There was a bloody man walking down the middle of the road.
India Sommers’s heart leaped into her throat the moment her headlights fell on the tall, lean figure. Had she been more familiar with the area, she might’ve come racing around the bend in her quiet Prius and accidentally mowed him down, but he didn’t seem to give a damn about the danger. He looked too angry to care. And judging by his rumpled clothes, she thought she could guess why. This guy had been in a fight.
He seemed determined to flag her down. But she’d seen enough violence to recognize that he was no helpless victim, which made her far less sympathetic to whatever he needed than she might otherwise have been.
She started to slow; she didn’t want to hit him. But neither was she willing to leave herself vulnerable. She was alone on a winding road in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and she’d moved to Gold Country only this week. She hadn’t had a chance to meet more than a handful of people. For all she knew, this man could be some kind of crazed lunatic who’d just com- mitted murder!
He looked menacing, with his hands curled into fists and his jaw set as if he’d like to take another swing at someone.
Who had he tangled with already?
She edged to the right so she could squeeze past him. Once it seemed safe, she planned to punch the gas pedal and get out of there. Whatever he’d been involved in, she wanted no part of it. Since she’d been using GPS to get home from the art show she’d attended in another town, she had her cell phone in the passenger seat. She’d call the police as soon as she was well away, so she wouldn’t leave him stranded, and be done with this.
But the minute she slowed and he started to approach, she recognized him. It was her neighbor! She’d seen him out with his brothers, throwing a football the day she moved in. The three of them—all equally tall, dark and muscular—had even hauled her potter’s wheel into the screened-in porch at the back of her house, where she’d decided to work through the summer.
Although still a little reluctant to stop, she couldn’t just drive off, not if her neighbor needed help. So she stepped on the brake, and Rod—she remembered his name because he was the type of man a woman wouldn’t easily forget—came to the side of the car.
A chill ran through her as he waited for her to lower the window. Was she a fool for trusting him? Just because he lived next door didn’t make him safe, especially if he was high on something. And even if she could normally outrun him, which wasn’t likely, she was wearing a long dress and heels.
Cursing her desire to be helpful and polite, which occasionally overrode her good sense, she pressed the button.
“It’s you,” he said as soon as they no longer had a barrier of glass between them.
“Yes.” She wasn’t sure he remembered her name, so she added it. “India Sommers.”
“Right. My new neighbor. Listen, India, I need you to call the cops.”
He seemed quite matter-of-fact. She didn’t get the impression that he intended to drag her out of the driver’s seat and into the woods—or steal her purse or her Prius. But she’d been correct when she guessed he’d been in a fight. His knuckles were scraped.
“What happened?” she asked.
He wiped the drop of blood that was running from his mouth. “Some bastard got out of line.”
And Rod had put him back in line? Where was that bastard?
Butterflies danced in India’s belly as she squinted to see down the road, as far into the darkness as she could. “Where is this person?”
“Back that way.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. The other guy hadn’t driven off? Why? “Is he seriously injured?”
Rod stretched his fingers, as if his hand hurt. “Probably not seriously, but he’s out cold.”
She still wasn’t clear on why he’d been walking in the road. This remote location wasn’t one you’d arrive at on foot. “So…why are you without transportation? Were you traveling together?”
“No. He wrecked my motorcycle when he came up from behind and ran me off the road. Now it’s undrivable. And somehow in the scuffle I lost my phone. I looked for his, but he doesn’t seem to have one on him.”
“It’s a miracle you’re alive!” she said as she reached for her cell. “What would make someone do what he did?” Obviously irritated, Rod gestured as if too much had happened to explain. “It started before, at the bar. I should’ve kicked his ass then.”
“Oh, God.” Her hand shook as she dialed 911. She didn’t do well with violence; she’d seen too much of it. That was part of the reason she’d come to Whiskey Creek—to start over in a place that still felt innocent. Her past was littered with dangerous yet attractive rebels, men a lot like this neighbor of hers. The rough, outlaw type used to fill her with excitement, with desire. They made her feel… alive.
