Connie Cox

Christmas Eve Delivery

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give to clear up his office administrator’s oversight.

      Like everyone else in the stands, he turned to the gate to see his cousin poised over the back of a snorting and twisting bull.

      Bull riding was a young man’s sport. Rusty was getting too old for this.

      But, then, his bullheaded cousin would probably realize that in the morning when he was too stiff to roll out of bed.

      Jordan had been there, done that, got the belt buckle—and the scars—to prove it.

      The woman next to him winced as she saw Rusty drop down onto the wide back of the bull.

      Rusty settled in—as well as a man could settle onto the back of an angry bull—and gave a sharp nod.

      The gate opened, the bull rushed out, and Jordan silently counted in his head, one second, two seconds, three

      And Rusty was off the bull and on the ground.

      The rodeo clowns rushed in to distract the twenty-five-hundred-pound, four-legged kicking fury so Rusty could roll away from the dangerous hoofs.

      Jordan squinted through the falling light, looking for that first twitch that said Rusty was going to catch his breath, jump up and walk out of the arena any second now.

      “Come on, Rusty, shake it off,” he murmured, as if saying it would send his cousin into action.

      Dust hung in the air, as time stood still.

      Rusty didn’t move.

      But the woman next to Jordan did.

      She rushed toward the arena, looking like she intended to climb through the iron-pipe fence separating her from the bull.

      Without thought, Jordan reached out and pulled her close to him.

      “No.” It came out harsh and uncompromising. It had been meant to. He’d been trained to give orders that were followed without question. He’d had too much practice to break the habit now.

      There were a lot of habits he needed to work on breaking—like waking up in a cold sweat every night from his murky, twisted memory dreams. And jumping every time the barn door slammed closed, sounding too much like metal exploding.

      And getting an adrenaline rush when he pulled a woman close to him to protect her from a non-existent danger.

      Of course, she wasn’t intending to go over the rail into an arena with an enraged bull running loose. Who in their right mind would?

      His stomach sank as he had a surge of doubt in his ability to judge a situation. His instincts, which had always served him so well, might be a tad on the twisted side now.

      A tad?

      Still, he held her tightly pressed against his body as she struggled to get free, something deep inside him telling him to hold on tight and not let go.

      Under other circumstances Jordan would have tried to defuse the situation by making a joke at his own expense, along with an apology as he sheepishly laughed off his rash and inappropriate behavior.

      But his cousin lay facedown in the dirt, too still for too long, and Jordan had no words, much less a laugh.

      “Let me go.” She struggled against him. “Can’t you see he needs help?”

      Maybe his instincts weren’t as far off as he’d thought they were.

      Jordan gave a quick glance at the clowns as they herded the bull through the gate. One more second to make sure they latched it tight.

      Then he let her loose, moved around her to put one boot on the top rung and vaulted over the fence racing toward Rusty with too many dire diagnoses running through his head for him to think straight.

      As he knelt by his cousin’s side, Deseré knelt on the other side. Had she gone over the top, too? Or squeezed between the rails? Did it matter? All that mattered was Rusty, lying so still. He was never still. But now …

      Jordan felt frozen, inside and out.

      Deseré was on her hands and knees, her silk shirt and slacks getting filthy as she tried to assess Rusty’s state of consciousness.

      Oh, God. Jordan thought it as a prayer, as cold dread started in the pit of his stomach, making its icy way to his heart. He hadn’t even considered that Rusty might be …

      “Unconscious,” she said, her voice clipped.

      She put her hand on Rusty’s back, noting its rise and fall.

      “Breathing,” she reported.

      Jordan nodded, realizing he’d been holding his own breath. Vacantly, he gazed down at his cousin’s body, trying to get his own breathing regulated.

      Worn, dusty boots stopped next to Jordan’s knees. Jordan didn’t know and didn’t care who they belonged to.

      With creaking knees Plato squatted down and touched Jordan’s elbow. “Emergency Dispatch says the ambulances and paramedic crews are tied up. A truckload of teenagers tried to beat a train across the tracks. They don’t know how long it will be. Do we need a chopper?” His calm voice, steady rheumy eyes and familiar wrinkled face piercing Jordan’s fog.

      Jordan tried to make the words make sense. The only thing getting through to him was that Rusty lay still, too still.

      He put his hand on Rusty’s back, willing him to take another breath.

      “Dr. Hart?” Deseré prompted. “Authorize air transport?”

      She nodded her head in the affirmative, giving him an obvious hint as to what his answer should be.

      Jordan squeezed out a reply. “Yes.”

      How long had it been between the time Rusty had hit the ground and now? It seemed like hours. Or years. But it could have only been minutes. They would have called emergency services immediately, right?

      His brain seemed to be thawing—finally. He was applying logic and making assumptions. Now he needed to apply that brain to Rus—to his patient. Thinking of his cousin as his patient would help him put some distance between his panic and his personal pain.

      Vacantly, he noted that Deseré was positioning herself flat on her stomach, almost nose to nose with Rusty, something he should have already done.

      “I’ll stabilize his head while you check for spinal injuries,” she said, stirring the churned-up dirt of the arena with her breath.

      Jordan noted her technique. Thumbs on collarbone, fingers behind shoulders, Rusty’s head firmly supported on her forearms. She definitely knew what she was doing.

      She would be stuck like that until the emergency crew arrived with their cervical collar and backboard and trained crew to whisk Rusty to the hospital in Longview, the closest trauma center but still twenty-five minutes away by air.

      If the last ten minutes had seemed to be a decade, the next twenty-five would pass like centuries.

      The way Deseré lay flat on her belly with her arms extended, holding Rusty tight to keep him immobile, breathing in the thick red dust, each minute must be torture.

      Running his hands over Rusty’s head then down, he started to check his cousin’s spine carefully.

      No weird angles. But that didn’t mean much after the unnatural contortions Rusty’s body had gone through while airborne.

      As he got to mid-back, Rusty stirred.

      “Tickles,” he complained, as he tried to lift his face from the dirt.

      But Jordan put one hand firmly on his lower hips and the other high on his back to hold him firmly in place.

      “Be still,” he growled, not caring about his lack of bedside manner.

      “Can’t. Back muscles are cramping.”

      “You can and you will. Be still while I finish checking to see if anything’s broken.”

      Rusty lay