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The old Chevy gave a cough as it idled at the intersection of Second and Cascade avenues. Which way did she go? Shelby squinted at the signpost barely visible in the night. Cascade Avenue? Huh. No idea where that was.
She'd been absolutely sure that the moment she rolled into Snow Falls everything would come back to her. Memories of summers walking along Main Street slurping a dripping chocolate ice-cream cone. Pedaling rattling bikes from one end of town to the other with the sun hot on her back. Once, she'd known every street like the back of her hand.
Sure, twenty years ago. It may as well have been a century. She was no longer that carefree girl. The heater puffed lukewarm air over her faceplease, don't let the heater conk out next, she thought and tightened her hands on the steering wheel. A lot had changed in twenty years. The Bavarian-styled town was bigger these days, spruced up with cheerful awnings and carefully designed storefronts. Designer street signs marked every corner and old-fashioned street lamps spilled light onto sidewalks. Sidewalks. What had once been a humble little mountain stop was now a ski-resort town drawing from nearby Denver. Snazzy.
Not like me, she thought, hitting her right-turn signal. As they say, it wasn't the years but the mileage that got you.
"Mama?" Caleb sounded groggy, more asleep than awake in the backseat.
"Yes, baby?" She glanced in the mirror to check on hima big yawn, fists rubbing his eyes, half sitting upand her heart lurched with a mother's love. When did her boy get so big? At eight years old, she'd better stop calling him baby soon. But not just yet.
"Are we there?" he asked.
"No. Go on back to sleep and I'll wake you when we're at Granny's." She tried to banish the worry from her voice. "You lie back down before you wake Riley. Tell me what you were dreamin' about."
"I had a horse that was a cloud and I was ridin' him and I was flyin'." Sleepy, those words.
"Bet you were sailin' fast through the sky."
"Yes, ma'am." Sleepier.
"Could you reach up and touch all the stars?"
No answer. He'd gone back to sleep, back to his dreams of wonder and light.
While she was lost in the dark. She shivered. The temperature was dropping, so she nudged the heater to high and hoped it would oblige. Hold together, car, she willed, and shifted into First. The drive up from Texas had taken a lot of oomph out of the handed-down Chevy, so she checked her rearviewthe road was empty behind herbefore giving it a little gas.
She'd learned to ignore the sputtering engine and the cough as the four-door sedan lurched forward, but the backfire was new. That couldn't be a good sign. If she'd had more than three figures in her checking account, she'd steer right into that gas station on the corner first thing tomorrow morning. As it was, she'd have to put the repairs off. Again.
Funny, she absolutely did not recognize where she was. Waitthat Colonial set back from the sidewalk looked familiar, a stately old house that was now a bed-and-breakfast. Okay, that meant she was headed in the right direction. Except what was that thunking sound? She turned down the heater to get a better listen. No, it wasn't a thunk, more like a whap-whap. Okay, now that she thought about it, the car was listing to the right.
She hit the brakes, which squealed slightly as she came to a stop. "Daisy, what am I gonna do with you? We're seven blocks away. Don't let me down now."
The idling engine misfired as if in answer. Shelby rested her forehead against the top edge of the steering wheel. Okay, fine, so it wasn't the engine that was the biggest problem here, it was the
Knuckles rapped on her window. She would have jumped three feet, but her shoulder belt seized up, strapping her to the seat. Heart knocking, she peered up at the tall, uniformed man looming out of the night. A badge glinted on his chest, thanks to a not-too-distant street lamp and the ambient light from his flashlight.
Great. A cop. Just what she needed. She didn't want to roll down her window, but she did. "I can explain about the"
"License and registration," he interrupted her with a low bark, perhaps aware of the sleeping children. Dark eyes, chiseled high cheekbones and a granite jaw gave him an intimidating appearance. And by the hard slash of his mouth, it looked as if he never smiled.
"Yes, sir." She kept her voice to a whisper, hoping Caleb and Riley would stay asleep. She rummaged through her purse. "I put that license somewhere. Oh, here it is. Are you having a nice evening, Officer?"
