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Excerpt: At the Rainbow's End

 

Chapter One

A stiff breeze scoured the desert floor, catching powdery snowflakes and drifting them against the roots of the greasewood and desert sage. Kurt McAllister watched the would-be storm with tepid interest, idly reminded of the way his mother used to sift powdered sugar onto freshly baked gingerbread.

It had been a good meeting in Gallup that morning. If all went as planned, Rainbow Productions would soon have a contract for an exclusive series of educational videos. They had a funding proposal in for a documentary on Navajo weaving and were already paying their bills with pickup jobs for weddings, birthdays, graduations, and family reunions. In the four years since he had established his business with the woman who was now his sister-in-law, Kurt and Meg had built an inventory of successful management training programs that were bringing in steady income.

They were earning a strong reputation in the field and had recently moved into a larger storefront office in Holbrook. All was going splendidly, better than expected.

So why, Kurt wondered as he gunned the engine of his shiny new pickup and pulled into the I-40 fast lane, did he feel like chewing rails and spitting spikes? Frustration seemed to dog his heels these days, faithful as a bloodhound and not one bit prettier.

The road sign showed that Holbrook and his turnoff were still twenty-seven miles away as Kurt punched up the speed to pass a black touring car, but the added speed did nothing to decrease his restlessness. Neither did the fact that there was no apparent reason for it.

When they launched the production company, he wondered whether he and Meg could build a viable business, but he’d been eager to try. The results had far exceeded his hopes. The only weak area they’d had from the beginning was scriptwriting. Meg wrote the basic script when they did a management training video, and his brother Jim, an expert in Navajo and Hopi art, wrote most of their documentary pieces dealing with native cultures. So far, there had always been someone at the community college in Holbrook who could refine their scripts. Though he and Meg had spoken of hiring a professional scriptwriter—and they’d have to get someone if they got the documentary on Navajo weaving—that seemed more an opportunity than a problem. It had to be something else that was wringing his stomach.

Whenever they had a problem in the business, Meg always sat down to analyze it. Maybe he should try her tactic… But thinking of Meg only made him more uneasy. Was it something about Meg that was bothering him? True, she hadn’t been kicking in her usual full share in the business lately. Normally, she’d have been with him at that meeting in Gallup, but her burgeoning pregnancy was slowing her down. Kurt hadn’t minded picking up the slack. Rainbow Productions was his dream, and he never would have been able to start it without his sister-in-law.

Besides, he was delighted to see Jim becoming a father. He loved Jim as he loved all the McAllister clan—fiercely, and Meg had made Jim happy. They were a dynamite power couple and Kurt had no trouble imagining the beautiful, intelligent child that would result from combining those two gene pools. He fully expected to be an insufferable uncle, bragging to anyone who would listen. No, the problem wasn’t with Meg’s contribution to the business, or with the pregnancy.

What was it then? He was thirty years old, well established in a growing business, and doing exactly what he’d always wanted to do, and still he couldn’t help feeling that something important, even vital, was missing from his life.

 

The idiot light in the small compact flashed on for the fifth time in as many miles: Brakes, it said.

“Drat!” Alexa brought her fist down on the dash. “Now that’s useful. Tell me something I don’t know.” She eased her foot onto the brake pedal and got mush, the same thing she’d been getting for the last twenty miles. “If I’d wanted oatmeal, I could have stopped at that greasy spoon,” Alexa grumbled, pushing harder on the brake pedal and cutting back a little more on her speed. She had struggled for so long, wanting what no one from Henderson, Kentucky had ever dared to want, and promising herself she would have it. Now here she was, touching distance from the dream of her lifetime. No way was she going to let a bad set of brakes stop her!

The last road sign had said Holbrook was only twenty-seven miles away. It was probably a risk to drive that far on spongy brakes, but she figured they’d still stop her in a crisis and risking it was probably wiser than stopping along the shoulder of Interstate 40 in the middle of nowhere at all. She glanced at her GPS.

Holbrook didn’t look like much of a town, but even if the place was positively dead, it probably had a mechanic who could work on brakes, or the master cylinder, or whatever it was that was causing that accursed idiot light that was making her feel like an accursed idiot.

“Okay,” she said, patting the dashboard. “I’ll coax you into Holbrook if you promise not to break down on me before we get there. Deal?” She cast a worried glance at the offending light, almost expecting it to answer.