She’d learned a few lessons since then about what really mattered. It wasn’t a reckless disregard for the rules, or a handsome face and rock-hard abs. These days she understood that in more than a cognitive sense; it’d sunk deep into her emotional memory. But whether she’d learned her lesson or not, she was still paying a terrible price for having associated with the wrong people.
As she waited for the dispatcher to pick up, she eyed the tattoo—a snake slithering up a tree—that covered the sinewy contours of Rod’s right arm until it disappeared into the sleeve of his white T-shirt. Yep, this was exactly the kind of guy she would’ve liked once upon a time. She wouldn’t have cared that he could be volatile. She wouldn’t have cared that he probably didn’t have a college education or even a decent job. Physically, he was everything a woman dreamed about.
And he’d probably be good in bed—although she had no idea where that thought came from. Just the casual way he held himself, his lack of self-consciousness and natural confidence, she supposed. He stood out from other men. But the intimacy she’d shared with Charlie, who was nothing like this guy, had been sweet and fulfilling. What Charlie had brought to the rest of her life was even better. She needed to find another man like him—when she was ready.
“911. What is your emergency?”
At the sound of the operator’s voice, she snapped to attention. “Hello… I’m out on…” She looked up at Rod for help. She’d forgotten the name of the street. She wasn’t familiar with anything other than the few blocks that constituted the center of town and Gulliver Lane, which led from town to her place.
“Old Church Road,” he said.
She’d begun to repeat that when he took her phone and spoke into it himself. “There’s been an incident about a mile before you get to Sexy Sadie’s outside Whiskey Creek. A man’s down, so send an ambulance.”
The operator must’ve asked for more details, because he said, “I’m not a doctor. All I can tell you is that he’s not moving.”
“Sir? What caused his injuries? Are you still there?
Can I get your name?”
India could hear those questions, since Rod was handing her the cell. “Um, just get someone here quick,” she told the dispatcher and disconnected.
“Would you mind giving me a ride back to my bike?” he asked.
India wasn’t sure she wanted him in her car. But he had to know she was going in that direction; they lived next door to each other.
“Okay,” she said, because she didn’t see how she could refuse.
When he walked around the front of her car, she noticed that he favored his left leg and figured he had a few injuries of his own, in addition to the scraped knuckles and busted lip.
“You could use some medical attention yourself,” she said when he opened the passenger door.
“I’m all right,” he responded as he climbed in. “But your leg—”
He stretched it out through the open door to have a look. “When he hit my bike, I came down on it pretty hard.” He lifted his torn jeans away from the scrapes. “Skinned it up is all,” he said, as if that wasn’t anything to worry about.
“Are you sure you didn’t break it?”
Shifting gingerly, he managed to bend his hurt leg far enough to get it in the car. “I wouldn’t be able to walk if I had.”
She gave him a skeptical glance. “That’s not necessarily true. It would depend on the kind of break. You should have it x-rayed.” She felt confident that was what her husband would’ve said, and he had been a doctor—on his way to becoming a world-class heart surgeon.
Rod closed the door. “There’s no need.”
Having him in the same confined space made her slightly claustrophobic. Or maybe he made her uncomfortable for other reasons. Like the fact that he reminded her of Sam, the boy she’d married straight out of high school only weeks after her mother’s death. Unlike Charlie, Sam had been a terrible husband. He’d possessed no more life skills than she had at that age, so the marriage didn’t last a year. But being with him had had its high points, including a certain giddy I-can’t-keep-my-hands- off-this-man attraction.
She felt some of that attraction now, just as she had the other day, when Rod had carried her potter’s wheel from the back of her Prius. She also felt wary—more wary than anything else. But she couldn’t complain about the way he smelled, like warm male and fecund earth. She saw some leaves sticking to his shirt and hair and assumed he’d taken a tumble when he fell from his bike. Maybe the fight had even turned into a wrestling match. Most fights went that way, at least the ones she’d witnessed.