"Other than freezing my toes off?" His tone had a bite to it. He took the paperwork from her and shone his flashlight over her license. Reading all about her Shelby Craig. Newton, Texas. Five foot four, one hundred and five pounds. Twenty-nine years old. Probably wondering what she was doing so far from home. He arched one brow as he studied her registration. "Why haven't you renewed your tabs?"
Good question. One she didn't want to answer, but the truth was always best. "At the time, I had to choose between food for my little ones or buying a sticker for my license plate."
Sure, she was ashamed, but this mess she'd gotten herself into was only temporary, so she looked him straight in the eye. Nice eyes, too. It was too dark to see their color, but they made him seem wise and soulful. And they had pleasant crinkles at the corners. Not even the shadows could hide the cut of his cheekbones or the straight blade of his nose. That strong jaw lent him a sort of honor and integrity. A handsome man, he looked like a good guy. She knew he was just doing his job.
Was it her imagination, or was there something vaguely familiar about him? She blew out a sigh. "How much is the ticket?"
"Expensive. Very expensive." His gaze cut to the back of the car at the sleeping children. A muscle ticked along his square jaw. "More than it's worth. Are you here visiting family?"
"Yes, and no. My granny lives here, so I'm staying with her for a short spell, but mostly I've come for a job. Then I can afford your ticket."
"You're a single mother?" He arched one eyebrow.
"Since my husband died on a routine patrol. Drunk driver. He was a cop, too."
"I'm sorry to hear that, ma'am." Compassion softened his hard tone. "I'm Deputy Winters. You've come a long way for a job. I hear there isn't much available, mostly a few temporary positions with the city."
"Sure, for the First Night celebration, but I'm not after those. I already have a job lined up, although it's temporary, too."
"Hey, it's better than a poke in the eye." She grinned up at him with determined cheer, and that said something about her.
"You're right. I've had a poke in the eye. Can't say I recommend it."
"Exactly." She was a beautiful woman. Long blond hair, wide blue eyes and a smile that made it hard to notice the strain in her expression. Exhaustion bruised the delicate skin beneath her eyes.
It wasn't hard to put the pieces together. Ronan spotted the jar of peanut butter and loaf of bread in a small sack of groceries on the floor, the boxes and suitcases and the little kids covered with homemade afghans. The family might not be living out of their car, but it was a near thing.
"Okay, so I think I know where I'm going." She peered up at him, ensnaring him with her earnestness. Something caught in his chest. He forgot about the frigid north wind battering the back of his neck. She swept her hair away from her cheek. "Since I've got you, Deputy, I'd better ask directions so I'm not wandering the streets this time of night. I'm looking for Snowy Peak Lane."
"You're almost there. Take a right at the end of this street. One block over." Awareness of her cut through him like the winter cold. It's as if he knew her somehow, or someone like her a long time ago.
"I have a problem with directions," she went on breezily. "My husband used to say, 'Shelby, you are sorely navigationally impaired.'"
"How long has he been gone?"
"Since before my youngest was born. Almost seven years now."
He did the math. She would have been twenty-two when she lost her husband. He handed over her license and registration. Normally he'd at least run a check on an out-of-date license, it was policy, but he knew trouble when he saw it. Trouble was not Shelby Craig.
"Thank you, Deputy Winters." Her chin went up. She was pretty in a delicate way, just a bit of a thing. "Thanks for letting me off."
"No problem." It wasn't why he'd stopped. "You have a flat."
"Tire?" She blew out a sigh. "Yep, I was afraid of that. How flat is it?"
"Flat enough you shouldn't be driving, not even a few blocks." He swiped a snowflake off his cheek. A few stray flakes were coming down from the ever-darkening sky. "Pop the trunk. I'll change it for you."
"If only it were that easy." Her forehead drew up into little furrows. "There's a big problem. My trunk is full of boxes."
"Let me guess. The jack and spare are beneath the boxes?"
"Of course. You can't go to all that trouble."