 

The road sign showed he was only ten miles from the turnoff when something on the road in front of him caught Kurt’s eye.

 

An aging and ugly compact was taking a shallow curve ahead of him and not handling it well. “Take it easy,” he murmured to the unseen driver. “This isn’t the Daytona 500, you know.” Then the compact swerved into the fast lane and back, over-correcting and nearly going off the shoulder. Kurt eased off his accelerator, alarmed that he was about to witness an accident. “Take it—” he began again, but then realized the driver wasn’t the problem.

Smoke billowed from the left front wheel of the little car as the driver fought madly to keep it on the road. With a recklessness no driver would hazard, the compact swerved first to one side and then the other, screeching its tires, and finally plunged off the shoulder into the desert sand, fishtailing madly. Then the right wheels slumped into something softer, something that gave with the weight of the vehicle. Kurt watched helplessly as the car, almost in slow motion, rocked to its right, threatening to turn turtle, and then righted itself, slammed into a steel fence post, and finally came to a stop.

Please protect them until I get there, Kurt prayed silently and gunned his truck toward the crash site.

“Them” turned out to be the driver, alone in the vehicle. She was strapped in her seat, held securely by her lap belt and shoulder harness, and apparently unconscious. The car had come to rest at something of an angle, so her upper body rested against the door and window on the driver’s side of her car. Kurt thanked whatever guardian angels had been watching over her that her car door wasn’t locked. It creaked when he tugged on it but came open without much struggle. Had it not been for the harness that held her, the driver might have fallen right into Kurt’s arms.

“Are you all right, miss?” he asked aloud. He couldn’t help but notice her delicate beauty. She looked to be in her mid-to-late twenties. The woman moaned and her eyelids fluttered in response. Kurt nodded approvingly. If she could come that close to answering, her head injury probably wasn’t severe. He gave her a quick once-over without moving her, checking for any obvious bleeding or other injuries that might require immediate attention. Finding none, except for the small bruise darkening her forehead, he left her where she was and jogged back the few yards to his truck. Then he used his cell phone to call for an ambulance and tow truck. Assured they were on their way, he hurried back to his patient, who was beginning to come around. Again, he was struck by how lovely she was.

“What happened?” she mumbled as he reached her.

“Beats me.” Kurt gave a cursory look to the left front wheel. “It looked like maybe you had a blowout, but the tire looks okay. We’ll let the mechanic decide after the tow truck gets you into town.”

“Tow truck? No. Just help me get back onto the road. I have to be in Burbank tomorrow morning.”

She certainly looked determined. The hard-line of her jaw emphasized the valentine shape of her face. “Okay, I won’t argue.” Kurt kept his reply amiable. “But you can’t make it in this car. It’s going to need some work before anyone drives it anywhere.”

The young woman brushed her pale hair behind one ear. A vague, confused look flickered in her eyes. “Oh yeah, the brakes.”

“Or something,” Kurt agreed.

She made a funny face as if she was trying for humor and couldn’t quite manage it. “I guess I should beware the Ides of March, huh?”

He made an effort to smile. “Listen, I didn’t want to move you just in case you might have injuries I couldn’t see, but if you feel like you can get out on your own…” He left the suggestion hanging as he opened her door.

“Yes. Okay.” He could see the woman gathering her thoughts. “I just need to—” She unfastened her seat belt and tumbled into Kurt’s waiting arms. “Oh! I’m so sorry.” She looked up with the most beautiful sky-blue eyes he had ever seen. Kurt was instantly enthralled.

“I don’t mind,” he murmured, his words barely audible as a barrage of emotions battered him. “I don’t mind at all.” He was vaguely aware of helping the woman to her feet, but the thought that was marching through his mind like an army on the move had more to do with this lovely blonde woman whom fate had just dropped into his arms, and how right it felt to hold her. He shook his head, wondering whether he might have taken a blow to the noggin too.

The woman put a hand to her head. “Oh,” she said, sinking a little.

Kurt caught her under her elbow, supporting her while she steadied herself. “You hit your head pretty hard, Miss…” He waited, but she didn’t seem to pick up on the cue. “I called an ambulance when I called the tow truck. Maybe we should—”

She moaned. “Oh no, not an ambulance. If those guys get started, I’ll never get out of here!”

“But you’re hurt—”

“Not badly. Honest. I’ll be fine in no time, but I really can’t afford an ambulance or a hospital bill, or even the time it would take. I have to get back on the road again.”

