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"Six hundred dollars?" Bethany gaped at the mechanic. The man was unknown to her, just the first possible help that she had found along the road to Dallas after steam had started pouring out from under the hood of her pathetic little heap. "You've got to be kidding. The car wasn't worth six hundred bucks when I started out in it!"
The hulking fellow wiped grease from his hands with a grimy red cloth. "Can't argue with that," he agreed, eyeing the offending vehicle.
"Look, I'm not even going as far as Dallas," she pleaded, clutching the thin cotton skirt of her empire-style, ankle-length, blue-and-white-flowered sundress, inadvertently pulling the fabric taut across her distended belly. Her slen-derness made her look further along in her pregnancy than she actually was, but she didn't think about that now. "Isn't there something you can do to get me to Buffalo Creek?"
He scratched his bald head. "Tell you what, I'll give you three hundred cash for it as is. Maybe I can part it out, get my money back that way."
"Three hundred?" Bethany repeated in dismay.
Making three hundred dollars beat shelling out six hundred that she did not even have, but how was she to make it to Buffalo Creek if she sold her car? The baby moved, producing an odd fluttering sensation inside her abdomen, as if to say she might as well get on with it. She wasn't going anywhere in a broken-down car that she couldn't fix, anyway, so she really had no choice here. That didn't solve the problem, though. She shook her head, trying to see another way.
The tubby, middle-aged man spread his hands, displaying sweat stains on his coveralls. Bethany didn't know how he managed to work in this old garage in the stifling July heat.
"Sorry. Best I can do," he said. "You can always get a bus ticket at the diner next door."
Well, that was better than nothing, she supposed. Sighing, she shook back her dark hair and smoothed her hands over her mounded belly, feeling a cramp building.
The cramps had started a couple weeks ago, at only five months into her pregnancy. She had attributed them to stress. Lately, her life had consisted of reeling blow after reeling blow. This was just one more.
Trying to look on the bright side, she reminded herself that three hundred bucks would more than double her pathetic bankroll. Besides, it was really her only option. She could take the money and buy a bus ticket or sit beside the road until she grew roots here, just a couple hours from her brother.
"Thank you very much," she said quietly, accepting the offer. "I appreciate your help."
"I'll get your cash."
While the mechanic went for the money, Bethany opened the trunk on her old car, lifting out the smaller of her two suitcases. Thankfully, she'd had sense enough to pack up her important papers, including the title to the car, which she'd bought used way back in high school.
Eight years later, she was afoot again, but she didn't suppose she could complain about that. The car had been far more dependable and serviceable than anything or anyone else in her life. She was sorry to see it go, sorry enough to feel tears gathering.
So, what else was new? She'd cried so much lately that it would have been easier to count the minutes she hadn't wept.
The mechanic returned with a receipt and a stack of bills. Bethany signed over the title before going back to the car for the remainder of her belongings. He helped her wrestle the larger suitcase out of the trunk. Stacking the smaller piece of luggage atop the larger one, she pulled up the handle, unlocked the wheels and rolled the lot out into the sweltering Texas sunshine.
Squinting, she slung her handbag over one shoulder, gathered up her hair in her free hand and trudged toward the diner. Not ten months ago, she'd chopped off her dark, sleek locks at her chin, but since she'd gotten pregnant, it now brushed her shoulders again. Thankfully, with the sun hanging low in a white-hot sky, the distance was short. She silently prayed that the wait would be also.
Lord, please, I don't want to be stranded here in this dot on the map for hours on end. Can't You help me out? I mean, after everything else that's happened, can't I get a break here? I just want to get to my brother safely. And soon.
Absently, she noticed a somewhat battered, dirty white, double-cab pickup truck, towing a large horse trailer behind, on the feeder road that ran along Highway 45. The rig slowed and turned into the eatery's parking lot. The driver obviously knew what he was doing. Plodding along, Bethany watched as he expertly maneuvered the rig into the shade of the only tree within sight, drawing up mere inches from the portable sign at the edge of the lot.
A tall, slim-hipped, light-haired cowboy with broad shoulders got out and fitted a pale, high-crowned hat onto his head before moving down the side of the trailer. She couldn't see what he was doing, but it was none of her concern. She had enough concerns of her own.
