Coming soon! A Child's Gift by Linda Warren will be available Dec 03, 2019.
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Jericho Johnson wasn't a complicated guy; the simple life suited him just fine.
Like this morning, driving in the early dawn with the morning dew glistening off his windshield, the beam of his headlights piercing the wall of darkness as he drove into Horseshoe, Texas. Simple. Quiet. Perfect.
A two-story limestone courthouse, over a century old, stood as sentinel over the two-thousand-plus citizens. Large gnarled oaks gave it a bygone-days presence. At the top was a Gothic-like clock tower that never had the correct time. Most people in Horseshoe set their watches by it, making them a little off. Time-wise.
At this hour there wasn't much going on in the small town, but the lights were on in the diner and in the bakery. He pulled in at the bakery.
It was Tuesday morning. No fanfare. No balloons. No confetti. Just plain ol' Tuesday — his favorite day of the week. For about two years now he'd been picking up kolaches for the guys at Rebel Ranch every Tuesday morning. That was his excuse to see Anamarie Wiznowski. He liked Anamarie more than he wanted to admit, but nothing could come of their relationship. Her parents, especially her mother, would never allow her to date an ex-con.
When people turned away from him or avoided speaking to him, he felt sure those words were branded on his forehead. He was a loner and he wore a stone-like expression, as some people called it. He tried not to care what people thought of him, but each snub cut a little deeper on the inside. Until he met Anamarie, he'd kept to himself.
He tapped on the glass door and Anamarie hurried from the back. It was mid-May and the tepid south wind nipped at his clothes as the hint of summer whistled through the trees. She opened the door and he lost all train of thought at the smile on her pretty face. A hairnet covered her hair and a big apron adorned the front of her jeans and blouse. She'd never looked lovelier to him. Her blue eyes sparkled as bright as the morning dew. He never grew tired of looking at her.
Unlocking the door, she said, "Good morning — come on in. Your coffee's ready. I'll be with you in a minute."
Jericho removed his hat and stepped into the bakery with its black-and-white-checkered floor, breathing in the heavenly scent of fresh-baked kolaches. He never tired of that, either. In an hour or so the place would be swarming with eager customers. He glanced toward the kitchen and asked, "Are you by yourself this morning?" Usually there were a couple of ladies in the back, but this morning he didn't see anyone.
"Yes. Can you believe it?" she shouted from the kitchen. "Margie didn't show up so I guess that means she and Bubba had a big fight. Judy had a flat tire, but she'll be here soon."
Bubba was Anamarie's brother and he and Margie had an on-and-off-again relationship. Bubba owned the gas station and a wrecker service and he also helped the sheriff every now and then. He was well known around the town, and was a friend of the Rebel family. And of Jericho's.
After hooking his hat on an ornate wrought-iron hat rack made by Anamarie's father, he eased his tall frame into a chair at one of the small red tables in the eating area. Anamarie returned with two steaming cups of coffee and a plate of fresh kolaches. The hairnet and apron were gone and her smile lit up his cold heart. Besides the Rebel family, she was the only one in town who hadn't snubbed him. Her blond hair was pulled back into a topknot and several strands were loose around her face. At forty, she had this idea in her head that she was overweight and she didn't think of herself as attractive. He'd told her before that she was just the right size. And she was to him. Time and time again she mentioned the weight thing. He couldn't convince her otherwise.
"Cherry kolaches," she said as he picked up the heavenly treat.
He took a bite and she picked up the cheese one. "I should just slather this on my hips." She made a face.
"Don't start. You're the perfect size and I don't know why you're always complaining about it. Look in the mirror for heaven sakes."
"You're just saying that to be nice."
"Do you think I come in here just for the kolaches?"
She shrugged, sipping coffee.
"Or to visit with an ugly overweight woman?"
She spit coffee all over the table and giggled. She quickly dabbed at her mouth, holding the laughter inside. But it showed on her face and he never saw anything more beautiful. Why couldn't she see that about herself?
"You're so good for me," she said, wiping coffee from the table with a napkin.
"You're good for me, too."
Their eyes met and there were so many emotions he saw there, but he could also see she wasn't ready to express them. He didn't know if she ever would be.
She leaned back in her chair. "It feels so good to sit and relax before all the madness starts." Her voice held a soft caring quality and he didn't know of anyone who cared more about people than she did.
"You work too hard." He wrapped his hands around his cup.
"Look who's talking. You put in long hours, just like I do."
"But I don't get up at two thirty in the morning."
"Yeah." She stared down into her coffee and he wished he could read her thoughts. "That is getting old, but it's my job. Mom's not as spry as she used to be, so it's up to me to run the bakery."
