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Nobody did anything without a reason, though reason was rarely behind the things that people did. Jackson Stroud didn't just believe that; he counted on it.
Guilt. Anger. Pain. Longing. The motivations were often so deep-seated that they were difficult to name. But JacksonJax, to people who thought they knew him wellknew what made people tick, or at least he figured it out more quickly than the average Joe.
That knack had served him well these past four years on the Dallas police force. Not as well in his so-called "personal life." Despite the best efforts of the older ladies at his church to set him up with perfectly lovely women, he'd never been able to turn off the drive to figure people out long enough to make a real connection. Certainly not long enough to settle down. He'd accepted ages ago that he was not the settling-down type.
"Okay by me," he muttered to himself in the darkness of his truck cab. That just meant there were no broken hearts in his wake when he moved on. Jackson Stroud always moved on.
So when he veered off the brightly lit highway down a darkened ramp in the middle of the night, he did not do so lightly. Bone tired, he needed to stretch his legs, get some coffee and maybe
From nowhere, the headlights of a silver SUV speeding precariously close to the centerline slashed across Jax's line of vision. He hit the brakes and swerved toward the shoulder. His own lights came to rest on a dark sign by the road: Y'all Come Back to Sunnyside, Texas.
He grumbled under his breath, then guided his truck back onto the road and drove on until he pulled into the well-lit parking lot, under the signs Delta's Shoppers' Emporium and Truck Stop Inn and The Crosspoint Cafe. Framed by huge glass windows, a lone clerk stood at a counter. He was intently texting at his post.
Jax's boots hit the ground with a thud. He rubbed his eyes, then his jaw. He needed a shave. He knew he looked roughbut felt only hungry.
He put his hand over his stomach, but it was his conscience that made him admit that hunger had not led him to take the off-ramp tonight. Somewhere in the darkness of this warm spring night, it had dawned on him that without the familiar trappings of his work around him, he suddenly felt cast adrift.
He turned toward the Crosspoint Cafe. A hot meal, maybe a conversation with a waitress who would call him "honey" and make him feel, at least for a few minutes, like he wasn't all alone in the big, wide worldthat was all he needed. He reached into his truck to grab his steel-gray Stetson, slammed the door shut, then took a step in that direction. The lights inside went out.
"Hey, if you want something, you'd better hurry." The clerk stood in the mini-mart's open door a few yards away. He shouted, "Whole place shuts down in twenty minutes!"
"Cafe already looks closed." Jax gave a nod and started toward the mini-mart.
"Yeah?" The lanky young clerk frowned, then shrugged it off. "Maybe Miz Shelby has something to do."
"Miz Shelby?" Jax chuckled softly, instantly picturing a sassy red-haired Southern belle in a pink waitress uniform and white apron, smacking gum and pouring out advice about life as freely as she did rich black coffee while she flirted with her transient clientele. "Maybe Miz Shelby met a handsome stranger and"
"Hey! Don't you say stuff like that about Miz Shelby! She taught Sunday school to almost every kid in Sun-nyside at some time or another, and for your information, she don't even know any strangers."
Jax fought the urge to argue that not knowing someone was what made them a stranger. "Sorry, kid. I didn't mean anything by it. I'm sure Miz Shelby is a fine lady."
In his imagination, the unseen Miz Shelby's hair was now white, her face lined and her life full but still missing something.
"You bet she is. Even if she wasn't, ain't been no one around to run off with, anyways." The young man with the name tag reading Tyler on his blue-and-white-striped shirt leaned back against the open door and checked his phone again. "You showing up and a jerk who tried to steal some gas are the only action I've seen around all night."
Not that the kid could see much of anything beyond the small screen in his hand, Jax thought. Then his mind went to the speeding SUV. Like any good cop, he wondered if there was a connection, if something more was going on.
Before he could ask the kid about the incident, the sound of a cat mewing caught his attention. Maybe not a mewdefinitely the cry of a small animal, though, probably rooting for food out there in the lonely night.
"Anyways," the kid said, heading back inside, "I don't know what's up with Miz Shelby, but I'm locking the doors at eleven."
Jax nodded. No gas stolen. Not his jurisdictionor his business. He decided to let it go and followed the kid inside.
The sound demanded his attention again. Close to the cafe, maybe on the wide, rough-hewn wooden deck? Jax turned to pinpoint it and caught a movement briefly blocking the dim light from inside the cafe. Someone was moving around inside.
A screech of a wooden table leg on concrete. The clank of metal, followed by a crash of dishes. A shuffling sound. Then a soft whimper of that small animal in the darkness. Was something up in the cafe, which had closed uncharacteristically early? Was there an injured animal nearby that needed help?
The sound was none of his business, either, but he wouldn't be able to walk away not knowing if there was something he should have done and didn't. The boards of the cafe steps creaked under Jax's boots. He wished he had a flashlight. A shape filled the glass window in the cafe door. He started to call out for whoever had closed the cafe to stay put until he could check things out, but the subtle mewing drew his attention again.
