A Garth Brooks song played on the radio. The windshield wipers worked overtime pushing away the snow as Katie drove back home after the New Year’s Eve party held at her brother’s place. The roads were empty at two a.m. Not that they were ever too crowded in her small hometown of Garnet.
Katie had gone to her brother Chris’s just in case her ex tried to stop by the house after he sent her flowers for New Year’s Eve, asking for a second chance. Her divorce had been two years of hell, and Grayson still
didn’t want to let go.
Now she was stuck driving back home through the early stirrings of what looked to be a nasty winter storm. Damn Grayson
. She would’ve been happier spending the night on her couch with a bottle of wine and Ryan Seacrest to keep her company.
Determined to enjoy the first vestiges of the New Year, she turned up the radio. She started thinking of her mother and deliberately sang along. Her mother used to love Garth Brooks.
Katie didn’t notice the blue car behind her until it was practically on top of her. That little car just seemed to appear out of nowhere. It had to be doing ninety at least. On a snowy, two-lane road that was nothing but sharp turns. Were they crazy?
She expected them to pass her. Even if it was a two-lane road, people did it all the time. Katie certainly wasn’t going to speed up in a snowstorm to make a lunatic driver happy. A chill ran down her spine when the driver continued to ride her tail rather than pass. For one moment she thought it could be Grayson, but this driver was noticeably swerving. Grayson didn’t drink.
She slowed down, hoping the driver would pass, but they just remained plastered to Katie’s bumper in a way that made her feel bullied. Her instincts were on high alert. It was clear this person was trying to scare her.
And they were obviously drunk.
She turned on her blinker, intent on pulling off the road, but before she could, the driver sped up and finally made the move to go around her. Katie looked at the driver, but in the darkness all she could make out was the long hair and slim frame of a woman. She also couldn’t help but notice being flipped off when the strange woman stuck her hand out of the open sunroof. Maybe if the driver had been paying attention to the road instead of giving Katie the middle finger, she would’ve seen the white pickup truck coming over the hill. As it was, the woman didn’t even try to slow down.
As if caught in a nightmare, Katie watched the truck swerve violently to avoid the blue car suddenly in their lane. The last thing Katie heard before her world exploded was the blaring of a horn and the skid of tires against icy asphalt.
Glass was everywhere. The sting of it was in her face and neck. She could feel the warm trickle of blood running into her eye, but all that was nothing but sensory annoyance next to what was going on with her left arm. The agony was so extreme she wouldn’t have been able to comprehend it before this moment. A scream burst out of her as the shock of getting hit cleared between one heartbeat and the next. She tried to tug her arm free from where it was pinned by the twisted metal that was once her driver’s side door.
She nearly blacked out from the pain. She started hyperventilating as the smell of smoke filled her senses. She was claustrophobic in the best of circumstances. After five years in a mentally abusive relationship, Katie didn’t like feeling trapped. She was in such a freak mode, she found herself trying to steel herself against the pain and willing the strength to attempt jerking her arm free again...even if it caused more damage.
She needed out of her car.
“I’m calling 911!”
Katie heard the voice from somewhere. Low and gruff, vibrating with panic. She blinked, focusing on it.
“Stop moving. I’m getting help.”
Katie hadn’t realized she’d been fighting to get out until the passenger side door was abruptly opened, and the blast of cold air hit her. She blinked at a tan face. Light blue eyes swirled with concern, hidden partially by locks of dark hair. As insane as it was, this man was so handsome that for the pulse of one second she forgot the pain, but in the next breath, it slammed into her with such force it wouldn’t have made a difference if it was Bradley Cooper sitting himself in the passenger seat of her car.
The handsome stranger was talking rapidly on his phone.
She started crying. Embarrassing. Ugly crying. Punctuated by really dignified statements about her predicament like, “Ow, ow ow.”
He asked her questions. She thought she answered them correctly.
She couldn’t believe this
was how she was starting the New Year.
As she sat there, trapped, in pain and shivering in shock and cold, he took off his jacket and put it around her. “They’re coming,” he told her, sounding concerned as he held the phone to his ear. “Mrs. Wellings says they’ll be here in three minutes or less.”
Katie nodded, feeling a little better and a lot warmer. “That’s Jules?” She struggled to stop the tears and speak clearly. “Can you tell her it’s Katie Foster so she can call my brother?”
Katie actually heard Jules’s screech through the phone. Jules Wellings had been Katie’s attorney for the divorce and one of her only true advocates. A very busy woman and a mom of twins, Jules rarely worked 911 dispatch these days, even if her twin brother was sheriff. It was a small stroke of luck.
