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Clay Preston hated to get involved in other people's problems. But he held out the foil-wrapped hamburger to the woman sitting next to him anyway. "Here. You have to eat something."
He and Rene Mitchell were in his tow truck in the parking lot of a fast-food place north of Denver. The sky was overcast and the clerk inside had mentioned the possibility of a late snowstorm coming down from Canada. Unless they hurried, Clay figured they'd be driving right into that blizzard. He should be worried about icy roads instead of, well, her.
Rene looked up at him indignantly. She'd been drumming her fingers on her jean-clad leg until she stopped to stare at him like he'd said something insensitive.
Clay gritted his teeth. "I know. Love's done you wrong. And you don't feel like eating anything. But you have to."
Clay was glad none of his old buddies could see him now. They had given him a hard time when he left the rodeo to start a towing business. They said he'd get tired of rescuing fools on the road and be back to riding for the prize in no time.
They'd have a good laugh if they knew he was playing nursemaid to one of his customers. He had hoisted her car onto the back of his truck two days ago, and that's when his troubles had started.
"You've never been in love, so you don't know how it feels," Rene said with a catch in her voice. Shadows gathered in the cab, but he could still see her misery more clearly than he wanted.
"I know enough to know a body needs to eat." Sheer desperation had made him tell her more about himself than he intended. The radio in the truck didn't work and, if they weren't talking, Rene was sitting there muttering to herself about that boyfriendof hers and the state of love in general.
Clay reminded himself it was the fear of her fainting in his truckthat made him press her to eat the burger. He didn't even want to know the amount of paperwork he'd need to fill out if he had to take her to some local hospital.
"The heart might not need food, but the stomach does," Clay finally said. Sentimental clichés were not his style, but he didn't know what else to say. The woman didn't listen to reason. He suddenly wondered if that might be because she had low blood sugar or something.
He glanced out the window to see if there were any medical buildings nearby. There weren't. Darkness was settling in and all he saw out of the ordinary were a couple of flakes of snow that were melting as they hit his windshield. It wasn't enough to make him worry quite yet. He turned back to look at his passenger.
"I'm not in love anymore," Rene said, her lips pressing tight together before she added, "I've given the whole thing up."
Clay nodded. He figured that attitude would last until her boyfriend, Trace Crawford, got back from wherever he had gone and found out that Rene had left town. Trace must be on a trip buying cattle or something. That was the only reason Clay could think of to explain the man's continued absence. Most men would be heating up the highways to keep a woman like Rene.
Of course, Clay knew not to press her on it. He felt helpless about her crying and, here she was, blinking back tears again.
"I'm sure Trace will call," he offered stiffly. He was no good at playing Dear Abby. He shouldn't even try.
Rene didn't say anything. She didn't reach out and take the burger, either.
Clay had first noticed Rene when she was a waitress at the café in the small town of Mule Hollow. He'd just moved to Texas so he hadn't known anyone there except his uncle, who owned the local garage. It was Uncle Prudy who had sold him this tow truck and told him to use the garage credit card to buy gas for this trip. His uncle believed in taking care of the people of his town, and he had insisted Clay take Rene where she needed to go. His uncle had even assured him he would use his old tow truck to handle any calls in Clay's absence.
The older man had said Clay should look at this as a little vacation. A time to relax. To get to know a nice girl.
Uncle Prudy had enough sense not to say the rest of what he was thinking, but then he didn't need to. His hopes had come through loud and clear over the phone without him uttering a word.
Clay had just shaken his head. The older man might as well go outside and spit in the wind. That's how much chance Clay had with a woman like Rene and, frankly, it was more chance than he wanted. Happy or sad, she gushed with emotions, and he didn't have a clue what to do with any of them.
"I wouldn't worry about Trace," he finally said to her. That seemed safe enough.
"I'm not." Rene turned to look out the window.
Clay wished his uncle could see him and Rene right now. The sight of her huddled against the passenger door, looking more dejected by the minute, would stop any illusions his uncle had. If Clay couldn't convince Rene to eat when she was hungry, he had no hope of persuading her to settle down with him in marital bliss. Not that he believed there was such a thing even if she did.
Oh, he wasn't opposed to marriage. That's what kept the world civilized. Falling in love, on the other hand, always seemed an awkward thing to him. It was like a temporary madness that took hold of people and wrung them dry, usually after making utter fools out of them.
Clay wasn't naïve. He knew lust could drive a man to do some crazy things. He could understand that. He could even grasp why men made commitments to kids and a family. That was kind of noble. What he could never understand, though, was the kind of romantic nonsense that was plaguing the woman sitting next to him.
He wished he had realized where things stood between Rene and Trace a little sooner. Maybe then he'd know what to do now. Of course, he had seen them flirt with each other in the café, but he hadn't noticed that it had gotten serious. And he should have seen it coming. He had been watching Rene since the day he first saw her moving around the tables in the café.
He smiled slightly just remembering it. With her soft blond hair and willowy shape, she was like a golden butterfly, dipping here to pour a cup of coffee and sliding there to give someone else more toast. She sparkled with silver filigree jewelry and her eyes danced as she moved. She was a sight to behold.
His first clue that she was even dating had been when Rene stormed out of town hours after she had that argument with Trace. And Clay only knew about the quarrel because he overheard a couple of the old ladies in town muttering about Trace's botched proposal as they walked past the open door of Uncle Prudy's garage.
