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Rain pelted the windshield of Laura White's car and the wipers worked hard to keep up, making a horrible scraping sound with each swish. Laura leaned in, trying to see the road. This had been going on since shortly after she left Tulsa, and in the past ten minutes it had gotten worse.
She glanced at the clock on the dash. Almost 10:00 p.m. Her head ached from straining to see the dark, rain-soaked highway. Hopefully her aunt Sally wouldn't mind the unannounced visit from a niece she hadn't seen in a dozen years. Laura didn't want to think ahead to what she would do if her aunt turned her away.
Ahead of her, headlights flashed, the beams catching on the sheets of rain. Laura slowed, trying to adjust to the dark, the lack of visibility. She reached to turn the defrost on High and the headlights became a car. The big sedan pulled out of a side road, right in the path of Laura's car. She opened her mouth to scream but the sound choked and wouldn't come out.
The car loomed large in front of her, her own headlights catching the expression on the face of the woman behind the wheel. Laura yanked the steering wheel to the right and sent her car off the side of the road, bouncing as it hit the ditch. Laura hit the brakes and held tight to the wheel as the car tilted. The fence flew at her window, the barbed wire sliding across the glass. Finally she came to a bone-jarring halt, slamming her head against the steering wheel.
Laura groaned and leaned back. Eyes closed, she focused on breathing, on getting her head clear. After a few minutes she unbuckled her seat belt. Nothing seemed to be broken. She reached for the door handle and gave it a good shove. It creaked open and she turned to get out. A woman stood next to her car.
"Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. I didn't see you coming." The woman, older, with gray hair peeking out from under a rain bonnet, reached for Laura's hand. "Maybe you should sit there for a minute."
"No, I'm good. I just wanted to see if my car is tangled on anything or if my tires are flat."
"In this weather? Come on, let's go to my car and we'll call the police and have them get a wrecker out here."
"No, let me just get my bearings and I'll figure out how to get my car out. I don't have far to go."
"You can't drive that car. Goodness." The woman still held her hand. She gave a pull and helped Laura to her feet. The rain poured down, drenching them in no time flat. "Let me call my grandson. We'll get this car out of here, get the fence repaired and make sure you're okay."
"I'm really fine. I'm going to my aunt's in Dawson. I should be close."
Arm in arm they trudged up the embankment to the car idling on the shoulder of the road. The woman opened the door for Laura and helped her in. A moment later she got in on the driver's side.
Laura leaned back into the soft leather and shivered as the heat from the car hit her. Her head ached. She touched her forehead and her fingers came away with blood.
"Here, let me." The woman handed her a pretty handkerchief.
"I can't use this."
"I have plenty and that's a nasty gash." She tsk'd a few times. "My name is Myrna Cooper and I am just so sorry that I wasn't paying better attention. Did you tell me your name?"
"Laura White. And really, it was just an accident."
Myrna already had her phone to her ear, nodding as she talked. She patted Laura's leg. A moment later she slipped the phone back in her purse. "My grandson is going to tow the car and fix the fence. I'll take you on home with me."
"If you want, you could drop me at my aunt's."
Myrna shifted into gear and pulled onto the road. "Of course, but first I want a doctor to look at that cut on your head."
"I'm really okay." And losing ground fast. Laura leaned back, holding the handkerchief to her head and fighting a wave of nausea that came out of nowhere.
"Now, who is your aunt?"
"Oh." Myrna Cooper nodded and then repeated,
"Is something wrong?"
"Honey, has it been a while since you saw Sally?"
"Yes. After my father passed away, we lost touch."
"Laura, your aunt Sally is in a nursing home. She has Alzheimer's."
Laura closed her eyes. Every bone in her body ached and the nausea rolled through her stomach and up into her throat. She wanted to cry. For the first time in a long time, she wanted to give up. She'd been strong through everything, but this might be the last straw. She'd wondered what a last straw felt like.
It felt like falling.
It felt a lot like never having anyone to lean on. When was the last time someone had been there for her? Who was the last person she'd turned to for help? There hadn't been anyone in years and she had hoped Aunt Sally
A hand touched her arm. "Now, don't you worry. Sally happens to be a friend of mine and any niece of hers has a place with me. Not only thatI do kind of owe you."
Laura wanted to shake her head, but it hurt to move. "Laura, honey, hang in there. We're almost to my house."
As they pulled up the drive to a garage, Laura threw her door open and emptied the contents of her stomach, which wasn't all that much since she hadn't eaten dinner. A hand touched her back. Myrna spoke in soft, mothering tones. Laura closed her eyes at the sting of tears. She hadn't been mothered in years. At twenty-eight, she should really be past this.
"Let's see if we can get you inside." Myrna parked the car and a moment later she stood on the passenger side, a hand held out. "Let's go. And I promise, this isn't the end of the world."
"I think it might be." Laura got out of the car.
A truck pulled into the drive as they walked up the sidewalk to the front porch that wrapped around two sides of what would probably be a beautiful home in the daylight. On a dark, stormy night, it loomed large and rambling, a few lights glowing in the many windows.
The truck stopped behind Myrna's car.
"That would be my grandson, Dr. Jesse Cooper. He'll have you fixed up in no time." Myrna unlocked the door and pushed it open. "Go on in."
Laura stepped into the house, her vision blurring with tears and pain. A little bench in the entry was as far as she could make it on legs that shook. Myrna walked around the living room, turning on lights, talking sweetly to a couple of little white and yappy balls of fluff.
The door opened, bringing cool air and a few stray drops of rain. The wind had picked up, blowing the rain at a slanting angle. The man in the doorway slipped off boots and hung a cowboy hat on a hook by the door. She watched as he shrugged out of his jacket and hung it next to his hat.