The world hazed out in relief then. Knowing it was Jules sending help eased some of her panic, and this handsome stranger sitting in Katie’s mangled car had kind eyes. He had even given her his jacket, and it left his arms bare to the cold--really big arms
. He had tribal tattoos on his biceps, and a large snake inked into the corded muscles on the inside of his right forearm. She’d never seen tattoos like that up close. They made him look undeniably dangerous, but for some reason she wasn’t nervous in his presence. She focused on him because there was nothing else but the pain to set her attention on.
He cursed when his phone died. “Hijo de la gran puta!
“A-aren’t you cold?” she stuttered as she stared at those bunched, tattooed muscles rather than think of the agony in her arm.
“I just slammed into your car two hours after New Years. You should want my ass to be cold.” He let out a bitter laugh full of self-hatred as he turned to her in concern. “I’m sorry about this.” He shook his head. “Coño
. That sounded lame, huh? You can’t just say sorry for something like this.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “This is my worst nightmare. It was the last thing I fucking needed on my conscience.”
“I know it wasn’t your fault.” More tears rolled down her cheeks. “T-there was nothing you could’ve done.”
“I could’ve swerved the other way.”
Well, there was that.
“I had a couple beers when the ball dropped. I don’t even know why I hung around Chuito’s when I should’ve left for Miami yesterday morning. I just hadn’t seen him in so long. Hell, I thought I was sober. I waited a couple of hours before I headed back home, but obviously--” He paused and then picked up Katie’s good hand, squeezing it tightly. “I really am
sorry, Katie Foster. You seem like a sweet girl, and you didn’t need my shit luck rubbing off on you.”
“My luck isn’t all that great either,” she confessed as she squeezed his hand back rather than pull away. “Obviously.”
“Feel better. I promise you a messed up arm’s gonna end a lot better than what this accident is gonna do to me. You’ll get your revenge, chica
She heard the nervousness over the drinks he had. He was likely facing a DUI. He could’ve taken off like the other driver. Instead he was sitting there, jacketless, holding her hand.
“You should leave,” she whispered. “Go, and I’ll forget what your truck looked like. See if it’s still drivable.”
“I’m not leaving you.” He snorted as if the thought were ridiculous.
“But the drinking?”
“Your friend, Jules Wellings, she knew it was me who called 911. I met with her a couple of days ago hoping to get sponsored by the Cellar. Hell, I was staying with Chuito Garcia. He lives above her offices. She knows where to find me. I promise.” He gave her a sad smile, showing off white teeth. The bottom ones were a little crooked, making it obvious he hadn’t suffered through four years of braces like Katie had, but somehow that just added to his charm. “So we’ll just sit here together and face the bad luck head-on. That’s what I usually do. This time I got company. It’s all good.”
She looked back to this stranger with no little amount of admiration for his courage. He was a fighter. Even if he hadn’t just admitted to it, he had the look of a man who spent his days working out in the Cellar.
The Cuthouse Cellar, Garnet’s one claim to fame, was a state-of-the-art MMA training center in town. Every day it seemed more up-and-coming fighters chose the Cellar as their training camp. It was clear he was one of those men who came here looking for fame and glory, but unfortunately for this one, his life collided with hers instead.
What a shame.
She was still staring at him in amazement. Her intrigue with him was enough to keep her from crying. The pain still throbbed in her arm, radiating out to the rapid thump, thump, thump
of her heartbeat, but with him near, it was almost as if that crazy strength it took to be an MMA fighter was rubbing off.
“Does it work?” she whispered.
He frowned. “Does what work?”
“Just f-facing it head-on?” she clarified. “The bad luck?”
He seemed to consider that for a moment before he grinned. “At least you know when the next punch is coming. Nothing worse than getting blindsided, right?”
“Right,” she agreed softly, looking down to her arm, trying to see how bad the damage was. All she saw was the blood. It made her stomach lurch, and she looked over to the fighter once more. “I’m gonna try that. F-facing things. Not hiding from my problems anymore.”
“Where I come from, teenagers would fuck with me when I was young. Hard kids. Thugs. Nothing fazed them. They’d use anyone to get the job done. They’d make eight-year-olds run their drugs if it kept the heat off them, and I wasn’t ready for all that. Then I figured out it was harder for them to threaten me if I was looking them dead in the eye.” He squeezed her hand once more. “That’s the one thing they can’t take from you. Your courage.”
“I’m not courageous,” she admitted, feeling her cheeks heat despite everything. “I’m the exact opposite o-of courageous.”
“You seem pretty brave to me.” He tilted his head to look at her with noticeable admiration. “All the girls I know would be freaking out and screaming their heads off right about now.”
