Hazard Play – Chapter One

Dust was still settling on a twenty-foot skid mark that had ripped a scar in the road about nine miles outside of Greenview, Oregon, when Tess Hazard pulled her pickup over to the side of the road. She scanned the skid trail, finally spotting a Harley, its rear wheel spinning, halfway down in the shallow ditch on the other side of the shoulder. A man was crawling out on his hands and knees. He struggled to stand, putting his hands on his knees with his head down.

“Thank God.” She breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the man conscious. Her home healthcare nursing supplies weren’t adequate for a critically injured patient. She climbed out of the truck. The man took a step, stumbled and fell to his knees. He sat back and cradled his head in his hands as Tess reached his side. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Give me a minute.” His voice was low and he didn’t look up.

“I’m a nurse. Let me look at you.” Tess took his hands away from his head, lifted his arm, and felt his wrist. His pulse was steady, if a little fast.

“Oww. Careful.” He shook off her hand. His voice was laced with pain. He tried to get up, apparently thought better of it, and carefully settled back onto the dirt.

Ordinarily patient with cranky sick people, Tess maintained her calm. Her clients consisted mostly of the elderly and they could be very demanding. “I can help you if you’ll let me.” She sat back on her heels and waited for his answer.

While he didn’t appear to have any broken bones and had made it out of the ditch on his own, she needed to check to make sure. She had a feeling his lousy attitude wasn’t something she could fix.

“Get on with it.” His attempt at machismo was marred by his groan of pain.

“How can I refuse so gracious a request?” Tess, you don’t have to like him.

Forcing herself to remember that most animals in pain lashed out at the nearest target, she examined him. His face was banged up and he was bleeding from several scrapes. His left eye had blood in the one of the chambers. The ground-in dirt didn’t help, either. Antiseptic would help prevent infection.

“Ouch! I’ll live, okay? Quit pulling and poking at me.” He wrenched her hands away, his grip like iron bands around her wrists.

Tess made herself relax even though his reflexive capture of her elicited a far stronger reaction. In a fight or flight situation, she came down on the side of fight. Hauling off and knocking him back into the ditch seemed a good solution.

“Whether you like it or not, I’m the only person around. Not many people travel this back road. Either I help you or you’re on your own until someone else comes along.” She pointedly stared at the place where his tanned hands held her captive. “Get your hands off of me.”

The biker released her. Tess rubbed her wrists to restore the circulation. “Now, Mr.—”

“Bailey. Call me Bailey.” His swollen eye looked painful as he tried to keep it open.

“Mr. Bailey, do you want my help?” Though she’d threatened to leave, she knew she wouldn’t. Not when there was someone injured.

“Sorry. I acted like a jerk.” He rested his head in his hands once more.

He remained still as she confirmed he had no compound fractures. As for hairline, he’d have to get x-rays. When she manipulated his right knee, his face whitened with pain.

“That knee needs an x-ray.” Seeing the pain in his eyes, her feelings toward him softened. “I’m sorry you’re in pain.”

He managed a laugh. “Well, the knee was already screwed up. It’ll be all right.” He took a couple of shallow breaths and flexed it.

“Are you sure?” If she thought he’d allow it, she’d wipe the sweat from his forehead.

He massaged his knee. “Yeah. A little P.T. is all it needs.”

She leaned closer and frowned as she looked at his lower leg. “You’re bleeding.” The leathers he wore were sliced open along the side, and blood coated his leg. She eased the leather apart. “You have a deep laceration, at least eighteen inches long. A bad one. I can bandage it, but you’ll need stitches.”

“Must’ve been the broken bottles in the ditch.” He blew out a breath.

“Can you stand?” She helped him to his feet. “Let’s get off the side of the road.”

“You’re a little bitty thing, aren’t you?” He sounded amused.

He was a tall man, at least six feet two. When he leaned against her, Tess barely kept her balance. They made it to a poplar tree several feet away from the road and she settled him against the trunk.

“Mr. Bailey, I’ll get my supplies.” Tess ran to her truck and brought back her medical bag and a bottle of water. “This binding will be tight to control the bleeding.”

“Do it.” He gritted his teeth, but kept his eyes open as if staring at her would help.

Tess cut enough of the pant leg to wash away the surface area with saline, then applied a topical antiseptic ointment. Other than a sharp intake of air, he didn’t move. She put gauze over the laceration and wrapped the leg as tightly as she could. His eyes never left her face and she felt the intensity as if it were a touch. Finally, she moved back, out of breath from the effort.