Kurt wavered, wondering what was the right thing to do. “Look, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll cancel the ambulance if you let me give you a ride to the clinic in Holbrook. The doctor there is a friend. He can check you out quickly and I’ll cover the bill myself.”

“No need for that,” the woman began. “Just help me get to Holbrook and I’ll—” She was reaching to close the car door as she said it, but when her left arm made contact she winced in pain.

“Whoa there!” Kurt caught her other arm, steadying her. “Let me have a look at that shoulder.” He reached for her hand, but she pulled it away, cradling it against her stomach.

“No, please. Just let me—”

“I think we’d better get you to the clinic right now,” he said gently. “I’m afraid you may have broken something in there.”

“Broken? No! Not now!” The news seemed to be more than she could handle. Her magnificent eyes filled with tears. “Not when I’m so close.” Her knees folded under her and Kurt helped her to the ground. Then he left her sitting there while he went back to the truck and called again, canceling the ambulance. The flashing lights of the tow truck were approaching by the time he returned to her.

She was a picture of shock and pain. He’d seen it before. Growing up on a hog farm as one of four active kids, Kurt had seen his share of rough-and-tumble accidents. She was sitting, just sitting. Though tears had formed in her eyes and a stray found its way down her cheeks from time to time, she wasn’t really crying. She wasn’t doing anything. It was that absence of action or emotion or movement that concerned him as much as her pronounced pallor. He needed to get her to help, the sooner the better.

“The tow truck is here,” he said. The monster truck was already pulling across the median, positioning itself to reach her car. “Let me help you to my pickup, okay?”

She nodded, looking worse than at any time since he’d first seen her. Shock was coming on fast and Kurt wondered if he’d been wise to cancel the ambulance. He slipped one arm around her waist and helped her rise. She felt warm and womanly against him as he steadied her on her feet and then walked her toward his truck. He half-lifted her into the cab of the truck and made sure she had the seat belt securely fastened before he headed over to the tow-truck driver to deal with Ms. Blue-Eyed Goddess’s car. He quirked a grin at his choice of nick-name, not knowing her real name.

“It strikes me,” he said when he rejoined her a few minutes later, “that if you’re going to entrust yourself to my safekeeping, I probably ought to introduce myself. I’m Kurt McAllister. I live in Rainbow Rock, just north of Holbrook. I’m on my way home from a business meeting in Gallup, New Mexico. And you?”

“I came from Gallup too,” she replied.

Kurt waited until he realized that was all she planned to say. “And your name?” he prompted.

“Oh.” She shook herself. “Sorry. I guess I hit my head harder than I thought. Alexa. Alexa Babbidge, from Henderson, Kentucky.”

“Nice to meet you, Alexa Babbidge from Henderson, Kentucky.” Alexa, he thought, repeating it in his mind. The name was as delicate and lovely as the woman herself. Any time I say her name, the app on my phone will answer. Better change the name I use for my app. “And what brings you through our neck of the woods?”

The panic re-surfaced in Alexa’s lovely eyes. “I have an appointment, a very important appointment, in Burbank tomorrow morning. Really, if there’s any way we can get me back on the road, anyway at all…” She paused, apparently out of steam.

Kurt decided maybe it would be wise to get her to talk about it. “What is it that’s so important in Burbank?”

“It’s sort of like… like a job interview.”

“If it’s an interview, they’ll understand why you’re late, and reschedule,” he said, trying to make his explanation sound as sensible to her as it did to him.

“I’m afraid it isn’t that simple.”

Kurt noticed she was looking paler. He hoped he could get her to the clinic in Holbrook before she passed out cold in his cab.

As it was, she was leaning against the door, holding her left arm tightly against her chest, by the time he pulled into the clinic. He opened her door and offered his arm, then saw how fragile she looked and decided to hurry things along. “Hang on, Alexa,” he said as he unbuckled her seat belt and slid one arm under her knees. “We’re going for a little ride.”

“How can I help you?” his phone asked.

“I can walk. Really,” the human Alexa protested but didn’t seem to have the energy to pursue the idea as Kurt cradled her against him.

“This is easier,” he murmured, adding to himself that it was also a lot more fun. She was all woman in his arms—strong, firmly muscled, with just the right degree of feminine softness. He’d been intrigued by her from the moment he’d first seen her face. When she sighed and put her arm around his neck, snuggling against his chest, he felt a rush of tenderness that threatened to overwhelm his more cautious side.