The Wiznowskis were one of the founding families of Horseshoe. Willard, Anamarie's dad, owned the blacksmith shop. Her twin sisters, Patsy and Peggy, ran Talk of the Town Beauty Shop. And, of course, Bubba had the gas station. The youngest, Angie, was married to Hardison Hollister, the district attorney. Angie also had an office connected to the bakery. She was an accountant and took care of the books for the bakery and several other businesses. There were another boy and girl, but they had moved away. The Wiznowskis were good people and Rico had to wonder if he would ever be allowed to see their daughter other than on Tuesday morning.
He had a good family, too, sort of. He had saved Egan Rebel's life in prison when Egan had been unjustly accused of a crime. Egan's mother, Kate Rebel, had hired a new attorney and had gotten her son out quickly. When Egan had told her about the incident in prison, Miss Kate had hired an attorney for Jericho and within three months he had been released. He had no family and nowhere to go. Miss Kate had offered him a job at Rebel Ranch and he had gladly accepted. Even though he had known nothing about cowboying, he'd been willing to learn. The family had accepted him wholeheartedly and without prejudice. That went a long way toward healing old wounds. There were seven Rebel sons: Falcon, Quincy, Egan, Elias, Jude, Paxton and Phoenix. At first, his loyalty had been to Egan, but now he was close to all the brothers and he would give his life for any one of them.
"Are you still building fences with Elias?"
He took a long sip of coffee. "Yep. Miss Kate and Falcon decided to clear some land to the north to run more cattle. It's overrun with bushes and scrub oaks. Elias and I are trying to get a cross fence up before hay season starts."
"They are so lucky to have you." She reached across the table and touched his hand around the cup. In a split second, she withdrew it and scooted back nervously in the chair.
He didn't want her to be nervous about touching him. It should be natural and easy, the way their conversations had been over the last few years. He wanted to reassure her, but she broke into his thoughts.
"I can't believe Maribel is pregnant. I saw her the other day at the bank and she's really showing now. Two kids, twenty years apart. That has to be a shock."
Talking about other people was more comfortable for her. He just wished he could turn the conversation back to them. But, as usual, he went with the flow.
"I think they miss Chase since he went off to college and they decided to have another child. Maribel really wants a girl. Elias, he's just happy."
"It's a true love story." Her eyes took on a faraway expression and Rico just stared at all the dreams he saw in them. Why she thought she could never have what other women had, he never understood. Maybe because of her mother, Doris, who was always putting her down. Always expecting things of her she didn't expect of her other children. He didn't like the way Anamarie was treated, but then again, it was his rule to stay out of family relationships. One day he might just have to break that rule.
Suddenly, a frown marred her face and he turned to see what had caused it. A little boy of about three or four stood at the front door with his face pressed against the glass. It was dark outside. Where had the kid come from? Rico got up and unlocked the door and the little boy stepped inside with a small mixed-breed black-and-white dog at his feet. The boy's jeans and T-shirt were filthy, as were his sneakers. He looked as if he hadn't had a bath in weeks. He had dark eyes and hair. One hand was clenched at his side and he raised it up and opened his hand. In the palm were a quarter, a nickel and two pennies.
"I'd like to buy some food, please." The dog barked as if to second the request.
"Ah ... sure." Rico glanced toward Anamarie, but she was already in the kitchen. He guided the boy to a table and picked him up and sat him in a chair.
Anamarie brought a glass of milk and a plate of kolaches and cut-up sausage rolls and placed it in front of the little boy. He didn't take it. Instead he placed the money on the table.
"I have to pay for it," the little boy said. "My grandma said we have to pay for what we get."
"It's okay, sweetie. The food's on me. You don't have to pay me anything."
The little boy shook his head stubbornly. "No. My grandma said we have to pay for what we get."
Anamarie looked at Rico and he nodded. She picked up a penny and said, "This pays for the food. You can keep the rest."
"Mickey's hungry, too." He glanced down at the dog. "He's a dog, not a mouse."
Anamarie smiled at Rico and his world felt complete when she did that. She then went to the kitchen and came back with a bowl of milk and some sausage rolls. As she placed it in front of the dog, the kid asked, "Do I owe you more money?"
"No, no," she replied. "You've paid for everything."
"'Kay." He slipped the rest of the money back into his pocket and picked up the glass of milk, guzzling it. Some ran down his chin.
"Hey, buddy, slow down." Rico reached for a napkin and dabbed at his chin. "Take it slow." The little boy did as he was told and Rico stepped over to Anamarie.
"Do you recognize him?"
"He's Wendy Miller's grandson. He's usually very neat. I can't imagine what he's doing out at this hour by himself."
"I'm going outside to check around. Maybe Mrs. Miller is outside and sent him in to get food. It's obvious he hasn't eaten in a while." He couldn't see much through the darkness.