Pushing her silver bangles up her arm, she pressed the gas pedal.
They rolled carefully around the next bend, but she didn’t see any sign of a bike, a car or another person.
“It’s farther down,” Rod said before she could ask.
Apparently, he’d walked a greater distance on that leg than she’d expected.
The road took several more twists and she still saw no sign of where the incident might’ve occurred. “Where were you going?” she asked in confusion.
He looked over at her. “When he hit me? I was on my way home.”
“No. When I saw you. You were walking away from town. You do realize that?”
“Of course. I’ve lived in Whiskey Creek all my life. It’s not likely I’d get turned around. I was heading back to the bar so I could use a phone or get help.”
She’d driven past a saloon-style tavern, one with a big neon sign out front. That had to be the place he was talking about. “Are your brothers there?” She’d gotten the impression the three men were close, that they did a lot together.
“They were until they got tired and left.” “They must be wondering where you are.”
He was too focused on the road to look at her again.
“Doubt it. I’m sure they’re asleep.” He pointed ahead. “There it is.”
She hunched over the steering wheel until she saw a flash of shiny chrome reflecting the moonlight. “So this guy knocked you off your bike, and then he came back to…what? Fight?”
“I think he was planning to taunt me, to celebrate what he’d done. Or kick me while I was down. The way I fell… he had to believe I’d be more hurt than I was.”
“He must’ve been surprised when that wasn’t the case.”
“Yeah, he would’ve been smarter to keep going, although I would’ve caught up with him eventually.”
That last bit sounded ominous, but at least the other guy seemed to have been the aggressor.
“Do you have any idea why he’d run you down?” she asked.
“I guess he didn’t like what I had to say to him at Sexy Sadie’s.”
They’d reached his Harley, which was black and lying on its side. She parked on the shoulder between it and a white compact car that was still running. The car had its back end in the road, as if the driver had slammed on his brakes and hopped out. The door was open, and the cabin light cast an eerie triangle on the blacktop.
India wanted to ask Rod what he’d said at Sexy Sadie’s that might’ve incited the driver of that car to violence, but she didn’t get the chance. He got out right away and, despite his injured leg, strode confidently over to a dark shape lying off in the bushes.
She hurried behind him, even though she wasn’t sure she could stomach what she was about to see. It used to be that the sight of blood didn’t bother her. But, like the rest of her life, that’d changed eleven months ago. Now she had nightmares in which she was drowning in blood.
And it wasn’t just anyone’s blood…
Shoving that memory from her mind, she focused on the gravel crunching beneath her high heels until they reached the inert form of the guy Rod had fought. There were no streetlights, but the moon was full. The man seemed to be about thirty-five and was dressed in a polo shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. A dark streak suggested the brawl had taken place in the middle of the road and someone—Rod, no doubt—had pulled him to the side when it was over so he wouldn’t be struck by a car.
It was a point in her neighbor’s favor that he’d had the presence of mind to take that precaution. But, as he’d mentioned, his opponent wasn’t conscious. India guessed the blood on the road had come from the man’s head, since that was where he was bleeding the most.
Was he even alive?
Holding up her dress, she crouched to find his carotid artery. Then she backed slowly away. He had a pulse, thank goodness. She didn’t want to touch him beyond ascertaining that. She was already having flashbacks, could hear her own voice screaming Charlie’s name…
Instinctively, she covered her ears—then lowered her hands when Rod gave her a funny look. “Do you know him?” he asked.
She shook her head and was relieved when he didn’t press her.
After throwing the man a disgruntled glance, he began to pace back and forth across the road.
“Shouldn’t we search for your phone?” she asked. “I could call it, if you give me your number.”
“I put it on silent. I hate it when you go out with some- one whose phone is always ringing.”
“It’d light up, at least,” she said.
They gave it a try. They even used her flashlight app to comb both sides of the road—all to no avail.
“I’ll come back in the morning, when it’s light,” he said and returned to pacing.
