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Becca Tyler limped her car to the side of the road, the vehicle lurching every few inches because of the flat tire. Coming to a final, slow stop, she turned off the engine and pressed her forehead against the smooth, cold leather on the steering wheel.
She'd left her two kids and baby, Daisy, with her best friend, then driven the thirty miles from Katyville to an all-night pharmacy in Wichita to buy a vaporizer for the baby. Daisy's cold had gotten worse, and her raspy breathing had Becca worried. If things didn't improve and the vaporizer didn't do the trick, she would have to take the baby to the emergency room.
One more expense she couldn't afford.
With a heavy sigh of resignation, Becca lifted her head. If she was lucky, the spare would have enough air to get her homeor at least to Raylene's house in Katyville. She'd worry about getting the flat fixed later, as soon as Daisy was breathing easier.
The car door groaned in protest when she pushed it open. Cold winter air raised goose bumps on her arms, and she wished she hadn't left home without a coatbut she was too worried with a sick baby. Gravel crunched beneath her sneakers when she stepped out onto the road. When she shoved the door closed, it groaned once more, and she winced. If she could remember, she'd ask Raylene's husband to look at it. Thank heaven Jeff didn't mind doing simple upkeep and repair on her car for nothing.
Other than the whisper of her own movements, the deserted country road was silent. There were no houses in sight, no glow of yard lights, no traffic or city blocks, just wide open Kansas farmland, darkness and silence. But even in the dark, the tire's misshapen form wasvisible, a testament to her bad luck. When would it end?
A coyote howled in the faraway distance, and she wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the chill of the lonely sound and the winter night. Looking up at the sky dotted with twinkling starlight, she tried to fight the feeling of aloneness that consumed her. "I can't keep this up," she whispered to the universe spread out above her. "Somehow, some way, I need some help. Please."
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a bright flash of light. Thinking it might be the headlights of a car, she turned toward it. But instead of an approaching vehicle, what she saw caused her to gasp. A bright, broad streak of blue-white light blazed amidst the heavens from left to right.At the head, reds, blues and colors she couldn't name invaded the blackness, leaving the blue-white tail streaming behind them.
A comet? It had to be. But she'd never seen such an enormous comet in all of her stargazing. She'd never seen anything so magnificently beautiful. It both calmed and energized her.
It's only a flat tire, a voice seemed to whisper to her. Yes, she would find a way to get it taken care of, and all the rest, too. It was time to find some answers and make things better. Time to take control of her life.
As she watched, she could imagine telling Danny, her oldest child, about it. He loved to watch the news, and she'd sit with him, answering his questionsquestions too old for his five years.
When the sound of a car door slamming broke the silence, she let out a shriek and spun around. She had been so mesmerized by the comet, she hadn't noticed a vehicle approaching from behind. Another chill shook her as the image of a tall, broad-shouldered man moved toward her. She willed herself to remain calm but guarded, ready to protect herself if need be.
"What the hell are you doing, lady, parking in the road?" his deep voice boomed at her.
Shaking the fear inching up her spine, she answered. "I had a flat and" She realized that the man was vaguely familiar, and she waited as he walked toward her in the darkness. The light from the comet was fading, but as the man came closer and stopped, she stared at him, not sure if her memory was playing tricks on her. After all, it had been ten years.
"Nick? Nick Morelli?"
The scowl disappeared from his face and was replaced by a look of puzzlement. "Yeah, that's me. But who the he" He leaned closer, taking her all in with one long look.
Becca wanted to die. All thoughts of taking control vanished. She remembered that look, remembered the heat that had flowed through her every time he had looked at her, just as it was flowing once again. "Becca?"
Memories nearly overwhelmed her, but she managed to nod before she turned around so he couldn't see how he affected her. She had pretty much forgotten Nick, the face of her youth. Thinking about it too often reminded her of the bad choices she'd made and was determined not to make again. Her life was going to change. It had to. Not for her sake, but for her kids'.
Eyes searching, she finally found the fading tail of the comet and watched as it stretched across the black velvet sky. "Did you see the comet?" she asked over her shoulder.
But he wasn't looking at the sky. He was looking at her. Another shudder shook her.
"You're cold," he said, slipping out of his black leather jacket to drape it around her shoulders. "Don't you have enough sense not to stand out here without a coat? It's December, not July."
"It's not that cold." And it wasn't, not since he'd put his jacket around her. The warmthhis warmthseeped into her.
He continued to look at her, and then spun around to make his way to her car. "You said you have a flat. Do you have a spare?"