When he turned she blinked a few times and stared up at a man with lean, handsome features and dark hair that brushed his collar. He looked as comfortable in this big house as he did in his worn jeans and flannel shirt. His dark eyes studied her with curious suspicion. She'd gotten used to that look. She'd gotten used to people staring, wondering, whispering behind their hands as she walked past.
But second chances and starting over meant wanting something new, a new reaction when people met her. She wanted to be the person people welcomed into their lives. She wanted to be the woman a man took a second look at, maybe a third, and not a suspicious look.
Jesse Cooper took a second look, but it was full of suspicion.
"Jesse, I'm so glad you're here." Myrna had returned with a cold washcloth that she placed on Laura's forehead, holding it tight as she talked to her grandson. "It seems I had an accident."
"Really?" Jesse smiled a little, the gesture shifting his features, warming the coolness in dark eyes that focused on Laura.
"I pulled right out in front of her. She drove her car off the side of the road to keep from hitting me."
Laura closed her eyes, leaning her head against the wall behind her. A cool hand touched hers, moving the washcloth and touching the gash at her hairline.
"Let me see this."
She opened her eyes and he was squatting in front of her, his expression intent as he studied the cut. He looked from the gash to her face. Laura swallowed as he continued to stare, and then he moved and stood back up, unfolding long legs with graceful ease. Laura clasped her hands to keep them from shaking.
A while ago there had been an earthquake in Oklahoma. Laura remembered when it happened and how for a few minutes everyone had wondered if they'd really felt the earth move or if it had been their imaginations. She was pretty sure it had just happened again. The earth had moved, shifting precariously as a hand touched her face and dark eyes studied her intently, with a strange mixture of curiosity, surprise and something else.
"Let's get you in the kitchen where I can get a better look." Jesse held out his hand. "Can you tell me your full name?"
"Laura Alice White." She put her hand in his and he pulled her to her feet.
"What day is it?"
"And where were you heading on a night like tonight?"
She hesitated and didn't look at him. "I was going to rob a bank."
"Too bad. Dawson doesn't have a bank." He smiled a little and steadied her with a hand on her back.
"I was going to visit my aunt." Laura closed her eyes as another wave of nausea hit.
"Are you sick?" He stopped walking. "Dizzy?"
"Who is your aunt?"
"You know she's in the nursing home, right?"
"Your grandmother told me."
"You didn't know?" He glanced down at her, dark hair and tired-looking dark eyes. She looked away because she had blood dripping down her face, smelly breath and a prison record. Sounded like three strikes to her.
They entered a long, narrow kitchen. The cabinets were dark cherry, and the countertops were black granite. It was warm and welcoming. He grabbed a stool shoved into a corner by the fridge and placed it in the center of the room. Myrna flipped on the overhead lights. Laura blinked to clear her vision as she adjusted to the glare.
"Why wouldn't you know that your aunt is in the nursing home?" he asked as he looked her over, cleaning the cut on her forehead and placing a bandage on it.
Laura started to give a nonanswer but Myrna stepped forward, her lips pursed. "Jesse Alvarez Cooper, watch your manners."
"Sorry, Gran." His long fingers touched Laura's chin and he tilted her face. She tried to turn away but he held her steady with his left hand and with his right he flashed a light at her eyes.
No matter what, she wouldn't let him see her cry.
Jesse finished examining the woman sitting in his grandmother's kitchen and then put his medical bag on the counter. He tried to pretend he hadn't seen the glimmer of tears in her eyes. He'd never been good at ignoring a woman's tears.
He sighed and turned to face the other problem at hand. His grandmother. The fact that she had caused this accident troubled him. There were definitely a few missing pieces to the puzzle.
"Gran, what were you doing out so late on a night that isn't fit for dogs?"
She tossed him a "mind your own business" look. For the first time he noticed that she was wearing a pink skirt and jacket, not her typical jeans and T-shirt.
"You're not here about me. I'm fine. What do you think about Laura? Should she go to the hospital?" She leaned in close to study Laura White, conveniently avoiding his question. "Maybe she needs a CAT scan."
"I don't think so, Gran."
He switched his attention from his grandmother to the woman still sitting on the stool. She trembled and bit down on a quivering bottom lip. He didn't think she had serious injuries; more than likely it was a virus coupled with the shock of the accident and a few bumps and bruises.
Like his grandmother, she'd been out pretty late, driving in a serious storm. He wondered why it had been so important for her to get to her aunt's house, an aunt she obviously hadn't seen in years.
"Should we take her to the hospital, just to make sure nothing is broken?" Granny Myrna wrapped an arm around the woman and held her close, as if she were a long-lost child.
He loved that about his grandmother. The Coopers were the most loving, accepting bunch of people in the state, as far as he was concerned. He'd spent the first years of his life in South America trying to survive before they'd brought him here to be a part of their family.
"Nothing is broken. I took her temperature and I have a feeling the nausea and body aches have more to do with a virus than the accident."
Laura shivered and he studied her face, pale with big gray eyes. She had long auburn hair that curled down her back. Her clothes were decent but worn, and she was thin, too thin.
"I need to get my car." She shivered again. He looked at his grandmother. She was already scurrying away, probably to get a blanket.
"Even if your car will run, where do you think you'll go?"
"I'm not sure. Back to Tulsa, I guess." Her voice was soft, almost sweet.
"You have a home there?"
She looked at him, gray eyes misty, and she didn't answer.
His grandmother rushed back into the room, an afghan in her hands. She draped it around her guest's shoulders. "She's staying right here."
She shushed him. "Jesse, I'm a big girl and I have a duty to take care of this young woman. I could be in the morgue right now if she hadn't run off the road to keep from hitting me."