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He was tired.
He was hungry.
He wanted a big roast beef sandwich from that roast Henny had baked early in the week, and then he wanted to go to bed and sleep for at least fourteen hours.
Nick Rudolph shifted against the supple leather seat of his Jaguar sedan, his impatient foot pressing the accelerator further toward Shreveport, Louisiana, the interstate's slippery surface spewing icy rain out around the sleek black car.
He was also late. Very late. Carolyn would be fuming; he'd have to smooth things over with her. Right about now, he was supposed to be escorting her to the mayor's Christmas party. Instead, he was making his way along a treacherous stretch of icy road, on the coldest night of the year.
His mind went back to the meetings in Dallas he'd had to endure to cut another deal for Rudolph Oil. After all the hours of endless negotiations, he still wasn't sure if he'd closed the deal. They wanted to think about it some more.
That he wasn't coming home victorious grated against his ego like the ice grating against his windshield wipers. Over the last few years, work had always come first with Nick Rudolph. It was an unspoken promise to his late father, a man Nick hadn't understood until after his death. Now, because he'd seen a side of his father that still left him unsettled, Nick preferred to concentrate on tangible endeavors, like making money.
Nick Rudolph wasn't used to losing. He'd been blessed with a good life, with all the comforts of old money, and he didn't take kindly to being shut out. He'd win them over; he always did. He might have given up every ounce of his self-worth, but he wasn't about to let go of his net worth.
As the car neared the exit for Kelly's Truck Stop, he allowed himself a moment to relax. Almost home. Soon, he'd be sitting by his fire, the cold December rain held at bay outside the sturdy walls of his Georgian-style mansion. Soon.
Nick looked up just in time to see the dark shapes moving in front of his car, his headlights flashing across the darting figures rushing out onto the road in front of him.
Automatically slamming on his brakes, he held the leather-covered steering wheel with tight fingers. His mind screamed an alert warning as the car barely missed hitting a small figure standing in the rain before it skidded to a groaning halt.
"What in the world!" Nick cut the engine to a fast stop, then hopped out of the car, his mind still reeling with the sure knowledge that he'd almost hit a child. Coming around the car, his expensive loafers crunching against patches of ice, he looked down at the three people huddled together on the side of the interstate. Tired and shaken, he squinted against the beam of his car's headlights.
The sight he saw made him sag with relief. He hadn't hit anyone. Immediately following the relief came a strong curiosity. Why would anyone be standing in the middle of the interstate on a night like this?
The woman stood tall, her chin lifted in proud defiance, her long hair flowing out in the icy wind, her hands pulled tight against the shoulders of the two freezing children cloistered against the protection of her worn wool jacket.
The two children, a small boy and a taller, skinny girl, looked up at Nick with wide, frightened eyes, their lips trembling, whether from fear or cold, he couldn't be sure.
He inched closer to the haphazard trio. "Are you people all right?"
The woman pushed thick dark hair away from her face, shifting slightly to see Nick better. "We're all okay. I'm sorry. We were trying to cross over to the truck stop. We… you… I didn't realize how fast you were going."
Nick let out a long, shuddering sigh, small aftershocks rippling through his body. "I almost hit you!"
The woman stiffened. "I said we're all okay." Then as if realizing the harshness of her words, she repeated, "I'm sorry."
Something in her tone caught at Nick, holding him. It was as if she'd had a lot of experience saying those words.
"Me, too," he said by way of his own apology. He'd never been good with "I'm sorry", because he'd never felt the need to apologize for his actions. But he had been driving way too fast for these icy roads. What if he'd hit that little boy?
He ran his hand through his damp dark hair, then shoved both hands into the deep pockets of his wool trench coat. "Where…where's your car? Do you need a ride?"
The woman moved her head slightly, motioning toward the west. "We broke down back there. We were headed to the truck stop for help."
"I'll drop you off," Nick offered, eager to get on his way. Turning, he headed back to his car. When the woman didn't immediately follow, he whirled, his eyes centering on her. "I said I'd give you a lift."
"We don't know you," she reasoned. "It's not that far. We can walk."
"And risk getting hit again?" Regretting his brusque tone, Nick stepped closer to her, the cold rain chilling him to his bones. "Look, I'm perfectly safe. I'll take you to the truck stop. Maybe they can call a wrecker for your car."
"I can't afford a wrecker," the woman said, almost to herself.
"We're broke," the little boy supplied, his eyes big and solemn, their depths aged beyond his five or so years.
"Patrick, please hush," the woman said gently, holding him tight against her jeans-clad leg. Gazing up at Nick, she shot him that proud look again. "I'd appreciate a ride, mister."
"It's Nick," he supplied. "Nick Rudolph. I live in Shreveport." As he talked, he guided them toward his car, wondering where they were from and where they were headed, and why they'd broken down on such an awful night. "I'm on my way back from Dallas," he explained, opening doors and moving his briefcase and clothes bag out of the way.
"We used to live near Dallas," the little boy said as he scooted onto the beige-colored leather seat. "Wow! This is a really cool car, ain't it, Mom?"
"It's isn't," his sister corrected, her voice sounding hoarse and weak.
The boy gave her an exaggerated shrug.
Nick stepped aside as the woman slid into the front seat. Her eyes lifted to Nick's, and from the overhead light, he got his first really good glimpse of her.
And lost his sense of control in the process.
