Heroes in the Saddle, Book 1
Horse wrangler and off-duty firefighter Treven Arnett is the person closest to Delta Pennington’s racecar when it bursts into flames and spins onto the infield. Without a thought for his own safety, Treven reaches in and releases her, pulling her out to safety before her stock car is consumed by fire.
Delta looks up into the face of the cowboy who risked his life to save her, but as his eyes cloud over, she notices his severe injuries. She insists on staying and working his small horse ranch until he’s recovered, but the sexy cowboy makes it impossible for her to keep away from his hot loving. Serious daydreams of relocating to this quiet part of Texas surprise Delta as she and Treven grow more attached to each other.
When Treven learns that Delta has ulterior motives for her visit to his town, his anger explodes, and he kicks her out. But someone else is angry with Delta, incensed enough to have tampered with her racecar. Does Treven care enough for Delta to overlook her deceit and step back into her life to help find the culprit?
Treven Arnett pulled his white straw cowboy hat down tighter on his head as a breeze blew across the infield of Wild Oak Speedway. The roar of the super stock cars’ engines surrounded him as drivers jockeyed for the lead in the race’s final laps. Dirt track racing had become his favorite live sport now that this part of Texas had installed its very own oval.
He’d volunteered to serve on the firefighting crew today and had put in his hours during the morning race. Despite all the work he needed to get done at his ranch, here he sat, sipping a beer with another off-duty firefighter, watching the end of the race.
“One more, buddy?” Treven’s friend Clint reached into his cooler and pulled out a can of brew, water dripping from both the beer and Clint’s hand.
Treven could almost taste another ice-cold pilsner slipping down his throat, but he shook his head. He needed to get home and get some work done. “Thanks, but I should get moving. The horses don’t breed themselves.”
Clint laughed as he opened the beer then ran his wet fingers through his short blond hair. “Not in this day and age, they don’t.”
The dozen thoroughbreds Treven owned and/or stabled on his property three miles away kept him busy and in property tax and vet-bill money, but he had to work his ass off twelve to sixteen hours a day, most days.
“Ms. Delta Pennington.” The announcer’s voice blared from the speakers. “Our southern belle in the number thirteen car has taken third place from Randy Vinter and is moving up fast to challenge Beau Trudeaux for second.”
Treven had gotten a peek at the lovely Ms. Delta as she’d inspected her car before the race. With her sunglasses on, he couldn’t see her trademark eyes, but her brown hair touched her shoulders in thick layers, and those sexy bangs blew around her forehead. She’d looked at him for long moments, nodded, then moved on.
Delta being the first woman to compete on this new track, Treven hoped she’d take first, or at least one of the top positions. He liked that she went after her passion in a male-centered world like stock car racing.
Treven stood. “I’m gonna make my way out.” He needed to cross the oval to get to the parking lot where emergency responders left their vehicles. “See you next weekend.”
“Next weekend, not before,” Clint responded, his blue eyes going serious.
“Not before.” Treven got moving, his boots kicking up dust as he strode across the newly-planted grass. The Wild Oak volunteer firefighters kept good karma coming their way by never admitting there might be another chance to see each other—like a fire at a local home or business.
The race cars circled the track for the second-from-last lap. As he walked, Treven rolled down the sleeves on his blue denim shirt and buttoned them, figuring he’d stop and pick up a few dozen bales of hay on his way home.
Nearing the oval, he slowed and waited, not stupid enough to cross the track until the race was over.
“Oh, lordy, look at that!” The announcer’s voice squeaked.
Treven swiveled his head as a car spun into the infield about fifty yards from him. He prepared to bolt one way or the other, but the dark blue car with yellow lettering slid to a stop.
“Fuck!” He ran toward it as flames shot out the side windows.
Screams came from the stands and the infield.
“Aw, folks.” The announcer shouted. “That’s Delta Pennington’s car.”
Sirens blared, and in his peripheral vision, Treven saw people running toward him, but no one was near enough to help.
He was on his own.
He threw off his hat as he skidded around the front of the vehicle, ran to the driver’s window, and heard choking coming from inside.
She was still alive but engulfed in flames.
He didn’t have gloves with him, not the ones he’d been wearing earlier when he was on duty, nor the ones he’d be using for hay later. Nothing to cover his bare hands or his face.
Taking a deep breath, he removed the net from the window and reached inside the car anyway.
Hot, blistering flames—his hands would be a mess, but he could do this.
Heat licked at his face, singeing his skin as his fingers found the five-point harness release and pushed.
Nothing. Had it melted shut?
No, wait, this was a latch variety. He felt for the piece of webbing that would release it, tugged on it…
A click sounded, and she was free.
Treven grabbed the shoulders of her fire suit and pulled. She was lighter than he’d imagined. At just a few inches shorter than his five-foot-ten inches, she’d been a strong-looking woman when he’d seen her earlier in her yellow and blue fire suit. The one that curved over her nice behind.
He pulled his thoughts back from wherever the hell they’d just gone and focused on tugging her out the window, into his arms, and keeping her limp body from hitting the ground.
Her helmet banged against his cheek as he pulled her higher against his chest, spun, and ran as fast as he could. That gas tank could go any second. Why hadn’t it already? And why was the interior of the car on fire when the tank hadn’t gone up? And why hadn’t he at least paused before he’d rushed in to save her to consider that he could be blown to his eternal reward?
The firetruck reached the car, and half the firefighters that jumped off came running his way with their med bags.
Treven sank to the ground, his knees shaking, his breath pumping as he eased Ms. Delta onto the seedling grass of the infield.
With a jerk, her body came to life. She coughed and hauled off her helmet, gasping in air and hacking it back out. “What…” More coughing as she removed her fireproof hood. “What happened?”
She looked up at Treven.
What they said was true. She had one green eye and one blue eye. “You’re safe.” He reached to take her pulse but didn’t recognize the red, blistered skin on his… Then the pain hit.
Delta had seen this cowboy earlier, walking through the pits. Those dark green eyes, auburn hair, spectacular jawline, and muscled body. Now, his eyes widened in his smudged face, then his lids flickered, and a grimace distorted his mouth.
“What is it?” She looked down at her fire suit, then caught sight of his hands. Delta gasped and sat up, her world spinning for a second, then settled as three men surrounded them.
“Ma’am, lay back.” One guy touched her.
“No, I’m fine.” She looked at the blond man with his hand on her shoulder. Not in uniform, but carrying a red medic bag, he had to be a firefighter. The man’s pale blue eyes shifted, and a look of horror crossed his face as he spotted the cowboy’s hands.
How had he gotten so badly burned? “Please help him.” Delta held her palms a few inches under the cowboy’s burned, shaking hands. “I don’t know what to do to help him.”
Loud shouts came from behind her, and she looked back as firefighters in full gear shot white propellant from nozzles attached to canisters at flames blazing from the inside of her car. “Oh.” Everything made sense now. She gazed at the cowboy’s hands.
This man had saved her life.
“Aw shit, Treven.” The blue-eyed, white-haired man grasped the cowboy’s elbow and moved his arm to look at the damage on the other side. “We need to get you to the hospital. Right now.”
“I can drive him.” Delta scrambled to her knees just as the firefighter gestured for the ambulance to pull closer. “Oh.” Her brain wasn’t functioning at full speed.
The cowboy who’d saved her looked at her and gave a half-smile. “No offense, ma’am, but I’ve seen you drive. I’ll ride in the ambulance if it’s all the same to you.”
She would laugh if the pain in his eyes wasn’t so terrible to witness. The white-haired fireman helped the cowboy—Treven?—stand.
The crowd went wild. “Someone bring me the name of that hero,” the announcer called. “The man who saved Delta Pennington’s life.”
Another firefighter, this one dark-skinned with black hair and eyes, crouched next to her. “If you’d lie down, ma’am, we’ll check for—”
“No.” Something made her need to stay with the cowboy. “I should go with Treven.” She struggled to get to her feet but ended up coughing so hard, she grew dizzy and sank down again.
The fireman helped her sit, then pulled out a tank of oxygen and gave her the face mask to hold over her mouth and nose.
Treven and the blond firefighter walked away.
As the man took her pulse, he looked from one of her eyes to the other. “We’ll get you over there, and you can ride to the hospital with him. You should be checked.”
Taking stock of herself, Delta figured he was right. Her ears rang like she’d stood in front of rock concert speakers for six hours, her lungs burned with each breath, and her throat felt like it’d been coated with sandpaper. Even her nostrils hurt.
“I’m fine, but I don’t want the ambulance to leave without me.” Taking a few deep breaths of pure oxygen, she struggled to her feet.
He assisted her to stand but held her arm. “You should—”
She had to get to the ambulance. Delta pressed the canister into his hands, and he tottered back a bit as she stumbled into him in her rush to get to the cowboy.
Ignoring him, she hustled to the ambulance. The white-haired firefighter—who must be a paramedic—hovered over the cowboy who half-sat, half-laid on the gurney inside, and another older man took notes on a clipboard. They’d inserted an IV into Treven’s arm, and the cowboy’s eyes were pinched shut.
She put a foot onto the bumper and grabbed the rail to pull herself inside, and the white-haired paramedic held out a big hand toward her. “Hang on. Let us work here. Have a seat on the bumper for a minute.”
“I’m riding with him.” She tried to make her voice commanding.
Treven’s eyes opened, then widened when he saw her. “You shouldn’t be walking around. You were unconscious for a time.”
White-hair’s blue gaze shot to hers. “She was?” He gestured to his partner. “Help her in, Buzz. Give her a non-rebreather.”
The older man helped Delta climb in and sat her on the bench. He handed her a clear plastic mask on a hose. She unzipped her fire suit and peeled it off her arms. “What can I do to help?”
“Stay out of the way for now.” White-hair set one of Treven’s hands on some kind of plastic sheet-like thing as the older man left the ambulance, closed the doors, and they got rolling.
“Ms. Pennington, I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced.” Treven gave her a sideways grin.
Her heart gave an extra thump at the sweet cowboy manners, despite what had to be a lot of pain for him. Or had they added pain meds to his IV?
“Please call me Delta.” She forced a smile. “And you’re Treven…?”
The paramedic sighed. “Treven Arnett, meet Delta Pennington.” He gave her a look. “And I’m Clint Black and prefer no jokes about the famous name, please.”
“Not much for bedside manners, is he.” Treven winked at her.
Clint shook his head. “Not much for common sense, Treven. Diving head-first into a burning car.” He rechecked the IV.
Delta had to agree. It’d taken no thought, just bravery and adrenaline for Treven to do what he’d done. “I have to go with the hero theory.” She coughed a few times, then smiled at Treven. “Especially since I was the recipient of….”
Treven’s eyes rolled back, and his head dropped to the side. Delta jumped up to grasp his forearm to keep his hand from hitting the rail, but Clint was already there.
“Thanks, ma’am.” The paramedic adjusted Treven so his scorched hand sat on a sterile surface. “Now, please, sit down.” He looked back and forth between her eyes. “You’ve had a trauma, and I don’t need you passing out, too.
“Not. Passed. Out.” Treven’s eyes opened. “Just wanted to be able to say that Miss Delta Pennington held my…arm?” He let out a sound that could have been a laugh. “And you went and spoiled it, buddy.”
Delta couldn’t believe how tough this cowboy was.
“Oxygen.” The paramedic pointed to the mask she’d set next to her on the bench. “Take some good deep breaths.” He got busy fitting one on Treven’s face.
“Thanks, Clint.” Treven’s gaze met hers as the two of them sucked in oxygen.
The sweet air helped with the scratch in her throat and the burn in her lungs. And just looking at her hero made her chest flutter with gratitude. He’d risked so much, even though he’d known the pain he’d suffer for it. This man was someone she would never forget and wanted to get to know.
After a few seconds, she held her mask to the side. “This must be a small town. Everyone knows everyone.”
Clint gestured toward her mask, and she immediately put it back in place. “Treven here, he’s my buddy in the town’s volunteer fire department.”
Treven looked like he was going to fade out again. She pulled her mask away. “That’s what made you risk your life for me. You’re a firefighter.” The knowledge that it was his job didn’t diminish her appreciation one bit.
Shaking his head, Treven turned his green gaze on her. “Partially, ma’am, but there’s another reason. Either way, I’m glad I got the chance to help.”
An hour and a half later, Delta sat on the edge of the emergency room bed swinging her cowgirl boots like she would hit the ground running if she could. She wanted to be anywhere but here, but the doctor was slow in granting her a release. Her pit crew chief, Kellan Brody, sat on a chair in the corner, mumbling under his breath.
He’d come to the hospital with her Pennington Racing branded duffle containing her clothes and had someone drive her car in for her, but he’d also brought his suspicious mind, and that was racing in high gear. She’d told him what she could remember from the accident, but her mind was somewhere else. She wanted to go to Treven and see how he was doing.
“You know, Delta, it never should have gone down like that. How the hell did the steering quit just when a mysterious fire burst out?” The older man ran a hand over his mostly-bald head. “Answer me that.”
“I don’t know. There are always freak accidents.” She had just been lucky there was someone close by to get her out. The doctor had said another few seconds in there with no oxygen, and she may not have survived. The guy had been exaggerating—she kept telling herself—but she owed the cowboy her life.
“Delta,” Kellan snapped. “You’re not taking this seriously.”
She flung her hands out to the side, palms toward the ceiling. “Until the crew finds anything out of place, it’s just an accident.”
He stood, his knees cracking. “And last week in Mississippi?”
That busted brake line had been scary as hell. “Again, things happen.”
Pointing a finger at her, he narrowed his gaze. “Not to cars under my watch. And somebody’s ass is going to roll for this.”
She bit her lips to keep from smiling at his mixed metaphor. “Let’s have Uncle Steve run another background check on the pit crew.” She contorted her lips and came up with her cartoon duck voice. “Would that make you happy, Kewwan?”
Kellan’s face turned red. “This isn’t about me, girl. This is about your safety.”
“Sorry.” She used that stupid voice when she was nervous, but it irritated the hell out of nearly everyone she knew.
“You need to remember who—” Kellan groaned as her cell phone rang.
“Hi, Uncle Steve.” She held the phone away from her ear, waiting for the outburst.
“Delta, are you okay?” Her uncle’s voice came through the phone, softer than she’d expected.
“The doctors checked me over, and I’m good.”
He sighed, then went on for a while about safety, about taking precautions, about making sure her car was perfect before she got into it. “And don’t forget, I want a full report of what the area can provide for us. For the project.”
That damn project. She didn’t want to get into it with him now. Not with Kellan in the room and locals wandering through the halls.
“About the car, though. Kellen thinks there might be something more happening.”
“What? What’s going on?”
The nurse walked in with a clipboard. “You’ve got your papers, Ms. Pennington.” She winked at Delta. “And I need your autograph.”
“Listen, I’ve got to do some paperwork here, but call Kellen.” She winked at her crew chief. “He’ll fill you in. Bye.” She hung up before her uncle could start yelling.
“Thanks.” Kellen glared at her before answering his ringing phone. “Yeah, I got a theory. Let me get somewhere private, and I’ll call you back.” He hung up on Steven, too.
She grimaced. “He’s not gonna like being cut off by both of us, you know.”
As Delta signed, Kellan snorted. “He sits in that ivory mansion and expects to tell us what to do when we’re the ones getting’ our hands greasy and risking our lives.” He looked at Delta, and his eyes grew shiny.
She smiled at him. “Aw, Kell. I’m fine. You know I’ve got nine lives.”
He grabbed her charred fire suit, set her car keys on the bed next to her, and marched out, mumbling something about ducks and cats.
Delta accepted the release papers from the nurse. “Where is Treven…um…?” She didn’t remember his last name.
“Arnett. He’s in number four.” The other woman gestured to her right and smiled. “He’s one great guy.”
Delta could hear longing in the nurse’s voice. “Are you and he…?”
Her face turned red. “Oh, no. I’m married.” She giggled. “But a girl can still look.” Her face dropped. “I’m sorry. That was…” She turned and nearly ran from the room.
Delta watched her go. “Okay, strange.” She whispered the words as she stood, pocketed her keys in her jeans, then adjusted her Pennington Racing logo T-shirt. She looked in the mirror, finger-combed her hair, and went to find one great guy.
He lay so still in the bed, she wanted to check for a pulse. His hands had been wrapped, and his face had been washed. Delta leaned in closer. One of his auburn eyebrows was completely gone. The thought of how much worse he could have been burned had her sucking in an uneven breath. He’d done it for her. For her. When had anyone done anything that risky for her? Never, that she could recall.
“I can do it tonight.” A male voice came from the hallway. “But I’ve got to be in Fort Worth tomorrow.”
“Okay, I can handle tomorrow, but I won’t get there ‘til sometime after noon.”
Delta recognized the voices and moved toward the open door to close it so Treven could sleep. The two men from the track, Clint and the black-haired man who’d helped her stood looking at calendars on their phones.
“Shit. His horses have to be fed in the morning. What do you think of setting up a schedule online and getting the rest of the crew to take a shift?”
“Leave it open, ma’am.” Treven’s voice came from the bed.
She spun to look at him and met his dark green gaze. “But you need your rest.”
“They’re trying to split up the work on my ranch, and I’d like to hear how they think they can do it.” He shifted, froze with a pained look on his face, then relaxed. “I’m gonna be helpless for a few weeks.”
Delta’s stomach shifted, thinking of the pain, the scars, the vulnerability this man was facing because of her.
He cocked his head and listened as the guys in the hall plotted and planned.
She shook her head. This was her chance to be useful. To make up for all the times she’d run away from her responsibilities and acted like a pouty, rich brat. She could do this. And she was going to, no matter what roadblocks Treven Arnett threw at her.
As an added bonus, she could let her uncle believe she was doing it to help with his complicated buyout plan. The big jerk.
Stepping to the door, she poked her head out. “Clint? Could you two come in for a minute?”
The blond man’s brows rose, his gaze shot to his friend’s, then he nodded, and they followed her back in.
No one spoke. The three men just stared at her.
She pulled in a deep breath, which caught on a soft cough, and stared at the cowboy. “I’m going to take care of Treven and his horses. For as long as he needs help.”