Excerpt from the “King’s Brats” series
When you looked like a monster, you tended to avoid people. So when Mike Sullivan saw the dilapidated pickup stalled on the side of the road, he shuddered at the realization that he might have to stop his truck and help. Some poor soul had slid off the highway, likely as a result of the treacherous blizzard that had descended from the heavens an hour ago like a howling fury.
Mike slowed his Chevy and searched for a figure in the back window of an ancient Dodge pickup. He heaved a sigh of relief when he didn’t see anyone in the fading daylight. Apparently, the driver had abandoned his precariously perched vehicle. Mike hoped whoever it was had gotten picked up. The thirty-below weather was merciless. It killed without caring.
As his headlights flashed on the snowdrifted side window of the blue Dodge, he hissed in a breath. “What the—” A woman and a child were huddled together in the front seat. Mike resisted the urge to hit the brakes, instead easing off the gas until his rusted-out Chevy slowed to a stop fifty feet beyond the other vehicle.
He swore under his breath. Ever since the brutal grizzly attack five years ago that had resulted in most of his face being torn off, he’d kept his distance from strangers. It had taken hundreds of stitches to put him back together, and after the black threads came out, he looked like a modern-day Frankenstein.
Mike hated his older brother for convincing him, “The scars aren’t so bad.” The lie had been exposed when he’d come home from the hospital and his five-year-old nephew had taken one look at him, yelped like a whipped dog, and scrambled away in fright.
Mike had moved out of the house where he’d grown up and into a small log home on the edge of Glacier National Park. He worked on the Rafter S, his family’s cattle ranch, but otherwise kept to himself. He shopped in nearby Whitefish late at night to avoid being seen, because the scars on his face and neck and hands made kids shrink from him in fear and caused horrified grownups to look at him with pity.
Mike pulled his black wool scarf up to conceal the mutilation. The weather was excuse enough to be covered up. He pulled his felt Stetson low to hide his forehead so his guarded eyes were all anyone could see of his face.
He dreaded what he knew was coming, but he had no choice except to grit his teeth and bear it. When that woman and her child saw his face—what was left of his face—they might choose to stay where they were rather than come with him. But he couldn’t leave them marooned in a gale-force blizzard. It was late enough in the day, and the snowstorm was fierce enough, that no one else was likely to come along before morning. The two of them could end up badly frostbitten, or even freeze to death, before they were found.
Making sure his scars were shielded, he backed his truck up until he was only a few feet in front of the stranded vehicle. He watched in the rearview mirror as the driver’s-side door was shoved open. Because of the way the truck was tilted, Mike could see that the two of them were going to have a hard time making it safely to the ground. He took a deep breath, checked one last time to make sure that only his deep-set blue eyes were visible, and stepped down from his truck.
In several long strides, he reached the driver’s-side door. The woman lost her balance stepping out of the tilted truck, and he caught her under the arms to keep her from falling. He felt her stiffen and let go the instant he was sure her feet were solidly on the ground.
She pivoted toward him, and he clamped his teeth to keep from gasping at the sight of her. Before he’d lost his looks, Mike had been a connoisseur of female beauty. He took in her vulnerable, sky-blue eyes, delicate brows anxiously arched, the chin lifted in defiance, and a generous mouth he would have been happy to explore. She would do.
“Catch me, Mommy!” the little girl said, her tiny skirt flaring as she launched herself from the seat toward her mother.
The woman cried out, “Daisy, wait!” But it was too late.
Mike suddenly realized the woman wasn’t going to get turned around in time to catch the kid. He took a half step closer and intercepted the little girl, his large, leather-gloved hands folding around her.
“Be careful!” the woman said, her reaching for her child.
I’m not a brute. Even if I look like one, he thought bitterly. It took him a moment to understand that the woman wasn’t speaking to him but to the little girl.
“Okay, Mommy,” the child said as she snuggled her face against his chest.
Mike was surprised by the girl’s willingness to trust him. But then, she hadn’t seen his face.
“Hold on tight to Mittens,” the woman said.
Mike was confused because the little girl’s mittens were already on her hands. However, she had a lumpy sweater grasped tightly against her tiny chest. He was startled when the kid leaned her head back, looked him in the eye, and started talking.
“Grampa’s truck got broken, and Mommy said somebody would come. It’s really cold. Are you going to help us?”
“Looks like it.” Mike felt like smiling but he hadn’t in so long, it felt strange even to consider it. Her chatter reminded him of his nephew, when he’d been around this age.
The woman grasped his arm to steady herself as she pulled the hood up on the little girl’s coat. The child’s mother was a tiny thing, her head barely reaching his shoulders. She met his gaze with worried eyes and said, “Can you take us to the nearest gas station?”
“Nothing will be open in this storm. You better come with me.”