India held three fingers to her forehead as she watched from the shoulder. “Can you please get out of the street?” she asked when he didn’t move to a safer place.
His gaze swept over her as if he was wondering why she was so dressed up. But he didn’t ask. Neither did he comply with her request. He continued to prowl while she stared in the direction of Whiskey Creek, wishing the police and the ambulance would arrive.
“Can you stop?” she finally muttered. “You’re making me nervous.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he grumbled.
Obviously, they were both agitated. She could feel the anxiety flowing through him. “I can’t help worrying,” she said. “Not everyone is as cautious as I am. I get that. But a car could come tearing around that bend any second and—”
“Fine!” He cut her off and came over to the shoulder, as if arguing with her was more of a hassle than it was worth.
She reined in her temper. “Thank you.”
He didn’t acknowledge her thanks. “You don’t happen to have a smoke, do you?”
She almost walked back to the Prius for her purse before it occurred to her that of course she wouldn’t have a smoke. She hadn’t bought a pack of cigarettes since she’d gotten pregnant with Cassia nearly six years ago. “No.”
He touched his mouth and looked at his fingers, checking to see if his lip was bleeding again. “I never smoke unless I’m drinking,” he explained. “It’s been a year since I’ve done even that. But I’ll be damned if I couldn’t use a cigarette right now.”
“I quit when I was twenty-four.” She hadn’t been the same person in those days…
He raked his fingers through his light brown hair. It was a little too long, but she admired the way it fell loose and went curly at the ends. “Can I use your phone?” he asked.
The moment she handed it to him, he turned away and kicked a pebble from foot to foot while waiting for the person he’d called to pick up.
She knew someone had answered when he straightened and forgot about messing with that rock. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “It’s me… Our new neighbor’s…Yes, that neighbor… Stop. Listen, I need some help. Remember that guy who was bothering Natasha? The one we warned to stay away? …Yeah, him. He wrecked into the back of my bike.”
Rod didn’t explain that he’d been driving it at the time, which seemed like a salient point to India. He could’ve been killed. But she wasn’t about to get involved in his conversation.
“No, I’m not kidding,” he said. “Uh-huh… Don’t worry, I doubt he’ll ever mess with her again.” He slowly gravitated over to the man he’d knocked out and nudged him with one foot.
“I can’t leave yet,” he said, stalking off in the other direction. “I’m waiting for the ambulance…Yes, ambulance. The asshole’s out cold…What would you have done? He had no business hitting my bike. I’m lucky I can still walk… Of course I was riding it at the time! I was driving home.”
There, the information had finally come out. India took a deep breath and told herself to relax.
Usually, it cooled off at night when the Delta breeze swept in. That was what she loved about Northern California. But they’d been going through a terrible heat wave since she’d moved to Whiskey Creek. Part of her discomfort had to be due to the stress of the situation, but it felt like a hundred degrees outside, as it had been earlier in the day.
“Right. So can you bring the trailer and get my bike?” she heard Rod say. “How would I know? Chief Bennett’s going to give me hell. He might even take me down to the station to get a statement or try to lock me up for the night… True… No, don’t call Dylan or Aaron. I can handle my own problems.”
He disconnected and was about to return her phone when he saw he’d gotten blood on it. After wiping it on his jeans, he gave it back. “Sorry.”
“No problem.” She held on to the phone, since she didn’t have a pocket and her purse was in the car. “That was…one of your brothers?”
Still no headlights coming from Whiskey Creek. What was taking emergency services so long? She and Rod— and the man who needed the ambulance—weren’t that far from town. “Which one?”
“Grady. He’s driving over to get my bike.” “Is he older, or…”
“Dylan and Aaron are older. Grady and Mack are younger.”
“Would you mind if I asked how old you are?” They were both young enough that she couldn’t imagine it would be an offensive question.
She considered taking off her heels but was afraid she might cut her foot on a rock, nail or piece of glass. “Thirty.”
“I guessed we were about the same age.” “When?”
“The other day.”