"Watch me, Shelby Craig." Then it hit him like a brick. Shelby Danners. The memory popped into his brain of a girl with blond hair in a ponytail, honest blue eyes and a singsong laugh. He remembered how she'd pedaled away from him on her hand-me-down bike, the chain rattling as she rode off the curb and into the street, taking his ten-year-old heart with him.
He stepped away from her window. "You stay here where it's warm. Sit tight, and I'll get you fixed up in no time."
"Deputy Winters, you are the best thing that's happened to me all day."
"Sorry to hear that, ma'am. If my changing your tire is the best thing, I hate to think what was the worst."
"Let's just say things are looking up."
Her smile of thanks lit up her whole heart-shaped face. She'd grown into a beauty, but he could see the traces of the girl he'd known. Same indomitable pluck. Same tug on his heart.
Funny, nothing had touched him there in a long time. He was a different man these days, since his last tour. He passed the sleeping children, catching a glimpse of a dark-haired boy and a blonde girl.
He carefully opened the trunk. Boy, she hadn't been kidding. He eyed the boxes, blew out a sigh and got to work unloading. It didn't take long, as she didn't have much. Boxes labeled Clothing, necessary items like bedding and towels and another of toys. That was it. He couldn't help wondering what her life had been like. If she had recognized him yet.
He got down to the uncomfortable task of changing the rear tire. He jacked up the car and stretched out in the snow. Cold seeped through his jacket and trousers. Well, it wasn't the first tire he'd changed on a winter night. Although he was missing the warmth of the station and a fresh cup of coffee about now.
"Mama?" The tiny voice sounded muffled inside the car, not far from his right ear as he wrestled the tire off the axel. Sounded as if the little girl was awake.
"I'm right here, honeybee." Shelby's voice was everything a mother's tone should begentle, soothing, loving. "Did you have any good dreams?"
"Uh-huh. Where are we? I don't like the dark."
"Okay, then, why don't you climb up here with me. Don't wake Caleb, now."
"I'm bringin' Chewy, too."
"There's just enough room for all three of us in this seat." Shelby's dulcet Texas twang could probably tempt just about any man into feelings for her. But not him.
As he fit the spare in place and tightened the lug nuts, the ratchet drowned out the rise and fall of Shelby's voice, much to his relief.
He repacked the trunk, wiped the falling snow off his face and circled around to her. She must have seen him coming because her window rolled down when he came into range. A little girl sat snuggled on her lap, her face buried in her mama's shoulder.
"I don't know how to thank you, Deputy. You must be frozen clean through." She blinked her long lashes. Hard to miss her concern. Concern for him.
A steel band tightened around his chest. "Don't worry. I'm tough."
"Yes, you men always are. I know." She rolled her eyes, and recognition flared through him again. Little Shelby Danners. She tilted her head to one side, peering up at him through the window frame. "Thank you for everything."
"All part of the job." He thought of the years between them, the different paths their lives had taken. The innocence of youth felt a world away, and yet the night didn't seem as dark as she smiled up at him.
"Sure, part of the job. But be warned, I'll get back at you for this. When you least expect it."
"You owe me nothing." He added, "For old time's sake."
"Old times?" Her forehead crinkled, her rosebud mouth puckered up as she thought. "What does that mean? Hey, do I know you?"
"Sorry, that's classified information, ma'am." Boy, he thought, did those big baby blues of hers reach into a guy. He'd never felt anything as powerful since the navy SEALs broke into his makeshift prison and rescued him. He tipped his hat and stepped back into the darkness. "You have a good night, now."
"But, wait, I"
"Remember, go right, one block over." He backed off, boots crunching in the snow. "Your grandma's house is on the corner." He tossed her a smile and opened his car door. He didn't smile often and it felt good. Very good. "See you around, Shelby."
He kept an eye on his rearview, making sure she pulled away from the curb all right. Just to be sure, he made a pass through the neighborhood an hour later. Her bright yellow four-door sat parked and dark in Mrs. Danners's driveway.
At least one of them had found their way home.