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By Kathleen Creighton
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. All right reserved. ISBN: 0-373-27302-9
Chapter OneSouth Carolina, Early Autumn
Even with the bruises it was the most beautiful face he'd ever seen. Stark against the pillow, it needed no adornment. Framed in white bandages, the features were pristine, elegant, exquisite. It was a face that belonged in dreams, or fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty, maybe, or Snow White ... the enchanted princess waiting for her hero's kiss.
If only, he thought, it could be so easy.
The woman in the bed stirred. Eyes the pale gray-blue of sunlit water swept over him, and his breath caught, then fluttered in uneven breaths.
Hearing it, she murmured a soft and slurred, "Who's there?"
He cleared his throat. "It's me." He leaned forward and touched her hand. "C. J. Starr."
She closed her eyes and turned her face away. After what seemed a long time, she whispered, "Why are you here?"
He sat and stared at his hands, loosely clasped between his knees, and tried to think how he could answer that without laying the burden of his guilt on her. Finally he shrugged and mumbled simply, "I wanted to be."
"I don't blame you, you know." Though still groggy, her voice took on a raspy edge. He looked up and saw that her eyes were wide-open again and gazing at him. Silver eyes. "You did what you had to do. I knew the risks."
He shiftedrestlessly. There was a heaviness in his chest that wouldn't go away. "If I hadn't been there -"
"- I'd have picked somebody else to hijack. I guess that's true." There was a pause and then, to his surprise, he heard a whisper of a laugh, soft and ironic. "Of all the truckstops on all the interstates, why'd you have to pull into that one?"
He angled his gaze toward the window, where the sky was the clear, translucent blue it takes on only in autumn, when the early trees are turning and the goldenrod is in bloom. Yellow-flower season, his momma called it - her favorite time of year.
He sighed and settled back in the chair. "I guess I'd have to blame it on the thunderstorm," he said.
* * *
Five Months Earlier - Springtime
It wasn't a bad one, as storms go, even if the rain was coming down in sheets the way it can in the South in the springtime, and visibility was about zero. But it was the third time a fourwheeler had stopped dead in front of him and he'd had to hit his air brakes while he prayed and swore loud enough to outroar the rain on the roof of his big blue Kenworth.
It was in view of the fact that - despite his momma's best efforts - he hadn't been keeping up on his praying the way he should, and had probably used up a goodly portion of his lifetime's allotment of Divine Intervention, that the next time he saw a sign for a rest stop swimming toward him through the rain, C.J. put on his blinker and pulled off the interstate.
A number of other drivers had had the same good sense, it seemed, because the rest stop was full and he just did find a place to pull in well up along the on-ramp, the last available spot big enough to wedge an eighteen-wheeler into. Once he'd got the Kenworth buttoned down to his satisfaction, he put on his slicker and jogged back up the sloping drive to the buildings.
It looked to him as if the rain was letting up some, though that could have been because he wasn't on the interstate, where the truck spray always made things seem worse than they were. A chilly wind had sprung up and was blowing what rain there was in nasty gusts under the roofed shelter areas, so with the exception of a couple of women trying to use a cell phone, most people had taken to staying in their vehicles.
C.J. meant to do the same himself, once he'd made use of the rest room and vending machines. He planned on getting himself an assortment of junk goodies to help pass the time, which was something truckers did a lot of and was one of the reasons why some of them got so big-bellied and heavy, or so he'd been warned by his brother, Jimmy Joe, who was also his boss.
C.J. had noticed, though, that after near twenty years driving big trucks, Jimmy Joe himself was as lean and lanky as ever, leading C.J. to conclude that leanness pretty much ran in the Starr family, along with chocolate-brown eyes and dimples.
He wasn't worried much about health and fitness as he fed coins and dollar bills into the vending machines and filled up the pockets of his slicker with tortilla chips and Little Debbie's. What concerned him more was making it back to Georgia in time to take the exam he had scheduled for three days from now. After that one there was just the final and then he was through with law school after ten long years; that is, if you counted college and before that the time it had taken him to pass his high school equivalencies, since he'd had the bad sense to drop out of school a month into his senior year.
Not a single minute of it had been easy. A whole lot of folks were bound to be surprised he'd made it this far, C.J. included.
Juggling a soda can and a package of cheese puffs, he stuffed the leftover change into the pocket of his jeans, hunched his shoulders inside his slicker and headed back to his truck. A little farther along the breezeway he had to pass by the two women who were still trying to get through to somebody on a cell phone - without much luck, it seemed evident to him.
The one with the phone looked about fourteen. Tall but slender and small-boned, she was wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pushed back, and she had short blond hair cut in that spiky, messed-up way younger women seem to favor. She had her finger stuck in her unoccupied ear and kept turning this way and that, looking up into the mist or down at her feet, the way people do when they're trying to get something besides static on a wireless phone. The other woman was older - maybe early thirties - but pretty, with reddish brown hair worn long, thick and curly, what C.J.'s sister Jess would call "big hair." She seemed edgy, the big-haired woman did. She kept hugging herself as she watched the girl with the phone, throwing glances over her shoulder into the rainy dusk.
And now C.J. could see a third person there, snugged up against the older woman's legs. A child, a little bit of a girl with dark hair cut to chin length and straight across her forehead, and the biggest, blackest eyes he'd ever seen. Since those eyes were gazing straight at C.J., he did what came naturally to him. He smiled. The eyes kept on staring at him, not blinking, just kind of shimmering, like deep, dark pools.
C.J.'s heart gave a peculiar quiver, and all at once it seemed like the most important thing in the world to him to see that child smile. So he smiled even bigger, showing those famous Starr dimples, and said, "Hey, hon', how're you doin'?" Since it struck him that the eyes had kind of a hungry look, and that it might have been seeing him tucking those goodies away that was making her stare at him that way, he held out the bag of cheese puffs and added, "Here you go, darlin' - you want some of these?"
C.J. would have been the first to admit there was a lot he didn't know about kids, but even so it set him back some when the child cringed away from him and tried to hide behind her momma's legs, as if there'd been a dead rat in that cellophane package instead of cheese puffs. It wasn't the reaction C. J. Starr was used to getting from people when he turned on that smile - put it that way.
He transferred the smile to the child's mother and ruefully explained, "Sorry, ma'am, I sure didn't mean to scare her."
The woman gave him a tight little smile in return and muttered something politely vague, along the lines of, "That's okay, but we're fine."
Excerpted from Shooting Starr by Kathleen Creighton
Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.