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By Jillian Hart
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Jillian Hart
All right reserved.
Ben McKaslin climbed out of his pickup, fished his debit card out of his wallet and hit the gas tank lever. His back complained. His leg complained.
He ignored both, because he was no longer in Florida. Gone were the stifling heat and the cloying humidity and the scents of moss and dampness and heat of the Gulf coast he'd never gotten used to. How could any place on earth be as good as Montana?
The sight of rugged amethyst peaks and green rolling meadows touched him deeply. It was good to be going home. There were lots of things he'd missed. The natural beauty of the state was one of them. He swiped at his scratchy eyes.
Well, he wasn't home yet, but ever since he'd crossed the Montana state line, he hadn't been able to drive fast enough. He hadn't wanted to stop for any reason and had kept on driving.
Except for the fact that the truck was on Empty. This stop would be a quick break to gas up and he'd be back on the road. As he glanced around the outskirts of Bozeman, he realized he was exactly fourteen minutes from the sleepy rural town where he'd grown up. Fourteen minutes from the house he'd grown up in.
He grabbed his crutches from behind the seat. The annoying sticks had gotten wedged beneath his stuffed rucksack, so he had to wrestle them out. If his leg could have supported his weight without pain, he'd have left them there, but the streaks shooting up his femur were a little too strong to ignore. Not that he was supposed to put his full weight on his leg much at all, but he fudged it a lot.
He wasn't the only one at the truck stop, and that surprised him, it being as late as it was -- nearly midnight. Of course, this place was visible from the interstate, and the last pit stop for gas and food had been a good thirty miles back. He apparently wasn't the only one low on blood sugar and running out of gas.
His stomach might be growling like a bear, but he figured on waiting to raid his sister's fridge, since he knew Rachel would have stocked up for his benefit. He wouldn't want to let her down, right?
He leaned on the crutches, looking through the dark for danger. It was habit, ingrained from boot camp on through his PJ training, honed in jungles, deserts and mountains around the world. Even here in the good old U.S.A. he couldn't break the habit as he listened, senses alert, while crossing the short distance from the cab to the gas tank.
On the other side of the pump was a family vehicle, and the pleasant-looking middle-class woman in a loose pink T-shirt, cutoffs and flip-flops measured him suspiciously. She latched the lock on the handle pump, leaving the nozzle in the gas tank, and slid away from him.
It was late, it was dark, she was alone with kids -- the dome light revealed two little ones fast asleep in their car seats. It showed good sense on the mother's part. Ben couldn't deny that he did look disreputable. Then again, he was paid by the government to be disreputable.
He slipped his card into the slot and waited for the screen to request his pin number, which he punched in lickety-split. His gaze swept the pump piles, which were flooded with bright light. A couple of big rigs were fueling up at the diesel pumps, designed for truckers. A late-night RV ambled in and parked on the other side of the semi's triple trailers.
The machine beeped, demanding he lift the nozzle and start pumping. He put in plain old unleaded. He was no longer a poor kid growing up in tough circumstances, but old habits died hard. He screwed off the gas cap, and as he was latching the handle lock, a small gray domestic sedan pulled up to the pump behind him.
It was a woman. When she opened her door and the dome light splashed on, he noticed her sleek dark locks of hair, thick and straight, and a heart-shaped face that could only be described as sweet. Or maybe that was his own interpretation.
Wait a minute -- he knew that face. Her delicate features had matured, but it looked like...
No, it couldn't be her.
Yes, it was. He blinked his eyes, staring. It really was her. Someone he hadn't seen in person since he was a wild and woolly eighteen-year-old with an attitude and a talent for trouble.
Incredibly, Cadence Chapman emerged into the night. She was still tall and straight and slender -- as graceful as a ballerina as she walked without watching where she was going. She dug through a wellworn leather wallet and withdrew a ten-dollar bill. She still had that saunter that made her look as if she were walking a few inches above the ground.
I used to love her. His heart wrenched and left him in pain, watching as she headed straight for the cashier inside the attached quick mart.
Her long dark hair fluttered behind her, midway down her back. A small brown leather purse swung from her shoulder. He wasn't in love with her anymore, but seeing her sure felt surreal, as if it was a dream or something.
He'd pinch himself, but he already knew he was awake and not dreaming. Who would have thought -- Cadence Chapman? Hadn't she moved away right out of high school, with a big college scholarship and even bigger goals?
What was a world-class athlete doing in central Montana? He'd have to ask her when she came back to her car, if she recognized him.
Excerpted from Heaven's Touch by Jillian Hart Copyright © 2005 by Jillian Hart.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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