He shuddered and closed his eyes briefly. She handed him the water bottle and he drained it. “Thanks.”

“Your eye is next. Are you ready?”

He nodded and took a deep breath. Tess positioned herself by his head and leaned down to examine his eye. He had an abrasion across the lower quadrant. Perhaps, it was minor, but he’d need to see a doctor to check out the blood in the chamber.

“I need to flush it out.” She stood. “But it should be fine after we get to the hospital and have the doctors clean it properly.”

~ ~ ~

Bailey bit back a groan as the woman knelt beside him. He knew he wasn’t seriously injured but his leg hurt like hell. And twenty bucks said he’d be sore all over tomorrow. He’d never hear the end of it when Uncle Dan found out. And the Tahoe job couldn’t wait for a few bangs and bruises to heal.

At least he hadn’t aggravated his knee too severely in the crash. Eighteen months ago, he’d racked it up chasing a rabbiting pimp. Tore the ACL to hell. He’d had to get the fluid from his knee drained twice before it stabilized.

“I’m going to wash out your eye with a mild saline solution. It will sting.” After brushing back the hair from his brow, she supported his head and turned him on his side. “Here goes.”

He couldn’t help the tightening of his body under her hands as the liquid stung his eye, but he’d be damned before he’d complain.

“I’m sorry. That’s the best I can do for now.” She leaned closer and he got caught in a delicate floral scent. Soft silvery blonde hair teased his cheek in a feather-light caress.

His body reacted again, but for an entirely different reason. You must not be too bad off, Bailey, old man. Her hands felt good. He turned his head slightly to get closer to her touch. She smelled good, too. Like lilacs. “What’s your name?” Eyes closed, he reached out and seized her arm. He couldn’t seem to help it. He wanted her to stay beside him.

“Mr. Bailey, you can’t grab me whenever it suits you.” Her voice reached out to him. “Let go.”

“Just Bailey, no mister. Tell me your name.” He’d been told he was like a dog with a bone when he wanted something, but he released her for the moment.

“Shh, rest a few minutes and we’ll work on getting you up and into the pickup. You’ll have to see a doctor about your eye. This compress should protect it until we can get you to the hospital.” She began packing her supplies for the ride back.

He could be doing worse than being taken care of by this petite, great-smelling woman. “I’m not moving until I know your name.”

“Tess Hazard.”

She looked like she was trying not to lose her temper. She bit her lip and Bailey’s gaze zeroed in on its fullness. God, her mouth made promises he’d be dreaming about tonight. Recuperating wouldn’t be half bad if he could look into her baby blues every day. Not that he could hang around Greenview when he was due in Nevada by the end of next week.

“Nice name. You’re kind of bossy, though. Are you this way with all your patients?” He wanted to tease a smile out of her.

“Only with the most obnoxious ones, Mr.—, I mean, Bailey. We should try to get you up.”

He pretended to push himself halfway up before falling back. “I need a minute.” He wasn’t above a little playacting to get what he wanted. Right now that meant getting closer to this prickly nurse. “Thanks for helping me. My lucky day.” He squeezed her hand and placed it over his heart.

She felt his heart beating strongly, steadily. Each beat brought a responding pulse from the pit of her stomach. Wow, what an about-face. He’d actually said something nice.

The warm tingling in the pit of her stomach was not the really-gotta-have-a-hamburger-and-fries kind of hunger. She drew in a deep breath. Get back to business, Tess.

“We have to get you to my truck.” She didn’t know if he’d suffered a mild concussion or not, but they needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

Bailey let out a laugh, and then groaned at the pain it caused. “Let’s give it a try, Contessa.”

“My name is Tess.”

“Contessa suits you better. You seem to be used to people doing what you say. What would you do with someone who didn’t?” He kept a firm hold on her hand. “You’re cute when you’re mad, Contessa.”

Tess tugged, with no results. “We have to get going.”

“I’m so comfortable. How far is the hospital, anyway?” He acted as if he had all the time in the world.

The tingles expanded and spread throughout her body and they were no longer warm; they were hot. “We’re about ten miles north of Greenview. It’ll take a little over thirty minutes to get to the nearest hospital in Ontario. Bailey? Bailey, are you awake!” She shook his shoulder with her free hand.

“Not married, are you? You couldn’t be with that temper. Well, are you?” He opened his good eye and smiled, white teeth showing through a day or more stubble of whiskers.

