olly Sheffield stepped out onto her back steps, a mug of steaming coffee clutched in her hands. It was half past six in the morning, the freshest part of the day, and Molly wouldn't think of drinking her first cup of coffee anywhere else when the weather was fine.
Above, the sky brightened with sunrise. Pure gold light, gentle and clear, seeped into the bowl of endless sky, tipping the wings of a pair of magpies swooping over the silhouette of cottonwoods that marked the eastern edge of her nearly one hundred acres.
When her husband, Tim, died four years ago, this view, morning and evening, had often saved her sanity. There was, in the vast stillness, a sense of eternity that comforted her.
Everyone had said she would recover, and to her surprise, Molly hadâmore or less. It had happened gradually, but now she could stand on this square of porch her husband had built with his own hands, and face the austere bluffs to the north and watch the sun rise with a genuine sense of deep pleasure, unblunted by sorrow. She missed him still, of course, the way one would miss an amputated arm, but the phantom pains grew less frequent with every passing month. She knew he'd be glad.
As the fingers of buttery light crept into her garden, Molly ambled down the rock path she'd laid by herself last summer. A pink and yellow rose, sturdily blooming in the unseasonably warm October, opened dewy petals to the day. Molly took a moment to bend close and smell the faintly citrusy scent, then headed up the narrow path that wound beneath piÃ±on, juniper and cedar trees to the top of the bluff that was the northern boundary of her land.
From some hidden spot came the sound of a family of wrens, singing over breakfast, and one of the magpies from the cottonwoods dived toward his favorite perch, scolding noisily. Molly smiled and saw her cat, Leonardo, flatten himself apprehensively beneath a lavender plant.
“Scaredy-cat,” she said. He made a soft trill in answer. He didn't spend much time outside because of the threat of coyotes, and as a result, he was jumpy when he did.
A flash of something bright caught her eye as she turned toward the bluff in the distance, and Molly paused, blinded for a second. She squinted and held up her hand to block the light. Probably a piece of glass. She moved toward it, worried that one of the animals that foraged around here might cut a paw on it.
Five feet away, she stopped dead.
The light was not catching on a piece of glass. It was an oblong silver medal, attached to a chain that hung around the neck of a man. A man who was either dead or unconscious at the bottom of the steep bluff.
Her land bordered an enormous farm that depended on an army of migrant workers to bring in the harvest of chiles, peaches and cantaloupe that grew in such abundance in the mild northern New Mexico highlands. As Molly edged closer to the man, she decided he must be a member of that army, mostly Mexican nationals. He wore their uniformâa simple white tank top and jeans, and his skin showed the deep tan of a man who worked outside every day.
He was sprawled on his back. Red dust clouded one arm, part of his side and his legs, as if he'd slipped and skidded all the way down the bluff. A large red stain of blood soaked the denim of his left leg.
But it was his face that drew her closer, and between one step and another, she felt an odd, piercing stab of apprehension, as if she should stay where she was, run away, turn back while she had a chance.
For it was the most singularly perfect face she had ever seen. Not perfect in terms of photographs or movie stars. The angles were too sharp, his nose too aggressive, his mouth too wide for those things.
But as she knelt, the trained nurse cataloguing his obvious wounds, she found herself thinking that if she'd drawn the face of a man, if she'd had the talent to paint someone into existence, her man would have worn this dark and sensual face. She would have used these strong colors, his flesh the reddish copper of the earth itself, his hair and eyebrows like the tail feathers of the magpies sweeping overhead. She would have painted his lashes just so, luxuriant against the arch of bone in his cheek, and used a generous hand with the mouth because the softness in such a hard face pleased her.
Yes, if her skill equaled her heart's eye, which it did not, she would have painted this man for herself.
Her cat crept up to the downed man, sniffing with worry and curiosity, his extraordinarily long whiskers wiggling, his yellow eyes wide and bright. When the man shifted slightly and let out a low noise, Leonardo jumped a foot in the air and bolted for the house.
It shook Molly from her daze, and with a frown, she ticked off his woundsâthe face was bruised and very dirty, and one cheekbone showed a long scrape, giving credence to her theory of a fall down the bluff.
She glanced upward. Maybe thirty feet. It wouldn't be hard to fall if he'd been up there at nightâhe might not even have seen the drop in time to do anything to stop himself. The desert on a moonless night was a very dark place indeed.
There must have been a raid at the farms last night. Not an unusual occurrence. In his flight, this man must have missed seeing the abrupt end of land, and tumbled down the bluff.
She looked back at him, assessing. No limbs at odd angles. No visible head injuryâhe'd probably taken a bullet to that leg, and passed out from loss of blood. Heâor someoneâhad packed grass and mud into the wound. Molly half shuddered at the likelihood of infection, but the move had probably saved his life.
For the moment, anyway.
Her training did not allow the option of simply leaving him there while she called for an ambulance. She rose from her crouch a few feet away and stepped forward ; the sound of her feet or maybe the shadow of her body falling on him made the man stir.
Barely. He made a low noise of pain, and his head moved as Molly knelt next to him. “Can you hear me?” she said, and touched his forehead. Definitely feverish.
His eyes opened as she reached for his wrist to take his pulse, and he started, protesting in mumbled Spanish so jumbled Molly couldn't make out the words.
“Shh,” she murmured, and put her finger on his wrist, automatically looking at her watch to count the beats. Not bad. “You're hurt. I need to get you an ambulance.”
“No!” His hand gripped hers with surprising fierceness. “No,
seÃ±ora. Por favor.