The wail of sirens had him jumping out of the car before she could respond. He faced a possible DUI head-on, without even flinching. She watched him wave down Sheriff Conner, who beat the ambulance to the accident site. The sheriff came flying out of the car. He didn’t pay more than a passing glance to the young fighter other than to say, “Don’t you be going anywhere, boy.”
Then he was crawling into the passenger side of her car, filling up the small space with his powerful presence. She always forgot just how big the sheriff was until she was next to him. He was one seriously large fella, but Katie’s mind was on her fighter standing out in the snow without a jacket.
The sheriff touched the pulse point at her neck and shined a light in her eyes as he asked, “How ya doing, Katie?”
“O-okay. Listen, Sheriff--”
“Jules is calling your brother. She wanted me to tell you that she’ll make sure he meets you at Mercy General.” The sheriff leaned over her, shining his flashlight toward the door that held her arm trapped. “We need to make sure you don’t move until Tommy and the fire department get out here.”
“Yeah, but Sheriff--”
The sheriff picked up the radio on his hip and started speaking into it. Most of what he was saying was police jargon, but she got the gist of it. They needed bigger equipment out here to cut her out of this car. The fear washed over her in icy-hot waves. She used her good hand to pull the fighter’s jacket tighter around her, seeking comfort from it. Her instinct was to start crying again, but she realized now why her thoughts were scattered in other directions besides the pain. Extreme shock had settled in at some point. Her arm was still hurting, but her acknowledgment of it had faded to the background.
More sirens wailed in the distance. Help was coming. She should be relieved, but instead she looked back to the fighter, standing there illuminated by her headlights. The snow was falling in his dark hair and resting on his broad shoulders.
“It wasn’t his fault,” she said quickly to Sheriff Conner, wanting to get it out before the fire department showed up. “There was another car. This crazy woman swerved into his lane right as he was coming over the hill. None of this was his fault, Sheriff. It was just b-bad luck.”
“Okay, darling.” The sheriff squeezed her good hand. “Just focus on breathing easy and not moving until we can get you out. Can you do that?”
Katie took a deep breath and nodded. “Yeah, but about--” She paused, realizing she’d never asked his name. “The m-man out there.”
“Don’t you worry ’bout Marcos. He’s a big boy, and there’s not a scratch on him.” The sheriff squeezed her hand once more. “You’re the one we’re gonna focus on right now.”
“It was just bad luck,” she repeated, thinking of not just the accident, but a long string of rotten luck and getting the impression she wasn’t alone as she stared at the fighter again. “It wasn’t his fault.”
Rather than respond, the sheriff got out of the car to meet the fire truck that pulled up. Katie got the distinct impression the fighter, Marcos, was low on his priority list, but Katie still worried about him.
The entire time they worked at cutting her out of the mangled mess of her car, she thought of Marcos. She would look for him, her gaze searching the accident site when the fear or pain got too much. She’d usually find him standing out of the way with a brown blanket over his shoulders. She wished she could hold his hand again, but there were firefighters everywhere. Tommy, the paramedic, sat next to her taking her vitals, talking in that calming voice of his that made it obvious why he was good at what he did. He had put a brace around her neck. He was getting her ready for the stretcher as the horrible grinding of metal being cut away made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.
She was shaking. The shock was still clouding her brain. It blocked out some of the pain, but still she fought for clarity as the relief of finally being free made her vision haze. The world started to spin as they put her on a stretcher. Tommy had to take extra time with her arm, splinting it on a board. Katie didn’t have the nerve to look.
“I-I need the jacket,” she told them, knowing it had been tossed aside somewhere. She didn’t want it to end up at the tow yard. “P-please. I need to take it with me to the hospital.”
“Sure, darling.” Tommy gave her a warm smile that made more than a few Garnet women weak-kneed.
The paramedic was one of their most eligible bachelors, but Katie was still worried about her fighter. She breathed a sigh of relief when Tommy put the jacket over her as they wheeled her toward the ambulance. She was just starting to think everything might be all right when Sheriff Conner’s voice drifted over from the other side of the street.
“Have you been drinking tonight, Mr. Rivera?”
She wanted to scream at him to lie.
Instead she heard her fighter face it head-on. “Yeah, Sheriff, I had a few beers at midnight.”
She found herself staring at the roof of the ambulance before she could hear how it all played out. The sirens came to life. Tommy, the handsome paramedic, alternated between checking her vitals and writing things on his chart. All the while he laid on that charm he was famous for, obviously very accustomed to making horrible situations a little easier with the good looks God gave him.
Yet all she could think about was Marcos, the mystery fighter with kind eyes, dangerous tattoos, and a horrible case of bad luck almost as epic as hers.