He saw concern in her eyes, but also the realization that she didn’t have much choice. He was the one with a working vehicle. He was dictating the terms of her rescue. Her hesitation gave him time to look her over more closely.
She was wearing a coat, but it wasn’t a warm one, and her head was uncovered, her long blond hair whipping about her in the wind. Her legs were encased in denim jeans, and she was wearing cowboy boots. Definitely not dressed for the weather, he thought.
The little girl’s coat was warmer than her mother’s, but her tiny legs were merely encased in pink tights and white tennis shoes. The child’s blond hair was contained in two pigtails that made it possible to clearly see her large blue eyes and button nose.
The woman flashed him a brief, weary smile and said, “I’m so grateful to you for stopping. We don’t want to impose. If you could just take us back to Whitefish—”
He could see she was shivering and interrupted her to say, “Let’s get out of this wind.” He turned without another word and headed for his pickup with the little girl in his arms. It took a moment before he heard the snow crunching as the woman followed him.
He crossed to the passenger’s side of his truck and opened the door, easing the little girl toward the middle of the bench seat. It quickly became clear that her mother was so cold her hands and feet weren’t working well. He gripped either side of her slender waist and lifted her into the truck. A woman this good-looking probably had a husband out there somewhere, which made him wonder why the damn fool had sent his wife and child out alone in this dangerous weather.
The woman made a surprised sound as she landed on the bench seat but quickly scooted inside.
“Buckle up,” he ordered. “The kid, too.”
“My phone died,” she said before he closed the door. “If I could use yours, I could call someone—”
“Won’t do any good. Nobody’s leaving town to come out here in the middle of a blizzard. I wouldn’t even have been on the road, except I thought I might get snowed in and decided to get some supplies from town.”
He started to shut the passenger’s door, but she held out a hand and cried, “Wait!”
“What is it?”
“Our suitcases, mine and my daughter’s. They’re in the bed of the pickup. Could you get them?”
Mike didn’t think anyone was going to steal them in this weather, but if the storm was as bad as the weatherman had predicted, the two of them were going to be staying with him long enough to need a change of clothes.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, closing her inside the truck. He retrieved a small suitcase and a backpack, which was all he could find, and dumped them in the back seat of his pickup. By the time he got inside, the woman had buckled the little girl in the middle of the bench seat and was working on her own seat belt. He belted himself in, checked to see there was no oncoming traffic, and got back on the road.
In the short time he’d been stopped, night had fallen with a vengeance. With the blowing snow, the headlights weren’t doing much to show him the highway. He slowed down to a crawl, afraid he’d miss the turnoff to his cabin.
“I’d be grateful if you could take us to the nearest gas station,” she said.
He shook his head. “Nearest station is back the other way. My home is closer.”
She shot him an anxious look.
And he realized that, besides having a nightmare face, he was a very big man, six foot five in his stocking feet, with broad shoulders that looked even bigger in his shearling coat. It dawned on him that, despite the desperate weather, she was afraid of ending up alone with him. He couldn’t really blame her. There were real monsters out there preying on helpless women. There wasn’t much he could do to alleviate her fear except to explain that the two of them were out of choices.
“Visibility in this storm is bad and getting worse,” he said. “We’ll be lucky to make it to my place.”
Even inching along, he almost missed the turnoff from the highway onto the narrow dirt road that led to his cabin. The drifts were higher along the road cut through the forest, and the truck struggled to make it through a particularly deep bank of drifted snow. He edged to one side, where the passage seemed easier, watching carefully to make sure he didn’t scrape one of the myriad aspens and pines and spruces that bordered the road.
“Oh, no!” the little girl cried. “Mittens!”
Mike felt sharp claws digging into his thigh and flashed back to the grizzly attack. His breath caught in his throat as he battled the panic that threatened, struggling to calm himself as he’d been taught. It didn’t work. He was suffocating, every bit of life-giving oxygen snagged in his constricted chest. He suddenly smelled the grizzly’s fetid breath as its jaws closed over his head.
Something furry launched itself at him, and piercing claws raked the tender flesh at his throat. He heard a startled gasp from the other side of the cab as something heavy caught in his scarf and wrenched it down, revealing his face in all its horror.
Mike went berserk, his PTSD taking over and sending him back to the life or death brawl he’d fought with the grizzly. He yanked at the scarf, which felt like it was strangling him, thrusting it roughly aside, which is when he saw the kitten—kitten!—go flying onto the dashboard.
“Goddammit!” he yelled.
Panting, his heart pounding hard enough to burst, he stomped on the brake. Except, his foot hit the accelerator. They plowed into the closest pine tree hard enough to crush the front end of the pickup. The engine clanked once and died, leaving them sitting in the dark.
A small voice beside him said, “Uh-oh.”