an enormous bouquet of yellow roses on the portable tray at the foot of her bed. "Flowers?" She looked at him questioningly.
"No new mother should be without them."
Inexplicably tears came into her eyes. The roses must have cost a fortune and he couldn't afford new boots. "Thank you. That was sweet of you, Chad."
He ducked his head boyishly, shyly. "The doctor who treated you called your parents in Big Spring. I found their address and phone number in your wallet, on one of those notify-in-case-of-emergency cards. They're on their way. I told the doctor where your car is parked. The keys are with the head nurse. Your insurance card got you and Sarah into the hospital without any hassles. Your own doctor will check you over in the morning, but they told me you only needed to rest. I don't think I did you much damage. How do you feel?"
"Like I've had a baby in the back of a pickup," she said, hazarding a grin. "My face stings."
He chuckled softly. "You're sunburned."
- On Sale
- May 5, 2015
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing