"You're such a fucking joke, Lowell. You and your cripple brother."
Brock let the whiskey slide down his throat, wondering who he should swing at first. The big, stupid, quiet guy or the mouthy little shit at his side. They both worked the CrookNeckCreek Ranch, so they were both equally appealing targets. Ronnie Critman was the son of the owner, Ezekiel Critman, a man who had had to work like a dog his entire life for everything he ever had. Unfortunately, his son preferred to other methods to try and slide through life.
A voice of reason cautioned him that this could turn out very badly for him, so he stayed where he was.
"I hear he found someone to marry him. Woman must be fugly as all get out an’ desperate, too. Is that why you’ve been slappin' paint on that shithole you call a ranch?"
Brock set his glass down very carefully on the bar, then turned to face the two men. The little guy it was.
With a mighty grunt, he drove his fist into Ronnie Critman's smug face. It was a bit of a reach because Ronnie had positioned himself just behind Beau Green's massive right arm in the hopes that Beau would take the brunt of whatever Brock dished out. At least, that was how their little game usually went and they’d been perfecting it since middle school.
This time, though, Ronnie must have been feeling too smug. Brock's fist landed perfectly, Ronnie's nasal bone collapsing with a satisfying, nauseating crunch. Ronnie went down immediately, as Beau just looked on, obviously shocked.
Brock grinned and staggered, trying to catch his balance. It didn't quite happen though, he was too toasted. As soon as he steadied, Beau got to him. With a pile driver punch, Beau popped him twice in quick succession. Both lips split, then he got a fist to the temple, sending him reeling in breathtaking pain. But it was pain he'd felt before, so, manageable.
Rocking back on his heels, Brock tried to focus his double vision, lifting his fists. But it was too little, too late. Beau drove a fist into his ribs, stealing his wind, then swung wide to catch his jaw from beneath. Brock’s head snapped back painfully and he went down like a ton of bricks, his vision going dark as he fell.
When they got the call for the bar fight at Spur’s just minutes before her shift ended, Payton wasn't surprised. It was a Friday night and there wasn't that much to do in Honeywell, Texas other than hang out with your buddies and retell the same old stories.
When you added liquor to the mix, it always made things more interesting… and volatile.
And it was Murphy's Law that things just had to happen when you didn't want them to.
Dropping her iPad into her bag, she straightened in her seat as Charlie jerked to attention. They'd been hanging out in the parking lot of the new Sonic, sipping on milkshakes while they waited for the next call. Now, Charlie started the ambulance and pulled out carefully.
When he reached the street, he flipped on the lights and siren and accelerated the big, boxy machine. Spur’s was on the other side of town and out about six miles. If they pushed it they could be there in about ten minutes. Payton keyed the mic to let Donna know they were on their way, then tuned into the police channel.
The Floyd County, Texas, Sheriff's Department boasted twelve employees— a sheriff, five deputies, three radio operators and two detectives. There was normally another road deputy but she was on maternity leave at the moment, so they were a little short staffed.
Payton heard three voices on the airwaves, though, and wondered what the hell they were getting into. It sounded like the entire department was down at Spur’s.
Then she heard Beau Green's name. Ah, no wonder they needed so many people to control the situation.
As they neared their destination her heartbeat picked up. This was the exciting part of the job. The challenging part was yet to come.
Charlie turned off the siren as they pulled into the lot. There were three police SUVs at the front of the bar, blue lights flashing. The sheriff's big tan truck was there as well.
Beau Green leaned up against the hood of one vehicle, blood dripping from a cut on his forehead. There were two cops leaning against his back as they patted him down. Judging by the scowling, belligerent look on his face, it hadn't been an easy takedown. Payton had seen the look before.
In school he'd been a stereotypical bully, stealing money so that he could have more to eat at lunch. What Payton hadn't realized until years later was that he'd had no money to begin with. His mom had never given him any. Yes, he'd been a bully, but he'd been stealing so he could eat. What the school cafeteria had to offer was the only real food he ever got.
In junior high she'd been too young to understand how rough he'd had it. Beau had never given up his bully ways though, just gotten more creative in how he used them.
And neither had Ronnie, who was currently sitting on a concrete parking curb wailing at the world. He was flailing his arms around and generally being a nuisance, demanding someone take care of him.
Same old, same old.
As she hustled out of the rig, grabbing her bag on the way to the ground, she wondered who the two dickheads had roughed up. That was what they were known for doing, trying to get it over on other people, then acting like they hadn't done anything wrong.
She looked at Charlie as he circled to meet her "Big guy or the unknown?"
Her partner grimaced and ran a hand through his graying hair. He grinned at her, the crow's feet at his kind eyes deepening. "I think you can take the unknown tonight."
Payton made a face at him, but didn't mind. He'd taken some stinkers recently. Turning, she headed for the front of the bar while Charlie headed toward Beau.
The sheriff saw her and waved her toward him. When she drew close, he guided her toward the front door of the bar.
"Just one inside. He hasn't come around after Beau clocked him."
Payton groaned internally. Yeah, that was understandable. Beau's hands were the size of milk jugs.
Payton was surprised to see the lights were on inside the bar and wrinkled her nose as she looked around and realized how gross it was in the light. She ate here sometimes. Yuck!
The sheriff led her around the edge of the long bar and waved to the floor. Payton saw a man lying there, unmoving, his booted toes pointed skyward.
She drew close and dropped to her knees. It was only when she leaned over the patient and saw his dark, soft curls that she realized who it was.
Her stomach clutched in fear.
To anyone looking on, they would not have noticed the slight hesitation when she realized who was needing her care. They wouldn't realize how badly her heart shuddered as she studied him.
Payton dragged in a breath and started with the basics. Airway. Breathing. Circulation. There was a dripping cut on his forehead, and both of his lips were split on the left side.
She leaned over to shine the penlight into his eyes. The brilliantly colored Caribbean blue-green iris of his right eye contracted perfectly, as did the left. Well, that was good, made his chance of a serious concussion a little less. The loss of consciousness was concerning, though.
For a breathless beat of time, she suddenly realized how close she was to his mouth. It wouldn't normally be that big of a deal in her line of work, but she knew how well that particular mouth could make a woman forget the world.
Clenching her jaw, she moved on down his body, looking for other injuries. Hands shaking, she reached out to undo the buttons down his chest. The further down she went the more her hands fumbled. Damn it. She shouldn't be reacting like this, she was a professional, damn it, and Brock Lowell was an oblivious ass. He'd proven that time and time again. But for some reason he was her personal Kryptonite.
When she parted the halves of his shirt, she was dismayed to see a purpling bruise on his left rib area. Beau was right handed, so it made sense that most of Brock's damage was on that side. She palpated the injury, but he didn't move.
There were no obvious breaks in the skin.
She listened to his breathing. There was a bit of a rattle but more like a normal snore.
She poked him in the shoulder, wondering why he was still unconscious. "Brock. Wake up!"
Thickly lashed lids opened and he stared up, seemingly dazed. Then he stretched his arms above his head and yawned. Mid-yawn he realized he was hurt and winced, curling in on himself.
"Ow, damn. What the hell?"
Payton scowled down at him. Had he seriously been just sleeping? "How do you feel?" she snapped.
He rolled his head and blinked up at her. "Oh, hey, Payton. What are you doing here, sweetness?"
A little shocked at the endearment, she wondered if he realized what he'd even said. She lifted her brows and looked around pointedly. "Uh, I'm cleaning your ass up off this grimy floor. What are you doing here?"
Brock lifted his head three inches, did a swivel and dropped back to the ground. "This looks like Spur's."
"It is Spur's," she confirmed. "And you just had the crap beaten out of you. Do you remember that?"
He lifted a broad hand to rub at his face. "Yeah," he sighed. "It's coming back to me."
Payton refused to respond to the despondency she heard in his voice. He had made his bed. He could lie in it. "You received a heck of a knock on the head, and you might have a couple of broken ribs. Hold still.”
She swiped the blood on his forehead away with a gauze pad. It was just a tiny cut, so she grabbed a couple of butterfly bandages from her pack. The edges of the cut pulled together perfectly and she sealed it shut.
“I’ll talk to Charlie and we'll run you into the hospital to get checked out."
Brock snorted and curled up into a sitting position. "Yeah, that's not happening. I'm fine."
She watched him try not to react to the pain in his side, but she'd been doing this job long enough that she could see through men and their stubbornness. He winced and his breath hitched in his broad chest. His face went ash white. But he forced his body straight. Then, with a Herculean effort, he climbed to his feet.
Brock swayed on his boot heels. Payton reached out to steady him but he shifted away from her touch to grab the heavy oak bar. "I'm good. Just got the wind knocked out of me."
Sheriff Lane moved close enough to grab Brock as well. Payton moved aside to let the big man closer. The sheriff had been on the job here about ten years and he had a good head on his massive shoulders.
"You need to listen to Payton, Brock. I don't think it would hurt to get checked out."
Brock shook his dark head and swung down to grab his black Stetson from the floor. His arms went pinwheeling, but he still managed to keep his feet as he jammed the hat over his black curls. "I'm good, damn it. She just wants to get her damn hands on me."
Payton felt the blush creep into her cheeks and it pissed her off more than anything that he could still get a rise out of her. "You're a hard-headed goat, Brock Lowell, but it's my job to make sure you're okay, whether you want me to or not."
"So, are you refusing care?"
"Hell, yes, I'm refusing care."
Sheriff Lane held up a hand to stop him from walking away. "You need to chill out a little bit, Brock. She's trying to help you."
Brock snorted and headed out the door of the bar. As soon as he saw Ronnie, who was now in handcuffs, he smirked. "When you gonna learn to keep your mouth shut, Critman?"
Sheriff Lane grasped his arm. "Back of my truck, Lowell. You're in no shape to be left alone."
Brock jerked his arm away in anger, and Payton winced. He was only making it worse for himself.
"Why are you taking me to jail? They started it."
Sheriff shook his head. "I know they're mouthy, but I have witness statements that you took the first swing. You either go with me peacefully or I charge you. Which is it?"
Brock scowled. "You're just Mr. Goody-two-shoes, aren't you Sheridan? You won't arrest me because it'll make my sister mad."
The sheriff laughed and shook his head. "I think if your sister saw you right now, she’d tell me to haul your ass to jail and throw away the key."
Payton snorted as well, because that's exactly what would happen. Cheyenne Lowell pulled no punches and had no patience for stupidity. There were too many other things going on at the ranch that needed their attention. And Brock knew that, even as drunk as he was.
With a wince, Brock headed in the direction the sheriff pointed and climbed into the back of the SUV. Payton caught the gasp as he climbed in and pulled the door shut behind himself.
Payton and the sheriff shared a look. "If he starts to throw up or anything," she warned, "let me know. I think he just passed out on the floor in there. Beau's fist helped him down, and he'll be sore tomorrow, but I think he'll be okay."
Sheriff Lane nodded. "Yeah. I thought he was done working out his issues."
Payton sighed. "I did too, Sheridan. But, on top of his dad’s heart attack and getting hurt, I think Chad's wedding news has him shook."
The sheriff turned to her, head cocked. "Wait, Chad's getting married?"
Payton nodded. "I talked to Cheyenne earlier. It's not going to be a big affair, but they want to have it on the ranch in a few months. You hadn't heard?"
Sheridan shook his head. "Nah, I was in a conference in Austin till a few hours ago."
Sighing, she reached out to rest a hand on her friend's arm, then turned to head back to the rig. She was a little younger than Chad but they’d been in middle and high school together. She remembered all the excitement when he left for the Marines, then the following heartbreak when he came home wounded. Lora seemed to be the perfect match for him, and he'd waited patiently for her to be ready for marriage.
Chad was sure lucky all right. Seemed like everyone else around here was striking out.
She glanced at the sheriff's truck again. Brock had tipped his head back against the seat and his eyes were shut. For a moment, just before Sheridan pulled away, Brock lifted his head and opened his eyes. Payton waited for him to look at her, but he didn't.
Well, wasn't that the story of her life?