Who I Am with You
A sigh escaped her lips as she rested her head on the steering wheel of her father’s oversized truck. “Come on, Taylor. If you haven’t been broken yet, you’re certainly not going to let this be your demise.”
New determination firming her shoulders, she lifted her head as her words echoed through the cab of the pickup. After shutting off the engine, she sat there a moment longer before opening the door.
She refused to allow the terrors of the pitch-black night to creep up and choke her. Besides, she was home, or near enough to it. There was nothing frightening about home, she told herself. Still, a tremor ran down her spine. Frustration mounted inside her. Before her near-fatal injury, Taylor had never before had to deal with fear.
Many people had commented on her daringness; they’d told her she was too brave for her own good. These days, though, even the smallest of noises seemed to terrify her. It frustrated her, but the doctor had told her that was normal after a head injury, and that it shouldn’t last forever. The sooner she was back to normal, the better.
“There is nothing to be afraid of,” she said aloud. “Well, except for maybe the coyotes waiting on the other side of the tree line, looking forward to their next meal,” she murmured as her eyes strained to see ahead.
The overcast sky of this early June night didn’t even allow the light of the moon to peek through. Leaving her headlights on, she walked to the back of the truck to find her father’s heavy-duty Maglite. It had always rolled noisily around in the bed of his many trucks, and she’d wanted to take it out each time she’d borrowed the vehicles, but her father wouldn’t let her. Its ever-annoying clanging sound served as a constant reminder that it was there if needed. For the first time, she was thankful for the miserable flashlight. She gripped it tightly in her hand. If a coyote attacked, she could strike it with the flashlight-slash-weapon.
Not that doing so would do a hell of a lot of good against all those teeth and claws coming straight at her. And didn’t coyotes travel in packs, flush out their victim, and strike when the prey was at its weakest? Of course they did, but it wasn’t going to happen to her, she assured herself. She still trembled.
She shined the light onto the back of the truck and wanted to scream. Yep, the tire was trashed. Whatever she’d run over had shredded it and there was no way she could get out of changing the darn thing. If she even attempted to drive the five miles home, the rim of her dad’s truck would be ruined beyond repair. Not that she’d make it anyway—the sparks caused by driving on metal would start a forest fire in this dry county.
Changing a tire would normally be no big deal. Taylor knew basic mechanics. As a champion motocross racer, how could she not? But even three months after her accident, she was still fighting to move around, and lifting anything heavy would be supertough.
But there was no help for it—or for her. So, resigned to her fate, she pulled out the jack and lug wrench. After prying off the hubcap, she let out only a small groan as she got onto her back to find a solid jacking point. When she’d positioned the jack, she turned back to face the tire.
Taylor determinedly rose to her feet, lug wrench in hand. It took three times as long as it should have, but she finally managed to get the bolts off the tire. Then she stood there, already exhausted, her healing ribs screaming as she contemplated the jack she now had to pump up, and the tire she’d have to remove.
Getting into a crouch in front of the jack, sweat beading on her forehead, she began pumping the handle to lift the truck. Completely out of breath and more than a little frustrated, Taylor had to sit on the ground when she finally got the truck high enough in the air to remove the tire. Tears filled her eyes at such weakness.
“I am not this girl,” she cried out, her voice reverberating off the nearby trees.
Taylor couldn’t stand simpering females who needed a man to do every little task. She was strong and independent, and had been on her own for the past eight years. Well, to be fair, she’d been on her own as much as her two older brothers had allowed.
She wasn’t a fool. She knew they haunted her races obsessively, ready to catch her if she fell. She loved Hawk and Bryson more than any other men alive, but her brothers were overprotective, ridiculously so.
She’d only ever wanted to prove she was just as capable as they were. She hadn’t wanted to be dolled up in a pretty pink dress with a bejeweled tiara on her head. When her mother had once come home with a Cinderella dress and a smile, Taylor, age six, had cried. She hadn’t wanted to be a princess for Halloween. She’d wanted to be a pirate like Hawk had been the year before.
To her mother’s credit, she’d taken Taylor to the Halloween store the next day and let her pick out her costume. Her mom had always been supportive of her daughter’s choices. Though Taylor knew that the career she’d chosen stressed her parents, they never tried to talk her out of it.
“Enough!” she snapped, done with her pity party.
Her doctor would be furious, but Taylor refused to call her brothers or her father. For the past three months she’d been cooped up in her parents’ house while she recovered from the wreck that could have easily taken her life. She’d had to give up her apartment in California that she’d been so proud of, and she was going stir-crazy being looked after.
She was through with being coddled, dammit.
A coyote howled in the trees behind her, far enough away that she knew it wasn’t watching, but the sound still sent a chill down her spine. She’d grown up in the wild lands of Montana, and knew she was safe right here—coyote attacks on humans were rare, and she’d never heard of one in Montana—but her head was still slightly fuzzy from the concussion she’d suffered three months earlier, and she wasn’t as rational and confident as she normally would be.