Green eyes, forest green, evergreen, shined underneath arched brows that dared him to question her. An angular face, almost gaunt in its slenderness, a long nose over a wide, full mouth. Her lips were chapped; she nibbled at the corner of her bottom lip. But she tossed back her long auburn hair like a queen, looking regal in spite of her threadbare, scrappy clothes.
Nick lost track of time as he stared down at her, then catching himself, he shut the door firmly, his body cold from the December wind blowing across the roadway. Running around the car, he hurried inside, closing the nasty night out with a slam.
"Mom?" the little boy said again, "don't you like Nick's car?"
"It's very nice," the woman replied, her eyes sliding over the car's interior. "And it's Mr. Rudolph, Patrick. Remember your manners."
The expensive sedan cranked on cue, and Nick pulled it back onto the highway, careful of the slippery road. "What's your name?" he asked the woman beside him.
"Myla." She let one slender hand rest on the dashboard for support as the car moved along. "Myla Howell." Nodding toward the back of the car, she added, "And these are my children, Patrick and Jessica."
The little girl started coughing, the hacking sounds ragged and raspy. "Mama, I'm thirsty," she croaked.
"They'll have drinks at the truck stop," Nick said, concern filtering through his need to get on home.
"We don't got no money for drinks," Patrick piped up, leaning forward toward Nick.
"Patrick!" Myla whirled around, her green eyes flashing. "Honey, sit back and be quiet." Her tone going from stern to gentle, she added, "Jesse, we'll get a drink of water in the bathroom, okay?"
Nick pulled the car into the busy truck stop, deciding he couldn't leave them stranded here, cold and hungry. He'd at least feed them before he figured out what to do about their car. Turning to Myla, he asked, "Is everything all right? Can I call somebody for you? A relative maybe?"
She looked straight ahead, watching as a fancy eighteen-wheeler groaned its way toward the highway. "We don't have any relatives here." A telling silence filled the car. Outside, the icy rain picked up, turning into full-fledged sleet.
"Where were you headed?" Nick knew he was past late, and that he probably wasn't going anywhere soon.
"To Shreveport." Myla sat still, looking straight ahead.
"Mom's found a job," Patrick explained, eager to fill Nick in on the details. "And she said we'll probably find a place to live soon—it'd sure beat the car—"
"Patrick!" Myla turned then, her gaze slamming into Nick's, a full load of pain mixed with the pride he saw so clearly through the fluorescent glow of the truck stop's blinding lights.
His mouth dropping open, Nick gave her an incredulous look. "What's going on here?"
"Nothing." Her chin lifted a notch. "Thank you for the ride, Mr. Rudolph. We'll be fine now."
The car door clicked open, but Nick's hand shot out, grabbing her arm. "Hey, wait!"
Her gaze lifted from his hand on her arm to the urgent expression on his face. "Let me go."
"I can't do that." Nick surprised himself more than he surprised her. "If you don't have any place to go—"
"It's not your problem," she interrupted. "If I can just make it into town, I've got a good chance of still getting the job I called about yesterday. Once I find steady work, we'll be fine."
"I can help," he said, almost afraid of the worn wisdom he read in her eyes. "I can call a wrecker, at least. And find a place for you to stay."
From the back seat, Jessica went into another fit of coughing, the hacking sound reminding Nick of memories he'd tried to suppress for too long.
"That does it." He reached across Myla to slam her door shut. The action brought them face-to-face for a split second, but it was long enough for Nick to get lost in those beautiful eyes again, long enough for him to forget his regrets and his promises and wish for things he knew he'd never have. And it was long enough for him to make a decision that he somehow knew was about to change his life. "You're coming with me," he said, his tone firm. "I won't leave a sick child out in this mess!"
The woman looked over at him, her eyes pooling into two misty depths. "I…I don't know how to thank you."
Nick heard the catch in her throat, knew she was on the verge of tears. The thought of those beautiful eyes crying tore through him, but he told himself he'd only help the family find a safe place to spend the night. He wasn't ready to get any further involved in whatever problems they were having.
"You need help," he said. "If you're worried about going off with a stranger, I'll call someone to verify my identity." A new thought calculating in his taxed brain, he added, "In fact, my sister is a volunteer counselor for Magnolia House. I'll call her. She's always helping people." Having found a way to get out of this sticky predicament, Nick breathed a sigh of relief.
Myla turned back, her eyes wary. "What's Magnolia House?"
He waved a hand. "It's this place downtown, a homeless shelter, but a bit nicer. According to my sister it has private rooms where families can stay until… until they get back on their feet." He really didn't know that much about his sister's latest mission project, except that he'd written a huge check to help fund it.
Giving him a hopeful look, she asked, "And we don't have to pay to live there?"
"No, not with money. You do assigned tasks at the home, and attend classes to help you find work, things like that. My sister helped set the place up and she's on the board of directors. She'll explain how it works."
"Can you get us in tonight?"
Putting all thoughts of a roast beef sandwich or a quiet evening with Carolyn out of his mind, Nick nodded hesitantly. "I'll do my best. And I'll send a wrecker for your car, too."
She relaxed, letting out a long breath. Then she gave him a direct, studying stare, as if she were trying to decide whether to trust him or not. Clearing her throat, she said, "Thank you."
Admiration surfaced in the murky depths of Nick's impassive soul. He knew how much pride those two words had cost this woman. He admired pride. It had certainly sustained him all these years.