He pushed through the front door and past the three people in the waiting room. “Excuse me, Myra,” he said to the woman behind the front desk. “I have an emergency here. I’m taking her right through to the examining room.”

The woman, caught in the midst of raising her hand in protest, used it to smooth her graying hair instead. “That will be fine, Kurt,” she said. “Use room three, please.”

“Room three it is.” Kurt pushed into the main hallway, located room three, and tenderly placed his patient on the table. “I’ve got a bit of a quandary here,” he said, talking calmly as he gathered the available pillows and stacked them on the examining table. “You probably need to get your head down, but your shoulder will likely throb like the devil if you do. I think the best option might be to have you recline on these pillows. There, lie back straight. Like that,” he said, straightening the pillows behind her. “Think you can manage on your own for a minute? I’d like to try to find you some ice for that lump on your head.”

She nodded, smiling weakly.

“I’ll be right back.” Kurt slipped out of the room and strode down the hallway, his boots beating out a rapid tattoo as he found the doctor’s supplies and helped himself to an ice bag, filling it at the machine in the corner.

“Well, Kurt, I see you’re making yourself at home.” Dr. Kemp adjusted the stethoscope around his neck and offered Kurt his hand. “Which McAllister am I seeing today?”

“This one’s a special case, doc,” Kurt answered. “She lost control of her car about eight miles out on I-40. I figure her left shoulder’s hurt, possibly broken, but she hit her head too. She was unconscious when I got to her and she’s looking pale and in shock—could be a mild concussion.”

Dr. Kemp nodded in understanding, clearly accepting Kurt’s unofficial diagnosis. They’d developed a mutual trust over the years and even though Kurt wasn’t a trained doctor, he had good instincts and Dr. Kemp had let him know that time and again. The doctor told Myra to tell the patient in room two that he’d be delayed, and followed Kurt down the hall.

Half an hour later, Kurt’s diagnosis was confirmed—all except the shoulder, which turned out to be sprained, but not broken. Alexa was helped into a wheelchair, her arm in a sling. “But I can’t stay,” she protested, her eyes teary. “You don’t understand. I have to be in Burbank tomorrow morning. I have to!”

“Not in your car,” Kurt said. “I just checked with the garage. It looks like you blew a wheel bearing. It’ll take a couple of days to get the parts for that, and there was damage to the undercarriage when you went off the road.”

“Then I’ll rent a car,” Alexa suggested, her eyes hopeful.

“Not tonight. You simply cannot drive tonight, young lady,” the doctor said, his tone brooked no argument. “You are in no condition. You’re suffering a mild concussion and some degree of shock. You’ve also had a good injection of painkiller. Add that up and you are legally impaired. If you attempted to drive, I’d be obligated to stop you, and if you didn’t stop, I’d be obliged, by law, to call the Highway Patrol and send a trooper after you.”

Kurt saw Alexa take the emotional hit as she absorbed the words. “My dreams can’t end like this. There has to be a way,” she said, searching the men’s faces, and then she turned a pleading look to Kurt. “How about a bus? Surely there’s a bus line that comes through on I-40.”

“Sure there is,” he answered. “The westbound stops through twice a day down at the depot.” He looked at his watch and then shook his head. “I’m afraid the afternoon bus has already gone. It’ll be early tomorrow before there’s another one headed that way.”

“That’s too late.” She pursed her lips. “A plane?” she asked, her voice hopeful.

The doctor answered. “Not going that way. Not unless you charter. The only regular route is between here and Phoenix, and I don’t think they fly again until tomorrow.”

Alexa sighed. Kurt watched in fascination as a single tear slid down her cheek. “I’m going to miss it,” she said quietly. “All this time, all this way, and now I’m going to miss it.”

Kurt laid his hand over hers. “I’m sure you can reschedule. Come on. Let’s get you out of the clinic so you can use your cell phone.”

“I…I don’t think I have my cell. I must have left it in the car.”

“I’ll let you use mine.” He nodded to the doctor. “Come on. I’ll get you out to the truck. Then you can reschedule that appointment.” I’ll do whatever I can to help you, Ms. Blue-Eyed Goddess, but I don’t mind at all if you need to stay awhile.

 

 

Susan Aylworth writes sweet and clean, contemporary romance novels set in small-town America (USA).

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