He glanced down to find a square plastic laundry basket covered with small blue-and-white blankets. Something moved slightly without revealing anything beneath the blankets. He thought of the sound and drew a quick conclusion. Someone, probably knowing good ol' lonely, grandmotherly type Miz Shelby worked the late shift at the Crosspoint, had left a basket of kittens on the doorstep.
The doorknob of the cafe rattled, and Jax bent down to snag the basket. "Hold it, there's a"
The sickening thwock of the door whacking his head rang out in the night. The door had knocked his hat clean off, but thanks to a gentle nudge from him, the basket had been spared.
"Ow." He squeezed his eyes shut for a split second. When he straightened up and opened them again, he found himself gazing into the biggest, bluest, most startled eyes he'd ever seen. Eyes that were wet with tears.
"What hap Why ?" The young woman staggered back a step, clutching a folded piece of paper and an overstuffed backpack covered with multicolored embroidered flowers.
She was just a little bit of a thing. The brief glimpse of her outline through the window had told him that much. It hadn't told him that she was maybe in her late twenties. Or that when he looked into her face, his heart would race, just a little.
"Don't tell me. You're Miz"
"I'm sorry I was just We're closed." Still standing in the threshold, with the main door open slightly behind her and the screen door open just a sliver in front of her, she set the colorfully decorated backpack down. She glanced around behind her, then set her jaw and reached inside to flip on an outside light. "I know the sign says our hours go later, but tonight we're closed. Goodbye."
Her tone had started out steady, had faded and then had ended firmly again.
He bent slowly to snatch up his hat. His banged-up temple began to throb. "I could see that you were closed. That's why I came over here."
"You came here because you saw that we were closed?" She stiffened, then leaned out enough to steal a peek outside, her gaze lingering on the lights of the store, where Tyler was texting away, paying them no notice.
That afforded Jax a moment to take in the sight of her. And what a sight. Her hair was neither blond nor brown, with streaks that beauticians might work hours to try to produce but only time in the sun could create.
When she caught him studying her, she blushed from the quivering tip of her chin to the freckled bridge of her nose. Her lips trembled. He thought for a moment she'd burst out crying, as the telltale tears proved she had been doing. She was obviously in a highly emotional state. Scared, maybe. Vulnerable, definitely.
He put one hand out to try to soothe her. He wasn't sure what he would say, but he would speak in a soft, reassuring tone. He'd help her because well, that's what Jax did. He helped. Whenever and wherever he could.
"It's all right. I just"
"Didn't you hear me? We're closed, cowboy." Her posture relayed a confidence her voice did not. "Go."
She blinked a few times, fast, but tears did not well up in her eyes. In fact, Jax got the feeling that if she could have made it happen, fire would have shot from them. And that fire would singe his hide considerably.
That thought made him grin. "Actually, I'm not a cowboy so much as I'm here to"
"I don't care who you are or what you want. You need to leave here and be whoever you are elsewhere." She gripped the edge of the door as if it were the railing on a sinking ship.
The sight of her small hand white-knuckled against the rough wood stirred something protective in his gut, even as her insistence that he leave tweaked his suspicions about what was going on here. Was there a message in her behavior? Was his instant attraction to the lady throwing off his finely honed ability to sense danger and motivation?
"I'm Jax." The name that no one had called him for so long came out quickly and naturally in her presence. "That is, you can call me Jax."
"Jax?" Her lips formed the name slowly. She shook her head, as if she didn't understand why he was still standing there, whatever he asked to be called.
"That is, I'm Jackson Stroud." He steadied the small basket at his feet, then stood tall, settled his hat on his head, lowered his chin slightly and added with what he hoped was a disarming smile, "Kitten rescuer."
"Kitten ?" She glanced downward at the basket, which she might have knocked over with the door if she hadn't beaned Jax instead. Yet she didn't seem the least bit concerned about the injury to his head.
The screen door creaked loudly as she came outside at last. She knelt down, peeked under the blankets, then turned her face to look at him. The fire in her now had an ominous quality, as if the first sparks of suspicion had become a bed of banked embers that had the potential to smolder on for a very long time. "What is the matter with you?"
"Well, I did recently take a rather nasty blow to the head." He rubbed his temple and gave her a grin.
The clerk stuck his head out the door again. "Everything okay over there, Shelby Grace?"
"Shelby Grace," Jax murmured. He liked that better than Miz Shelby. It felt good to say, all Southern charm with a touch of faith. She sounded like a woman he could reason with, maybe even win over if she'd just listen and
"Call Sheriff Denby, Tyler." She bent over the basket and fussed with the blankets for a moment.
"He ain't gonna like being woke up this time of night," the thin young man called back.
"Sheriff? There's no call for that." Jax took a step back as he dipped his hand into his pocket to withdraw his badge. Wait. He didn't have it on him anymore, and even if he did, it wouldn't mean anything here and now.
He stepped back again and held his hands up. "I was just trying to do the right thing, ma'am."
"The right thing? You have the gall to talk to me about " She gathered the blankets back up again, reached into the basket, lifted the contents out all at once and stood. "Call Denby, Tyler. Tell him it's an emergency. We have a no-account lowlife here who just tried to abandon a baby on my doorstep!"