Shadows of Yesterday(2)

By: Sandra Brown

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?”

She nodded.

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.

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