Even with one eye swollen twice its size, Tess thought there wasn’t a woman alive who’d turn him down if he asked them. She felt blazingly alive. Now if something could improve his manners. “It’s none of your business whether I’m married or not.” She yanked her hand free and stood up.

“Yep. I’m right.”

She wished she could wipe that self-satisfied smirk off his face. But once she got him to the hospital, she’d never have to see him again.

“Up you get. We’re out of here.” Tess helped him to his feet and they managed to get to the pickup.

“What about the bike?” Bailey planted his feet like a mule and refused to climb into the truck. “I drove over here today to buy it and I won’t leave it here. Come on, Contessa.”

“Don’t call me that!” Tess was at the end of her wits. “That bike must weigh a ton. I can’t lift that thing into the bed and you can barely walk on your own. We have no choice.” What had she done to deserve this Bailey person? She couldn’t remember anything bad enough to warrant putting up with such an egotistical, stubborn man.

“That’s not just any motorcycle. It’s a 1985 Harley-Davidson FXST Softail and it only weighs 650 pounds. It’s a classic and I’m not leaving it here.”

He was a sorry sight, with one eye squinting, one covered with a gauze patch, cuts and scrapes crisscrossing his face. “Just because I can’t see well doesn’t mean I can’t lift.”

She frowned, unwilling to be persuaded.

“If you help with leverage, we can do it. I’ll say please.”

He stood there, dressed head-to-toe in black biker jacket and leathers, his dark brown hair dusty from the spill. A worn leather strip secured his hair in the back. Several strands had loosened from the crash and hung along the sides of his face. The leathers fit his thighs like a second skin. She’d felt his iron-hard muscles under her fingers when she’d examined him and tied the bandage. And she wondered how his hands would feel on her body. Damn it.

He leaned against the Chevy door and said, “Please, Contessa?”

The minute his voice caressed the last syllable of the ridiculous nickname, she was lost. Even as she agreed to help him with the bike, she knew she’d regret it. If he could talk her into something while he was in his present state, what about when he was at the top of his game?

He was nitroglycerin and lightning, all tied up into one hunky package. Add in his sinful dark brown eyes that made her weak in the knees and she was in trouble. The minute she got him admitted to the hospital, she would run as far and as fast as she could in the opposite direction.

Tess sighed. “You’re set on doing this?”

“I am. That’s a four-wheel drive you have, isn’t it? Drive it down into the ditch. It’s shallow enough. Do you have any two-by-eight boards in the back?” Bailey grinned at her, the patch over his eye giving him a definitely rakish look.

“Oddly enough, I didn’t think I’d be needing lumber on my calls today.” She hoped her sarcasm would make an impression on him, but it didn’t appear to.

“Are there any buildings around? Any rundown sheds?” He was a persistent man. She’d give him that. “See if you can find something to use as a ramp.” He certainly didn’t have any trouble ordering her around.

“Wait here.” She’d never get him in her truck if she didn’t help him with his blasted motorcycle. She’d seen a derelict shed a half-mile back. Around these back roads, abandoned structures ended up piles of rubble more often than not.

She was back as soon as she as she found suitable planks. It took only ten minutes to wrestle the disabled Harley into the bed of the pickup. It’d been easy to load. That irritated her even more. He’d smiled again, his crooked little grin that made her want to scream. No man should be that self-confident; particularly one who called her Contessa.

~ ~ ~

During the uneventful ride into Ontario, Bailey sat with his head resting against the back cushion of the Chevy. He kept quiet, which was fine with her. She fiddled with the radio until her favorite channel, Mix 106, came in.

“What in the hell is that God-awful noise?”

“Well, this isn’t my favorite group, but this is a good station. It plays all kinds of rock; classical, Top 40, some crossover.”

“Right, but does it play music?”

“Don’t tell me. The only music you like comes from country bands named Country Bob and the Cowpokes. Figures.”

“You’d be surprised at the music I like.” He stopped talking and leaned back against the headrest.

She grimaced. “There’s not a single thing we’ve agreed on yet. Why start now? The good news is we’re only a few miles outside of town. This is the last time we’ll be in each other’s company.”

Tess congratulated herself on her choice of music. At least, he was in no danger of falling asleep. She was performing a service to a possible concussion victim by preventing him from passing out. Besides, given his disposition, she had to admit she liked anything that got on his nerves. She’d worry about why she enjoyed such childish revenge against a relative stranger later.