No hospital.” He licked his lips. “I have to find Josefina.” His eyes were as dark as coffee. “She is alone,” he said. “Pleaseâno hospital.” He gripped her hand urgently. “Please.”
If she needed additional proof that he'd been running from a raid last night, that cinched it. If she called an ambulance, the authorities would be alerted and he'd be deported.
“Can you walk?” she asked, choosing to sidestep the request. “With my help? I'm a nurse. Maybe I can look at the wound myself.”
He struggled to sit up, but the strong ropes of muscle across his arms and chest were little help to him now. A ghastly grayness bled the color from his face, and Molly bent down, looped his arm around her neck and anchored it with one hand. Bracing herself on her thighs, she locked the other arm around his waist. She was accustomed to assisting barely mobile patients, but this was not a small manâhe was a solid six-two and even though he was a little thin, she'd guess a hundred and eighty pounds of the kind of wiry muscle farmwork gave a man.
They staggered a little together before he found some steadiness. A choked noise of pain came from his throat before he could swallow it, and the effort of standing made him tremble from shoulder to hip.
Molly braced her body against the ground and held on. She waited for him to catch his breath, thinking of the Josefina he couldn't leave behind. A wife? A child?
“Ready?” she asked quietly when the trembling had eased a little.
He gave her a grim nod. Inch by inch, they made it down the last yard of slope, into the level garden. She watched his face for signs of impending disaster, but though his color remained gray, and sweat beaded his lip and forehead, he managed to stay upright and struggle toward the house. By the time she got him inside to the living-room couch, he was trembling visibly, and she didn't think she had long before he passed out entirely.
she said urgently, breathing hard with effort. “Who are you looking for?”
His breath was ragged and he clutched his leg. “She ran...when the...” He blinked, and swayed dangerously, but she saw the finely cut jaw tense, and after a moment, he said, “When the
came.” He closed his eyes, and the cords on his neck showed the struggle he mounted to speak at all.
he whispered, a voice broken with worry and love, and he squeezed his eyes shut. “Josefina.”
It pierced her. “Shh,” she said instinctively. “Lie down. Let me help you.”
She pushed him sideways, and he went down, half whispering in Spanish she suspected would be incoherent even if she were fluent, which she was not. She knew enough to get answers for medical charts, to soothe a frantic patient or mother or brother, enough to get a woman through childbirth. In a county where most of the farm labor was supplied by migrant workers, and where at least half of the local population had been speaking Spanish among themselves for more than four hundred years, she'd had to learn at least that much.
Efficiently, she began to assess his wounds as he lost consciousness. She knew what she ought to be doingâcalling an ambulance, pronto. But his repeated pleas had moved her. If she could take care of him without putting him in physical danger, she felt obliged to give him that chance. What if this had been her late husband, Tim, in a foreign place, and he'd been looking for Molly?
She'd been a nurse for more than ten years, and had treated more than her share of traumas. Deftly, she cut his jeans with a pair of heavy scissors, straight up the leg, and exposed the wound with its primitive but effective packing of mud and grass. Carefully, she removed it, surprised when it held together, like a flat adobe pancake.
Beneath the packing was the bullet wound she'd expected. Molly swore mildly. Using a fresh dish towel, she blotted it clean and spied what she was looking forâthe round end of a bullet, lodgedâthank Godânot far from the surface. He'd been luckyânot only had the bullet missed the bone, but it was something Molly could handle.
Thankful for her patient's unconsciousness, she gathered a pile of clean cloths, water and alcohol for sterilization, then quickly removed the bullet and disinfected the injury. Not unexpectedly, there was heat and redness around the wound, signs of infection. “Damn,” she muttered. Wincing in sympathy, she cleaned the area with alcohol and covered it with a thick, sterile gauze.
he said gruffly, startling her.
Molly looked up in surprise. That had not been a painless procedure, and she wondered how he'd managed to remain still and silent. “Do you hurt anywhere else?” she asked in Spanish, and touched his ribs. “Here?”
A reflexive grunt of pain and a nod. The grayness had come back around his lips.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “Did you hit your head when you fell?”
“Good.” No concussion, then. He'd probably passed out from exhaustion and loss of blood. Likely he'd lost quite a bit before he'd fallen. Briskly, she stood and changed the water in the basin, and returned with a fresh cloth. When she knelt beside him, he opened his eyes once more. “I'm only going to wash your face,” she said, this time in English.
He nodded slightly and closed his eyes.
Molly lifted the cloth to wipe dust from his forehead, and again she felt that sense of warning and fierce attraction, so sharp it made her hesitate. She almost felt she remembered this face, that it had lurked somewhere in the back of her mind, glimpsed only in dreams.
Give me a break,
said a scoffing voice in her mind. Molly half smiled and gently swabbed the long scrape on his cheekbone. Raw but not deep. She wondered vaguely if it would scar.
“Done,” she said, dropping the rag. “Rest here for a littleâI don't think you're going anywhere for at least a few hours.”
But she said it for her own benefit. Her patient was out cold. For a moment, she hesitated, thinking she probably should call the hospital. Or even the sheriffâif her brother, Josh, discovered that she'd hidden an alien in her house, he'd be fit to be tied.
At the thought of her brother, tension drew up her shoulders. It served the purpose of grounding her again in realityâwhat in the world did she think she was doing? His fear of going to the hospital proved the wounded man was either a criminal or a migrant worker in fear of deportation, and though she was pretty sure it was the latter, what if it was the former? Either way, her brother would see it as aiding and abetting a fugitive.
And yet, even as she moved toward the phone, she was oddly hesitant.