Joining him, she pulled the coat closer, wishing she didn't need it. It smelled like Nick. The Nick she remembered. Nick, with his dark hair, dark eyes and a face that could have been chiseled by a master.
She chased the thought from her mind to answer him. "In the trunk. The jack, too. But I don't know if the spare has air."
"No way of knowing until we check it out," he said, opening the noisy car door and reaching for her keys in the ignition. The dome light shed a golden glow over his face when he turned to look at her. He wasn't happy. "Do you have a flashlight in here?"
She shook her head.
He grunted. "I'll get mine out of the truck."
While he was busy retrieving the flashlight, she wondered what he was doing so near to Katyville and decided he was probably back to visit his family over the holidays. She knew he had moved to Denver years ago. She also knew he was married. After she'd learned that, she hadn't heard anything else.
"Let's take a look at that spare."
His voice jolted her back to her senses, and she followed him to the rear of her car. But she kept her distance. Opening the trunk, he gestured for her to come closer and handed her the light. "Shine it in here."
Scrambling to stand beside him, she shone the light where he pointed. She had forgotten that the trunk light no longer worked. Inside, the baby stroller took up a large portion of the trunk, along with a few boxes. "I'll just move these," she murmured and tugged at a box with one hand.
"I'll get it," he said, and she stepped aside to give him space.
With the stroller and boxes out of the way, he found the tire, lifted it out and examined it. "It's almost as flat as the other. No reason to take the time to change them. I'll take care of them tomorrow."
"No!" She bit her lower lip, shocked at her vehemence. But she didn't want to be beholden to Nick Morelli. If it had been anyone else, she wouldn't have protested. But it was Nick. "I'll take care of it."
He took the light from her and helped return the boxes, and then he shined the beam in her direction. "I'll have Tony come out here and get it, first thing in the morning."
"But your brother"
"On the house." Pocketing her keys, he slammed down the trunk lid. "If you have anything in the car you need, get it and lock the doors. I'll give you a ride home."
Since her only other choices were to stay out here on a deserted road all night or walk however many miles it was into Katyville, she didn't argue. Enough time had been wasted. Raylene would be wondering why she hadn't picked up the kids yet.
"If you can drop me at Raylene and Jeff's " For a moment, after she had said it, she thought she had seen him raise one eyebrow, but she decided it had been nothing more than her imagination. "You remember Raylene, don't you?"
"Just give me directions when we get into town," he answered as he turned to walk away.
Opening the door to her car, she grabbed her purse and the new vaporizer, and locked up. Nick waited in his truck with the engine running, and she wondered if he still looked the same when he smiled. He hadn't smiled yet. But who could blame him? Finding a grown and weary version of a girl who had once wounded his ego wouldn't exactly make him grin.
GLAD THE LIGHTS of the small town of Katyville were in view and they were nearly there, Nick glanced at Becca beside him. He was more than surprised to see her again. And if he didn't know better, he would have thought she was scared to death of him. She sure hadn't changed much.
She had always seemed so down-to-earth, and at one time, he had thought she was something specialso special that they had planned a future together. But he had learned the truth about her a long time ago. The hard way.
"Somebody sick?" he asked, nodding toward the box she held on her lap in a death grip.
"Um, yes," she said in the quiet voice he remembered all too well. "Daisy. My baby."
Of course, she had a baby. More than one, from what he'd heard. His mother had mentioned that Becca had married some hotshot businessman her father had picked out for her. Leave it to Jock Malone to marry his daughter off to inflate his ego and raise his importance in the community even more.
He glanced at her again. "What's wrong with her? With, uh, Daisy?"
Becca shifted in the seat, hugging the box closer. "A cold."
He didn't miss the "I hope" she added under her breath, and he wondered what was going on. Nick hadn't missed the poor condition of the spare or the other tires on her car. No man should let his wife drive around in a car with bad tires. Maybe he should say something to the guy if he ever had the misfortune to meet him.
Then again, maybe he should just mind his own business. He didn't owe Becca Malone or Becca Whatever-Her-Name-Was-Now anything. He'd been in love with her once and had thought she had loved him, too. But that had been years ago, and she had managed to completely douse his ardor one late spring evening. He should've known better. At nineteen, his hormones had led his life. No more. Not only had she taught him a valuable lesson, but he'd also gone on to learn many more. Most of them had left their mark. "Which way?" he asked, pulling onto the main street that ran the length of the town.
"Left at Drury, then all the way to the end of the last block." He turned to look at her. Streetlights illuminated a face that was still young, in spite of the worry lines between her eyes and the hint of dark circles beneath them.