She ignored that, didn’t want to think about the implications. She’d noticed more details about him than she cared to admit; knowing he’d done the same with her didn’t help keep her mind where it needed to be. “So there’re five kids in your family, not three?”
“Right. Dylan and Aaron are married. They live in town with their wives. You met Grady and Mack, who live with me.”
Finally, the faint wailing of a siren drifted to her ears. “And this Natasha? She’s your…?” She knew better than to ask. It sounded as if she was probing, trying to learn whether he had a romantic interest. And yet she was too curious to let it go.
“Little sister. Actually, she’s my stepsister, ever since my father married her mother a few years ago.”
“I see. You have a big family,” she said to shift the focus away from the fact that she’d wanted to find out if Natasha was his girlfriend. “I think I’ve seen your father and stepmother. Are they living with you, too?”
“For now. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but it’s been a couple of years and they don’t seem too eager to leave.”
“You’ve got a big house. Having them there wouldn’t be too bad if they’re helping with the mortgage.”
“Then I could see how it might be an imposition.”
His gaze slid over her, taking in every detail of her long, slinky black dress—including the slit up her leg. “What’s your story?”
She cleared her throat. “I’m an only child.” “From the city?”
“What makes you think I’m from the city?”
“That dress,” he replied. “Women around here don’t wear that type of thing very often.”
“I was born and raised in Oakland.” She’d been living in San Francisco since her marriage to Charlie, however. An art exhibit in the city was a fancy affair. She knew she was overdressed for the small towns along Highway 49, but she’d felt the need to clean up, to feel attractive again, the way she used to feel when Charlie took her out.
“And now you live alone in Whiskey Creek, except for your little girl,” he said.
She stiffened in surprise. “How’d you know I have a little girl?”
“I saw a photograph of her in your car the other day.” “Oh.” She smiled at the thought of her five-year-old daughter. She missed Cassia so much.
He waited for her to look him in the face again. “Is she staying with her father right now, or…”
“She’s with her grandparents. They offered to keep her until I could get settled.” And because they missed Charlie as much as she did, India had felt obliged to allow it. There were other reasons she’d felt she had to let Cassia stay with the Sommerses, but those reasons made her stomach churn.
Rod stuffed his hands in his pockets. “So where’s your husband?”
She refused to flinch despite the sting that question caused. “Not everyone who has a child has a husband.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You’re wearing a ring.”
It’d been so long since she’d been anyplace a man might bother to ask, she hadn’t even remembered, probably because her ring didn’t mean what it was supposed to. Not anymore. Charlie was dead. She’d sold their lovely home because she could no longer bear to live there. She couldn’t divest herself of her ring, too. That symbol of his love meant too much to her. Besides her mother, he was the only person who’d ever treated her as though she mattered, as though she was special enough to deserve any kind of devotion. She’d since figured out that was a reflection of her own self-esteem at the time, but he’d somehow been able to look beyond that to see what she could be, to help shape her into what she was today. “Right. My ring,” she said. “Of course. But—” she stared down at her 1.5 carat diamond, remembering the night Charlie had given it to her “—my husband’s…gone.”
Fortunately, a truck came from the direction of the bar, interrupting their conversation before Rod could follow up on that. Two men rode in the cab, both of whom knew Rod.
The driver stopped and lowered his window, and the passenger called out to him. “What’s going on, man? You okay?”
They exchanged a few words. Then the guys in the truck asked if Rod needed any help and Rod phoned his brother to say he could send his bike home with Donald and Sam. By the time the three of them had used a wooden plank to roll the heavy motorcycle up and into the bed, a policeman arrived—Chief Bennett, according to his name tag.
“Stand back,” he told them, pushing them even farther to one side of the road. “I’ll talk to you once I get some flares out so no one else gets hurt.”
The ambulance came just as Rod’s friends drove off with his bike. India watched from about ten feet away while two paramedics knelt by the man on the ground and Chief Bennett gave Rod a sobriety test—which, thank- fully, he passed.
