The Maverick

By: Diana Palmer



She ruffled her hair and moved closer to the towheaded young driver. She leaned down. “I like your tires,” she drawled with a wide grin. “They’re real nice. And wide. And they have treads. I like treads.” She wiggled her eyebrows at him. “You like treads?”

He stared at her. The silly expression went into eclipse. “Treads?” His voice sounded squeaky. He tried again. “Tire…treads?”

“Yeah. Tire treads.” She stuck her tongue in and out and grinned again. “I reeaaally like tire treads.”

He was trying to pretend that he wasn’t talking to a lunatic. “Uh. You do. Really.”

She was enjoying herself now. The other boys seemed even more confused than the driver did. They were all staring at her. Nobody was laughing.

She frowned. “No, you don’t like treads. You’re just humoring me. Okay. If you don’t like treads, you might like what I got in the truck,” she said, lowering her voice. She jerked her head toward the van.

He cleared his throat. “I might like what you got in the truck,” he parroted.

She nodded, grinning, widening her eyes until the whites almost gleamed. She leaned forward. “I got bodies in there!” she said in a stage whisper and levered her eyes wide-open. “Real dead bodies! Want to see?”

The driver gaped at her. Then he exclaimed, “Dead…bod…. Oh, Good Lord, no!”

He jerked back from her, slammed his foot down on the accelerator, and spun sand like dust as he roared back out onto the asphalt and left a rubber trail behind him.

She shook her head. “Was it something I said?” she asked a nearby bush.

She burst out laughing. She really did need a vacation, she told herself.

Harley Fowler saw the van sitting on the side of the road as he moved a handful of steers from one pasture to another. With the help of Bob, Cy Parks’s veteran cattle dog, he put the little steers into their new area and closed the gate behind him. A carload of boys roared up beside the van and got noisy. They were obviously hassling the crime scene woman. Harley recognized her van.

His pale blue eyes narrowed and began to glitter. He didn’t like a gang of boys trying to intimidate a lone woman. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out his gunbelt, stepping down out of the saddle to strap it on. He tied the horse to a bar of the gate and motioned Bob to stay. Harley strolled off toward the van.

He didn’t think he’d have to use the pistol, of course. The threat of it would be more than enough. But if any of the boys decided to have a go at him, he could put them down with his fists. He’d learned a lot from Eb Scott and the local mercs. He didn’t need a gun to enforce his authority. But if the sight of it made the gang of boys a little more likely to leave without trouble, that was all right, too.

He moved into sight just at the back of Alice’s van. She was leaning over the driver’s side of the car. He couldn’t hear what she said, but he could certainly hear what the boy exclaimed as he roared out onto the highway and took off.

Alice was talking to a bush.

Harley stared at her with confusion.

Alice sensed that she was no longer alone, and she turned. She blinked. “Have you been there long?” she asked hesitantly.

“Just long enough to see the Happy Teenager Gang take a powder,” he replied. “Oh, and to hear you asking a bush about why they left.” His eyes twinkled. “Talk to bushes a lot in your line of work, do you?”

She was studying him curiously, especially the low-slung pistol in its holster. “You on your way to a gunfight and just stopped by to say hello?”

“I was moving steers,” he replied. “I heard the teenagers giving you a hard time and came to see if you needed any help. Obviously not.”

“Were you going to offer to shoot them for me?” she asked.

He chuckled. “Never had to shoot any kids,” he said with emphasis.

“You’ve shot other sorts of people?”

“One or two,” he said pleasantly, but this time he didn’t smile.

She felt chills go down her spine. If her livelihood made him queasy, the way he looked wearing that sidearm made her feel the same way. He wasn’t the easygoing cowboy she’d met in town the day before. He reminded her oddly of Cash Grier, for reasons she couldn’t put into words. There was cold steel in this man. He had the self-confidence of a man who’d been tested under fire. It was unusual, in a modern man. Unless, she considered, he’d been in the military, or some paramilitary unit.

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