Somehow, she had to get to her brother. She didn't have anywhere to go except back to Buffalo Creek and Garrett. Her brother was the only family she had and the only person on the face of the earth who would undoubtedly help her.
The cramp suddenly seized her, radiating from her navel outward, not really painful but worrisome. She gasped, then walked on, wishing that she had called Garrett to let him know that she was coming. She hadn't thought of it in her rush to get away, and she was probably the last person in the civilized world who didn't own a cell phone. There was a phone at the convenience store where she'd worked nights and a phone in the modest little house in Humble where she had lived for the past seven years. She had reasoned that she could navigate the few blocks between them without an expensive cell phone.
Bethany staggered into the relative cool of the diner, clutching her belly through the cheap sundress with one hand. Every booth in the small, narrow building was occupied and only three of seats at the counter were vacant. She maneuvered her bags to an out-of-the-way spot near the cash register and hitched up onto the stool next to them at the near end of the counter.
A waitress, with improbably red hair coiled into a frothy bun atop her head, placed a glass of iced water in front of Bethany, who seized it gratefully and drank it straight down. Smiling wryly, the waitress refilled the glass. Slender and hard-looking, her wrinkles had wrinkles.
"What can I get you, hon?"
It occurred to Bethany that she hadn't eaten all day. That couldn't be good for the baby. Her cramp easing, Bethany heard the door open behind her as she glanced at the menu on the wall. "What's the bean burger?"
"A joke. And a bad one. Ain't nobody ordered one of them things since I been here, and I been here since the doors opened. You one of them vegetarians, are you?"
"Regular burger, then?"
"Sure. No fries."
The waitress, whose name tag identified her as Shug, yelled over her shoulder, "One favorite, minus the spuds!" She immediately turned a smile upward, looking past Bethany. "Well, hello, sugar. Make yourself at home."
"Thanks," said a man's deep voice.
Boots clumped on the floor, then the cowboy from the parking lot slid onto a stool to Bethany's right, placing his hat, brim up, on the vacant seat between them. The waitress plunked down another glass of water and leaned on the counter. "You look like a hungry man. What'll you have?"
He waved a big, long-fingered hand. Bethany noticed from the corner of her eye that his hair was blond with a touch of tawny red to it. She looked away as he turned his head toward her.
"I'll have the favorite, with the fries," he said in that deep, slightly amused voice. "To go. And the biggest iced tea you can manage."
"A favorite with the works!" Shug shouted, reaching for a forty-four-ounce disposable cup.
Bethany shook her head, remembering fondly the days when she could have downed the same without thinking about it. She'd spend all day trotting to the bathroom if she tried that now. The waitress delivered the iced tea, flirting mildly all the while, before turning back to Bethany.
"Anything to drink 'cept water for you, hon?"
"The water's fine. I was told that I could get a bus ticket here, though."
"Yes, ma'am." Shug stuck her pencil into the wild bun atop her head and reached under the counter, coming up with a big, hardbound book. "Where you headed, hon?"
Beside her, the tall cowboy shifted, as if his interest had been stirred.
Shug consulted some sort of schedule and shook her head. "The nine-twenty-two goes right past there, but it don't stop 'til Dallas. Gets in there around midnight."
Dallas. "You've got to be kidding me," Bethany murmured, dropping her forehead into her upturned palm. That was at least forty miles too far, and how was she to get back to Buffalo Creek? Garrett had written that he'd bought a used motorcycle for transportation. Even if they could somehow manage her luggage, she wasn't stupid enough to climb onto the back of that in her condition. Besides, he had no idea that she was coming—or even that she was pregnant.
"You wouldn't know how much a taxi might cost from Dallas to Buffalo Creek, would you?" she asked Shug.
"Honey," the other woman said drily, "this right here is as close as I've ever been to either place. Or anywhere else for that matter."
"I see." Gulping, Bethany swept a hand over her bulging stomach.
"Well, you think on it," Shug said, stowing the book again. "You got nearly five hours before that bus gets here."