Tess pulled into the hospital parking lot a little after four o’clock. It had been a long day and one she was anxious to see end. “Let’s get you to the ER.” The last few miles had sped by with both of them silent.

“I think I can make it on my own.” He got out of the truck and leaned against the door. “Actually, maybe I do need the help of a good nurse.”

Even banged up, he’s lethal. “You must be feeling like your old self again…too bad.” Tess stiffened her resolve to be done with this overconfident man. A matter of self-preservation, she told herself.

After helping him into the waiting area, Tess talked with the receptionist. She briefly explained what had happened and the first aid she’d administered. She stayed to help Bailey with the admitting form.

“You have to give me your first name. They won’t admit you as ‘Bailey’.”

“Put down my initials, S.D.” He was adamant.

This guy was driving me crazy. Was it karma because she smoked in the girls’ bathroom when she was in high school? She quit, though. Surely she couldn’t be punished at this late stage of the game. Tess took a deep breath and supplied the initials to the attendant, who asked if she wanted to sit in the waiting room until her friend had been examined.

Not being a glutton for punishment, Tess declined. She’d take Bailey at his word and leave him alone. All she wanted now was a good night’s sleep. She had several people on her route tomorrow that needed her.

Tess went back to where he was slouched in the waiting room chair. “You’re up next. I’m leaving you in good hands.”

“What about the bike?”

He had a good point. She couldn’t get it out of the pickup by herself. Drat. “It’ll be fine in the truck for now.”

She didn’t want to keep the motorcycle, but she wasn’t about to be S.D. Bailey’s errand minion and take it anywhere to be fixed either. “And tell me, what’s this thing with your first name? Is it, hmm, Samuel Donald?”

“No. What if it’s stolen?” He was back to his old charismatic self.

“Get a grip. Maybe the crowd you’re used to can’t be trusted, but the people in Greenview can. The bike won’t run in that condition and people around here know my truck. It won’t get stolen. And by the way, you’re welcome!” She spun on her heel and walked away.

“You’re still cute when you’re mad. Thanks, Contessa.”

She had a feeling he wouldn’t be in the hospital for very long, if only because he drove everyone nuts. Her first appointment was at eight in the morning and she drove away from the hospital, certain it was the last time she’d have to deal with S.D. Bailey.

~ ~ ~

Tess found Frank Carter’s body in the old Naugahyde Stratolounger, his hand curled loosely around the remote. Death had smoothed his wizened face until he looked like he was taking a nap. Almost. She crossed the room to the television and turned it off before moving to the recliner.

“Poor old Frank. I hope you were watching your favorite show.” Professional efficiency compelled Tess to go through the motions even though, after two years, she could tell a dead man easily enough without checking for a non-existent pulse.

She gently removed the remote from his stiffening fingers and smoothed a wisp of snow-white hair back from his forehead. Forcing back the tears that threatened to well up, she made the phone calls.

“Mary, it’s Tess Hazard. I’m sorry, but your uncle died last night. No, I think it was sudden. He looks…very peaceful. Mary, don’t. I know you tried to get him to move in with you and Mel. He liked living alone. He had his cat and his television to keep him company.” The cat. I’d better find Pyewacket.

She couldn’t help a sad smile. Frank had been delighted to tell her about his favorite movie. The witch’s familiar, a black cat, was named Pyewacket. Frank always laughed when he recounted that story. Sometimes, he forgot he’d told her about it and told her again. She didn’t mind. He got such joy from telling her.

Holding her phone, Tess scanned the living room without luck for the big black Persian. “Yes, I’m still here, Mary. I’ll call the coroner and arrange to have Frank taken to Oak Tree Mortuary. I’ll tell them you’ll be in touch. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.”

Replacing the receiver on the hook, she paused to take a deep breath. Why didn’t this get any easier? Thank God her vacation began at the end of the week. Many of her patients were either terminally ill, or very old, with bodies that plain wore out. It didn’t matter that all the nursing training warned about getting emotionally attached. When Tess took care of these people, she got to know them in so many ways. Their family history, their dreams…their favorite movies. Losing them always affected her.

She made the necessary call to the sheriff’s office and then dialed the coroner. There was not much for her to do while she waited. Standard procedure in the case of any unexplained death required her to leave Frank where he was until the police came to record it. She thought about Pyewacket again. He hadn’t come into the living room the entire time she’d been on the phone.