Not liking what he saw, he forced his attention back to the street ahead. Becca was still more than easy on the eyes, and he knew better than to get hooked on the sight of her. But the worn knees of her blue jeans and the loose edge of the shirt she wore hadn't escaped his notice. So, okay, maybe she was cleaning the bathroom or something when she hightailed it to wherever she was coming from. Or maybe she had gotten tired of dressing up for the folks in Katyville. Or maybe
"What's your husband do for a living?" he asked suddenly, turning the corner to head down the familiar street.
"He He's a stockbroker. Why?"
A quick glance told him that her suspicions were aroused. His damn sure were. A stockbroker made good money, and nothing about her shouted that she was living all that well, considering the well-used car she drove. If she lived in Katyvilleand he guessed she did, or she wouldn't be headed in that direction so late at nighther husband probably commuted to his job in Wichita. Most people did.
"Just making conversation," he answered with a shrug.
He remained silent for the next two blocks. He hadn't done much poking around since returning to Katyville two weeks ago. Most of what he'd seen of the town was the main street, where his youngest brother owned the service station and garage that their father had owned for almost forty years.
That and the drive from his parents'home a few blocks away to the construction site at the edge of town, where his construction company was starting a new housing development.
The silence was broken when she showed him where to drop her off, and he pulled into the driveway. As soon as he turned the key to shut off the engine, she reached for the door handle and opened the door.
Running like a scared rabbit. If that's the way she felt, he was okay with it. He didn't have any intention of trying to change her mind or resurrect the past.
She slid from the seat and climbed out of the truck, then turned back. "Thank you, Nick. Tell Tony to send me a bill for the tire."
The door slammed shut, and he watched her cross the lawn and head for the porch. When she stepped up on the first porch step, his jacket slid from her shoulders. Before he could stop himself, he was out of the truck and replacing the coat around her.
Taking the box from her grasp, he tried for a smile. "You have your hands full."
She hesitated, and then turned to look at him, her gaze meeting his. "You always were a gentleman, Nick Morelli."
He didn't have the chance to read the look in her eyes when the storm door in front of them blew open.
"Mom! We thought you got lost."
"Mommy, I don't want to go to bed without you," came a cry from behind the small boy, who had burst from the house first.
Becca hurried up the steps to the door and knelt down to take the boy into her arms. "I wasn't lost, honey. I had a flat tire." She held out one arm and pulled a small, tow-headed girl to her. "It's okay, April. I'm home and everything is all right."
The little boy pulled away a few inches and looked up at Nick. "Who's he?"
Becca swiveled and offered Nick an apologetic smile. "He's the nice man who stopped to help me with the flat tire."
"Where's our car?" the boy asked, his forehead creased in a worried frown.
The whimper of a baby caused Nick to look up to see Raylene Stevens holding an infant. "Nick brought you home?" she asked Becca, but didn't take her eyes off him. "It's good to see you, Nick."
"You, too, Raylene." He hadn't seen Becca's best friend since he'd left town ten years ago. The night was turning into a walk down memory lane, and he didn't want to go there. He sure hoped her strange smile didn't mean she thought he'd taken some kind of advantage of Becca.
"I found her out on one of the back roads with a flat and a spare that matched it," he explained in defense, adding a shrug. "I'll have Tony take care of it in the morning. He can drop her car off at her place after he fixes the tire."
Becca unwrapped the two kids still clinging to her and held her arms out for the baby. After planting a kiss on the baby's forehead, she turned to Nick. "Thank you for the ride and everything. But don't bother Tony about the car. It really isn't necessary."
"I will and it is," he said, his gaze on the infant she cuddled. "Is this Daisy?"
"Yes, and I'd better get her inside and out of the cold before she gets worse."
He lifted his hand to run a finger down the soft skin of the baby's cheek. He had always had a soft spot for kids. "Get better, Daisy," he whispered. Ready to put an end to the bizarre night, he ruffled the boy's hair and handed the box to Raylene. "I'll tell Tony to get right on the tire, first thing," he told Becca. "Nice seeing both of you again." He turned, hurrying down the steps.
"Crazy," he muttered to himself as he backed his truck out of the driveway. Having Tony go after her car was nothing. He would've done it for anybody. Of course, he would make sure his brother sent her husband the bill.
His frown deepened. And where was Becca's husband? Why wasn't he out looking for his wife, when his children were obviously worried about her? Some guys just didn't know when they had it good.
But Becca's husband wasn't his worry. As soon as he knew her car was taken care of, he could go about his own business. Becca Malone was a thing of the past. And she would stay that way.