India hated to interrupt the paramedics, but they were beginning to load the injured man into the ambulance and she hoped to get some word of his condition before they left. “Is he going to be okay?”
“Most likely,” one of them replied. “Even minor head injuries bleed a lot. I think he’ll be fine.”
“He was an idiot to pick a fight with Rod Amos,” the other paramedic piped up.
The first guy jerked his head at the wallet resting on the unconscious man’s chest, which Chief Bennett had used to ID him. “Liam Crockett’s from Dixon. Mustn’t have heard.”
India wanted to ask if Rod was a professional fighter, but they were in too much of a hurry, so she backed away and let them go.
Ever since the police chief had determined that Rod was sober, Bennett had been grilling him on how everything had happened. They were still talking, and India didn’t know whether to get in her car and leave, or wait to see if Rod needed a ride home.
“Damn it, Rod,” she heard the police chief say. “You are so damn wild. It’s always something with you.”
Rod was obviously not pleased by that reaction. “I told you. He started it.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see if that’s what he says.”
“You saw my bike! How do you think it got wrecked?” When Bennett refused to commit himself, Rod
continued. “We could’ve settled our differences at the bar. Instead, he followed me and tried to run me off the road. What kind of pussy tries to run someone over instead of fighting like a man?”
“Wait. What do you mean, handle it at the bar?” Bennett said. “You bust up Sexy Sadie’s again, you won’t be allowed to go there anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” Rod cried. “I’ve never busted up Sexy Sadie’s! You can’t hold me accountable for what my brothers do.”
“One of you is always raising hell,” he said in disgust. “Anyway, I’m going to look into this further. That I can promise you.”
“Fine,” Rod told him. “I hope you do. When that bastard wakes up, he should go to jail.”
“If he wakes up,” the police chief grumbled. “God, I’m exhausted. Do you need a ride or—” He looked at India, obviously hoping she’d relieve him of that duty.
“I can take him,” she volunteered. “I’m going that way.”
“Maybe you should drive him over to the hospital first,” he said, “see if he has any broken bones or needs stitches. It shouldn’t take long. They’ve got to be on a first-name basis with him by now.”
Rod shot him a dark scowl. “Quit trying to make me look bad.”
“I don’t need to try,” Bennett said. “Since you can’t stay out of trouble, you make yourself look bad.”
Stepping between them, India touched Rod’s arm to get his attention before he could spout off and get himself arrested. “Should we go to the hospital?”
He shook his head, suggesting it’d been a ridiculous idea to begin with.
“Can’t hurt to get checked out,” Chief Bennett said, attempting to persuade him.
“No way,” Rod told him. “I’m going to bed.”
“Suit yourself.” With a sigh, Bennett adjusted his heavy belt and trudged over to his car.
All the excitement was over. India raised the hem of her dress to keep it from dragging on the ground as she returned to the car. She was halfway there before she realized Rod wasn’t following her—and glanced back to see why.
“I can’t even begin to guess where you’ve been tonight,” he said, “but that dress…” Letting his words fade, he ended with a whistle.
“Thank you.” She felt her face heat and wished she didn’t find his appreciation so gratifying. He was definitely not the type of man she needed. She needed Charlie, but Charlie was gone and he wasn’t coming back. The vacuum created by his death, as well as the reason behind it, had left her feeling… abysmal. It was terrible to be so lost and lonely that a stranger’s attention felt like a lifeline.
“What happened here really wasn’t my fault,” he called out. “I hope you believe that.”
“Of course,” she responded, and yet she’d heard Chief Bennett say he was always in trouble. That confirmed her first impression of him, didn’t it? He still wasn’t coming toward her, so she crossed her arms and looked back at him. “Are you ready to go home?”
Finally, he started walking. “I’m ready, but…maybe we could clarify a few things along the way.”
“That ring on your finger,” he said and threw her a sexy grin.
India felt a corresponding shiver of desire, which scared her. No! she told herself. Not this guy. She couldn’t screw up again.