“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty. Pyewacket, where are you?” Hearing a faint meow, Tess followed the sound into the kitchen. The cat was nowhere to be seen. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” Another meow, still muffled, sounded like it was coming from a deep well. She opened the cupboard to the right of the sink. Nothing. “Here, kitty, kitty.”

“Meow.”

She opened the cupboard under the sink. No luck. She heard a scratching noise from high above her head. Placing a chair from the dinette set in front of the refrigerator, she climbed on and pulled open the cupboard door above the fridge. The huge, inky fur-ball was crouched, big golden eyes looking thoroughly disgusted.

“Well, what? Did you and Frank play some kind of hide-and-seek game? I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Tess reached to lift him down, but snatched back her hand when he hissed. “Okay, right. We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Tess. I know you’ve seen me here, Pyewacket. I’ve been treating Frank for the past six months.”

The feline’s baleful stare followed her as she stepped off the chair.

“Great. I’m supposed to rescue a cat that’s got the disposition of Jack the Ripper. Let’s see what will bring you around.” She rummaged through the cupboards until she found the cat food. “Ah, Tender Vittles.” She tore open the individual packet and dumped the contents in a bowl.

Approaching the black beast, she gingerly placed the bowl on top of the refrigerator. “Yum, yum. It sure smells good. Come on, kitty, try it.”

The yellow eyes narrowed and the punched-in Persian nose twitched once, twice. One paw reached out, hooked the rim of the bowl and pulled it closer.

“Atta boy!” Tess held her breath.

The cat stood, stretched, and crouched to eat. Relieved that she’d accomplished even a small thing while waiting for the police, Tess leaned against the kitchen counter and watched. The cat polished off the food in no time.

“Jeez, no wonder you’re bigger than Mom’s poodle.”

Pyewacket jumped from the fridge to the counter to the floor. Another stretch and he started toward her.

“Okay, we’re friends now, aren’t we, nice kitty?” Tess stood straighter, unsure if she was about to be run off the property.

The cat walked behind her and rubbed against her legs, completely circling her once. Then, he proceeded to sit down in front of her and groom himself.

Soon after, the sheriff’s deputy arrived. He knew the drill and performed his duties quickly and efficiently. The coroner’s van (not-so-sympathetically called the Corpse Wagon) drove up as the police left. It had been white once. At least, judging from the patches of paint she could see under the dust. The outlying roads of Greenview and the surrounding area were dirt and gravel more often than not.

Great, it was Jerry, Mr. Sensitive. Tess took a deep breath and prayed for patience. She couldn’t stand this guy and his attitude toward “stiffs” as he called them.

“Hey, Tess. Cool chopper! I didn’t know you were a Motorcycle Mama. How’s it going’?” Jerry was tall and thin, with a perpetual grin that reminded her of Gomer Pyle. Unfortunately, that was the only characteristic he shared with the kindly citizen of Mayberry.

“Peachy, Jerry.” She opened the screen door and stood back to let him enter with the gurney.

“Can I ride your bike, sometime?” Jerry was not going to let this go.

“It’s not mine. I’m only keeping it for a day or two.”

“Ya snagged a hot one, huh, Tess? Never took ya for the type. That’s pretty bitchin’.” He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “Ya know, Tess, did ya ever notice how all your patients end up bitin’ the big one? Suppose ya better bone up on your nursin’?” He snorted and laughed like it was the first time he’d thought of such a funny line. Actually, he said it every time he saw her.

“Always a card.” Tess ignored him as much as possible but in a small town, it was hard to avoid him.

“So who’s the st—?”

“Shut up, Jerry.” She’d had enough. “Frank’s ready to go. Take him to Oak Tree. Here’s the paperwork from the sheriff’s.”

“Criminy, Tess. Is it my fault you have so many old geezers with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel? Give a guy a break!” He stomped around to the back of the wagon, muttering all the time about “people who got no sense of humor.” He grabbed a gurney, put a black body bag on it, and pushed it past Tess—still stomping—into the house.

Tess felt suddenly very tired. Tired of Jerry, tired of caring too much, tired of seeing people die. All of it. She knew the symptoms. Burnout. Without a vacation, she wouldn’t be good for anyone. To add to her already crappy day, she’d looked at her calendar that morning and realized it was her birthday tomorrow. Happy freakin’ birthday to me.

“You can finish up here without me. I have to file my report at the office.” Before leaving, she knelt to pet Pyewacket who’d followed her out to the living room. Tess climbed in the pickup, but not before noticing the battered Harley in the back. She wondered when the too-assured Bailey would come for his property.

 

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