“You’re fine,” she told herself as she set the flashlight on the ground, facing the enemy tire before her. “Easy-peasy.”
She gripped the tire and began to work it free, her efforts making her shake. But the satisfaction she felt when the freaking thing popped off and landed on the ground at her feet was priceless.
Her body would pay in the morning, but Taylor didn’t care. She was proving to herself that she was still quite capable. She didn’t need to lean on anyone and . . . damn. Her euphoria died a quick but painful death when she realized the next step would be to take the spare that was hooked beneath the truck and lift it onto the wheel studs.
Pulling the old tire off had nearly wiped her out. How in the world was she going to lift another one up and then put this one onto the bed of the truck? “Slow and sure,” she said, not allowing anything to beat her tonight. This was a challenge, and though she knew it was ridiculous, she felt that if she couldn’t manage something as simple as changing a tire, she’d never get back on a dirt bike again.
Unacceptable. She’d devoted too many years to training, put too much time and love into her career. Though her doctor had sounded pessimistic when she’d asked about returning to racing, she would prove the man wrong.
It was absolutely absurd that she needed a release from the doctor before the powers that be would allow her to race again. Wasn’t it up to her what she could or couldn’t do? Apparently not. Well, the first step was changing a tire. The next was getting back on her bike.
It again took too long to get the spare tire down from the bottom of the truck, and she felt close to passing out, but with a few good swearwords and a lot of expended energy, she finally managed to get the tire free from where it had been sitting since her dad had bought the truck last year.
Rolling the stupid thing toward the back of the truck, she attempted to lift it up, but the agony in her sides was too much. She collapsed to the ground with pain shooting through her body, and dragged huge gulps of air into her lungs as she fought desperately to not cave in to the blackness that was offering her blessed relief.
This couldn’t be happening. She’d almost rather sit there on the cold asphalt of this quiet Montana road than call for help. But ten minutes later, when she made her second attempt to lift the tire, she knew it wasn’t happening.
Her body was still too beat up to do something so simple as to lift a tire onto the bolts that were sticking out and waiting for it. The last thing she wanted was to call her brothers, but she didn’t seem to have any other choice.
Still, she did nothing but pull out her cell phone and look at the face of it, not wanting to dial a number, not wanting to admit she was too weak to finish the task she had begun.
When a few minutes later headlights appeared down the road, Taylor didn’t know whether she was relieved or upset that someone would find her like this. She knew without a doubt that whoever was heading toward her would stop.
That’s just the kind of place she’d grown up in. A place where a neighbor would never pass by a vehicle stuck on the side of the road. When the oncoming truck slowed and then pulled in front of hers, blinding her with its bright lights and breaking the quiet of night with the soft purr of its diesel engine, Taylor held up a hand to shield her eyes from the beams and squinted to see who it was. Without a worry in the world that she’d be face-to-face with a stranger—there were no strangers in Sterling, Montana—she stood up, though slowly, not wanting to be seen sitting in defeat on the ground.
The door to the truck opened and a shadow emerged. With the headlights in her eyes she couldn’t identify the driver, but it was a man’s silhouette walking slowly toward her. And then the figure spoke.
“Looks like you’re having some difficulty.”
Taylor froze as everything in her tried to deny that voice, deny who was approaching her. She stiffened her spine and spoke as if she’d never met the man before. “I’m fine. You can be on your way.” Her tone was acid, sure to dissolve him.
Or not. To her distinct displeasure, the man continued walking forward until he was in the light with her and she could see his face all too clearly.
“Doesn’t look like you’re fine, Taylor. Don’t I get a hello hug? It’s been a few years.”
“And as far as I’m concerned, it can be a hell of a lot more years, Travis Montclave!”
“Aw, hell, Taylor. What’s with the attitude?”
“Oh, let’s see. Probably because you left me high and dry after you were finished getting your rocks off and leaving me with a less-than-memorable experience of having sex for the first time.”
Travis was now standing only inches from her, looking even more suave than he had six years earlier, the night he’d taken her virginity. His dark hair was cut short, military style, and she was sure his bright blue eyes were sparkling, as everything was always amusing to him. That was a trait she’d once found charming about the man. The dimple in his cheek was just one more thing that added to his charm, but Taylor wouldn’t ever be charmed by him again.
“I don’t think so, Taylor. It seems you’ve gotten that all mixed up. I wasn’t the one sober, and I certainly wasn’t the one who chased after you.”
“Go to hell, Travis, or wherever it is you run away to.”
“Nah. I’m back. And I’ve decided I don’t want to leave this time.”
His words were a clear challenge, and though she hated this man with a passion, the thundering of her heart had nothing to do with her struggles to change the tire and everything to do with the giant of a man standing before her.