The roar of cars on the highway hummed loudly. A delivery van pulled up to the diner and the sun strained to peep through the clouds — signs of a town slowly waking up to a new day. Nothing out of the ordinary. He went back inside.
"After he finishes eating, I'll talk to him," he told Anamarie.
The little boy wiped his mouth, and said, "Thank you. I gotta go home now." He slid from the chair, but Rico stopped him.
"Hold on, little guy." He pulled up a chair and sat in front of the boy. "What's your name?"
"Dustin," was the response. "But my grandma calls me Dusty."
"Do you know your last name?"
The boy nodded. "Dustin Miller. I can write it. Do you wanna see?"
"Maybe later. How old are you?"
Dustin held up four fingers.
"Do you go to school?"
The boy nodded again and made to walk around Rico. "I gotta go. My grandma will be mad if I'm not there when she wakes up."
"You live with your grandma?"
"Yeah. But she's sick and I can't wake her up."
That didn't sound good and Rico feared the worst. "Where does your grandma live?"
"Over there." The boy pointed toward the bakery's windows.
"Did you walk here by yourself?" Rico hated to ask so many questions, but he needed answers.
Dustin shook his head. "Mickey came with me 'cause we were hungry." The boy looked down at the dog and the dog licked his lips from the milk Anamarie had given him.
"Has your grandma been sick?"
"Yeah. She got moana."
Rico thought about that for a minute and asked, "You mean pneumonia?"
"Yeah. She has to rest. She made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk and told me to be good. She didn't wake up for supper so I made my own peanut butter jelly sandwich. Made one for Mickey, too. Grandma's still sleeping. She won't wake up and we don't have any more peanut butter and jelly."
Rico picked up the boy again and sat him in the chair. "Your grandma probably needs medical attention. I'm going to call someone to help her."
"'Kay." Dusty rubbed the side of his head and his eyelids fluttered. He was sleepy. He'd probably been up all night trying to wake his grandma.
There was a bench where customers could sit and wait for their orders. Rico turned to Anamarie. "Do you have any big jackets, a blanket or something?"
Rico laid Dusty on a big quilt Anamarie had provided. "Why don't you take a nap while I find out about your grandma."
"'Kay." His eyelids fluttered again and in a second he was sound asleep. The dog hopped up on the bench and snuggled against the boy.
Rico stared at the boy who seemed lost and alone, and a memory from his past wedged its way into his mind. He tried forcing it away but it was right there on the edge of his memory — a little boy, about the same age as Dusty, facing loss and an undetermined future. His mother had just died from a drug overdose. The boy was half Latino and half white and neither side of the family wanted him, so he was put into foster care. Then a miracle happened. His great-grandmother on the Latino side of the family came and got him and raised him. She lived in Houston and she taught him about love, faith and God. She also taught him about respect and manners. Every day she preached right from wrong and at night when she put him to bed, she always told him she loved him. His great-grandmother had been his whole world. Then the gangs had moved into the neighborhood and his happy world had been turned upside down. He promised his grandmother he would never do drugs and he fought those outside influences every step of the way. His hand unconsciously touched the scar on his face. His life was never the same again. But that boy got a second chance. The Rebel family said that Rico had saved Egan's life, but in truth Egan had saved Rico's life.
Rico was going to make sure this little boy had every chance available to him. He pulled out his phone and called the sheriff.
Anamarie watched as Rico dealt with the boy. He was gentle, loving and caring, and the boy responded to that. Dustin didn't even seem to notice the scar on Rico's face, as most kids did. People in town steered clear of the mysterious man who worked on Rebel Ranch. He was often given the cold shoulder. The first time Anamarie had met him he had come into the bakery to buy kolaches for Egan's dog. Any man who would take the time to buy kolaches for someone else's dog had to be special, that was her thought at the time. And that thought had never changed. He came into the shop many times and they talked about nonsensical things. Her mother scolded her for talking to him, but Anamarie never listened to her.
He stood staring at the little boy. Dustin was adorable and she knew the sheriff would find out what had happened to Wendy. It would get sorted out. She had to restrain herself from gobbling up the little boy like Mickey had gobbled his food. She was good at restraining herself around children. That was one area she knew she couldn't get involved. It would break her heart.
Her eyes rested on the man. Well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, Rico had dark brown eyes and hair and a lean muscled body. His hair was long and tied into a ponytail at his neck, giving him a roguish sort of look. His face was all angles and planes, sharp and defined. The scar across his left cheek made him appear dark and intimidating to others, but never to her. Something in her was drawn to him. He had an air of inherent strength that came from life's lessons. He'd had a hard life and his persona spoke of that every time she saw him. When she looked into his dark eyes, all she could feel was the warmth they radiated and she knew there was a softer side to Jericho Johnson — a soft pleasant side. But his strength was always there.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Child's Gift"
Copyright © 2019 Linda Warren.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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