Bethany suppressed a sigh and offered up a wan smile. God, as usual, did not seem to be listening to her. Someone else clearly was, though.
"Did I hear someone mention Buffalo Creek?" the cowboy interjected, swiveling on his stool.
Shug immediately drifted his way, saying, "Little mama here is trying to get there. You know it?"
"Yep," he said. "Headed that direction myself."
Bethany finally turned to look at him. She didn't generally find light-haired men attractive, but this was a shockingly handsome man with smiling, cinnamon-brown eyes and dimples that cut grooves into his lean cheeks and a made a cleft in his strong, square chin. His neatly sculpted lips curled up at the corners, a lock of tawny hair falling rakishly across a high brow.
His gaze dropped to her protruding belly, then slid to the luggage stacked beside her. He turned away the next moment, but then he seemed to make a decision.
"I can give you a ride, if you like."
"There you go!" Shug crowed, throwing a hand at Bethany even as she addressed the cowboy. "I knew you was a gentleman."
The cowboy winked at her, and she laughed. The woman must live to flirt. "What do you think, hon?" she asked Bethany. "This your lucky day or what?"
"Oh. Uh…" Bethany stalled, waiting for the alarms to go off in her brain. Everyone knew that accepting rides from strangers was a dangerous proposition. Even if she was hopelessly stranded. She shook her head. "Th-that's very kind, but I wouldn't want to impose."
"No imposition," he said, "and I don't blame you for being wary. I just thought…" He shrugged, propped his elbows on the counter and turned his head to look at her. "You seem to be traveling alone."
Bethany lifted her chin. "I am."
"The Dallas bus station is right downtown," he went on, nodding. "I wouldn't want anyone I know stepping down there alone at midnight with no idea how to get where she needs to go next."
Bethany gulped. "I see."
A bell dinged. Shug whirled away and back again, sliding a plate onto the counter in front of Bethany.
"Want I should write down his tag number and take a picture of him with my cell phone?" she asked. "Just in case he ain't the gentleman he sizes up to be." She grinned at the cowboy, adding, "Just 'cause you're good-looking don't mean a girl hadn't ought to protect herself. In fact, it probably means she should!"
He chuckled. "Hey, I'm harmless, just trying to do a good turn." He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. "You can take a photo of my driver's license if that makes everyone feel better."
"That'd come in handy in case I feel the need to call the law," Shug said bluntly, pulling her phone out of her apron pocket.
He slapped his license onto the counter, and Shug took a photo of it.
"How about your phone number, too? In case I feel the need to call you." She waggled her eyebrows. "Maybe I need a ride to Buffalo Creek."
He laughed, and that bell dinged again. A white sack appeared in the kitchen window, and the cowboy got to his feet, reaching for his license as Shug carried the sack to the cash register.
"Better make up your mind," he said to Bethany, "because I can't leave those horses sitting out there in the heat any longer." He looked down at her then, saying, "I'm harmless, I promise, but it's up to you."
Suddenly, she remembered what she'd been doing when she'd first caught sight of his rig. She'd been praying for a safe way to get to her brother, with a minimum of delay and hassle. Maybe, she thought, God had actually listened this time.
"I ought to call first and let someone know I'm coming."
Making her decision, she got to her feet. "Ma'am, Shug, could I use your phone?"
"Why, sure, hon." The waitress handed it over, reaching for Bethany's untouched plate with the other hand. "I'll just wrap this up for you."
The cowboy put out his hand. "Name's Chandler."
"Bethany," she said, placing her hand in his. "Bethany Ca—" She stumbled over the surname. "Willows. Bethany Willows." She still couldn't help thinking of herself as Bethany Carter. That, however, was behind her now, and all that really mattered was getting to Garrett and finding a way to make a life for herself and her child.
Stepping away, she called for the first time the cell-phone number that Garrett had sent in his letter. She had not dared call before, with all that had been going on in her life and his, and she dared not bring it up now, for both their sakes.
After only a few seconds, he answered. Relieved to hear the sound of her beloved brother's voice, she mentioned tentatively that she was coming to see him. He sounded elated and assured her that it would be no problem. She almost told him about the cowboy, but in the end, she decided against it.