Clay had smelled the heavy exhaust from Rene's car as he watched her leave that day, so he figured she would be calling Trace soon enough to go get her. The minute that muffler fell off she wouldn't know what to do. Most women liked to be rescued by their boyfriends, even if they were mad at them, so Clay told himself his butterfly would be back at the café in time to serve him breakfast. Trace would apologize and give her whatever she wanted and the wedding plans would move forward. It was as inevitable as spring.
If Clay had felt a twinge of disappointment that Rene was going to be married, he pushed it aside.
When the call came, it had been directed to his tow truck number. Clay had just added the toll-free number to his cell phone so it took a couple of seconds for him to realize it was Rene who wanted him to tow her car.
Business wasn't good enough that he could afford to ignore paying customers, not even ones who made him nervous. All the way out to her car, he kept expecting to get a call telling him that she'd finally decided to contact Trace and didn't need a tow any longer. But his cell phone was silent.
When he got to Rene's car, he had seen that the problem was bigger than the muffler.
Clay had known at the time he should have insisted that he tow her car back to his uncle's garage. But Rene had started protesting in earnest when he mentioned returning to Mule Hollow, saying she was never going back there. Clay could have stood her fuming, but she looked like she might cry, too. So he said he'd tow her to the next garage farther along the road, closer to where she was going
"Dry Creek, Montana," Rene had said when he asked her.
Looking back, Clay knew that first compromise had been his fatal mistake. He should have asked Rene about her finances before he'd made his offer. If he'd known, he could have told her none of the garages ahead would give someone who was just passing through thirty days to pay her bill. By the time he knew how broke she was, he was already committed. He'd promised his uncle to see this crazy journey through to the end.
Clay looked up at Rene again. He couldn't have abandoned her anyway. Not when she needed help.
"It's got grilled onions on it." He figured he might as well make one last attempt to reason with her. Then he set the burger down on the seat between them so he could pick up his own and eat it in peace.
Rene tried not to look at the hamburger. Her stomach was so empty it had started rumbling. It was surprising she could think about food at all considering the dismal state of her life, but there it was. Apparently, Clay was right about one thing. Being brokenhearted didn't always kill a person's appetite.
She forced herself to smile politely at the man. "Thank you very much. But I"
She gave a vague wave of her hands that could mean anything. Mostly, it meant she didn't want to be any more beholden to Clay and his uncle than she already was. She'd left most of her money in Mule Hollow so her cousin could pay the rent on the house they shared. Rene had planned to use her credit card on this trip, but something had happened and her last payment had never reached the credit card company so her card was not accepting new charges. The payment to her cell phone company hadn't gotten there, either. She'd used the last of her cash to pay for her motel room last night.
Clay frowned. "You have to be hungry."
"I can wait until we get to Dry Creek." She was in the food business; she knew people could live for weeks without eating. Some people voluntarily went on fasts that lasted for days. Besides, while Clay had been down the street getting gas this morning, she'd had a donut and a cup of coffee in the motel's lobby. In some countries, that was a full day's calorie intake.
"Suit yourself. I won't mind eating two burgers."
Rene wouldn't have minded eating two of those hamburgers, either. The smell of them filled the cab. And she loved grilled onions; she'd told Clay that when she refused a different burger yesterday. Of course, then she hadn't been hungry. Now, it would be so easy to reach out and take what he offered.
But if she was going to stand on her own, she might as well start now.
Life, she had to admit, wasn't going the way she had imagined it would. She'd thought she had it all figured out, especially the love part. Rene had heard about falling in love since she was a toddler. Her grandparents and her parents had all fallen in love at first sight. Everyone in the family found their mates that way.
Rene had felt that light, floating sensation when she first saw Trace. She was thirty-two years old, and it had been the first time she'd had that feeling so she thought it had to mean something. Obviously, she wasn't gifted with the same radar that the other women in her family had. Trace didn't love her at all.
She wasn't going to rely on her feelings any longer. She planned to take a dozen good looks at a man before she thought about love again. And then she was going to make her decision based on cold, hard facts. She might even make a list of requirements for a spouse. No more of this head spinning for her.
She could no longer trust all of the stories she'd heard growing up. In the past one hundred years, every bride in her family had fallen in love with their husbands the first time they looked into their faces. They all reported having that floating, spinning feeling and it had been the real thing. They were in love and their men loved them back. They all had fairy tale weddings and wore the white lace wedding veil her great-grandmother had made.
Rene had grown up expecting to have a grand romance like the rest of the women in her family. While her mother told her the stories, Rene would sit and dream about the veil. The veil was edged with blue forget-me-nots, which, the stories all claimed, symbolized true love for every bride who wore it.
After her mother died, Rene and her cousin, Paisley, had inherited the veil. When the two of them had moved to Mule Hollow a few months ago, they'd brought the veil with them. Paisley claimed to be so focused on her new teaching job that she wasn't interested in dating, but Rene had hoped the small town would be a good place for them to find God-fearing husbands. After all, the town was so overrun with cowboy bachelors a female reporter even wrote a column about it. That had to be a good sign.
"If it makes you feel better, we could add the hamburger to the tab you're running for my towing services," Clay said as he took another bite of his hamburger.
"I'll be fine," Rene said. "Don't worry about me."
They were silent for a minute and then Rene's stomach growled.
"Trace would take the burger," Clay said.
"You don't know what he'd do." Rene had noticed Clay and Trace sometimes sat in the café at the same time, but the two men hadn't seemed to know each other.
Clay grunted in a noncommittal fashion.