Three Weeks Later
Ava pulled off the highway into the first gas station she found. Correction: the only gas station she found. Except for a couple of bars, a couple of diners, and a few small businesses, Paxton Springs didn’t have much of anything to choose from.
Surely there was a Main Street close by with more to offer than what she could see on the highway, but she’d have plenty of time to explore later. For now, her trusty economy car was thirsty. Despite being eight-years old, it drove the long way from New York City like a champ. Her first car, and a used one at that, had proved to be a worthy investment.
Ava pulled in next to the closest gas pump and shut off the car’s air conditioning and engine. She took her credit card and a couple of bills from her billfold, doing a quick recount of the one thousand dollars in cash she’d brought, more than she ever carried in the city–or anywhere else, for that matter. Withdrawing the money meant a big hit to her savings, but she was determined to make it last while she was in Texas. She hated racking up credit card bills. She was born frugal.
Ava climbed out of the car. The mid-afternoon heat clung to her cooled skin like glue; even the pump felt warm against her palm. Gas poured into the tank; when she was done, she tucked the receipt and credit card into the back pocket of her khaki shorts and headed into the gas mart to buy a bottle of water.
A teen-aged boy with golden, waist-length hair held the door open for her as she went in. Her quick appraisal followed her murmured thanks. Brooding eyes, baggy pants, black t-shirt emblazoned with a heavy metal band’s artwork on the front. He seemed out of place here in cowboy country, but a million kids his age dressed the same way. She headed to the cooler.
While she waited her turn at the cash register, she eyed the cola and big slice of pizza a sweaty-looking construction worker set on the counter. Maybe she should find a grocery store before she drove out to the Blackstone Ranch. Or maybe buy a slice of pizza to eat on the way. The cashier, dressed in a tank top and jeans, chatted and counted back the guy’s change, and Ava’s glance slid toward the window for a quick check on her car.
Her gaze latched onto a black t-shirt next to the passenger side. Long golden hair, too. Her breath caught in instant recognition, then in absolute horror, as the teen-ager yanked the door open and reached inside, grabbing her purse.
“Hey!” she cried out. “Hey! Stop!”
Her money. Her savings. Oh, God.
She bolted through the door and took off after him, just as her glimpse of black and golden disappeared around the back of the station. She ran past an ice machine, an over-sized trash can, bags of landscaping bark stacked along the front of the gas mart. A big red pick-up eased into a parking spot, and Ava ran past that, too, but her flip-flops were a disadvantage. Someone yelled, then several more people did, too; their voices faded behind her as she turned into a heavily-rutted alley strewn with gravel.
The t-shirt was too far ahead to give any hope of catching up with the kid who wore it, but still she kept running. The back side of a bar, an auto repair shop, and who knew what else blurred past her as she ran, arms and legs pumping. The sting of gravel tortured the bottoms of her feet, and her toes squeezed together to keep the flimsy shoes from flying off, but she kept going….
Until the black disappeared. Chest heaving, she slowed. Her gaze raked down the narrow path between a pair of buildings, one painted pale pink and another a dirty white, but he was nowhere. Sprinting to the end of the alley, which opened up to the street, she searched there, too. Up one side and down the other.
He was gone.
She refused to stop looking. She turned right, kept going down the sidewalk, then right again past a vacant lot toward the pink building. An ice cream shop. She burst inside, swept her gaze around the place, which was virtually empty except for another teen-ager, this one far more clean-cut, leaning against the counter, engrossed in his smartphone.
He glanced up. “Can I help you?”
“Anyone in a black t-shirt and long, golden hair come in here just now?”
“No, ma’am. No one has in the last half hour, except you.”
She ran out again, headed next door, a co-op of some sort, and jiggled the knob, but the place was locked up tight.
She panted a frustrated curse. Bending, she yanked off each of her flip flops and brushed bits of gravel off the soles of her feet. Slower this time, she headed back to the alley. She’d come full circle from where she thought the kid had disappeared–with no sign of him.
Tears stung her eyes. Tears of fury and frustration and panic. Surely this podunk town had a police station so she could report the robbery, which would only make her late in getting out to the Blackstone Ranch, and then she had to call Lucienne, who would loan her another thousand dollars that would take Ava forever to pay back, and then there was all her private information that was stolen, inevitably making her life miserable, but that was not the point of this whole fiasco….
Ava realized she still gripped the bottle of water in her fist. She inhaled, then exhaled, calming herself. At least she had enough cash to pay for the water, and she yanked the lid off, tilted her head back and guzzled half of it. The cold liquid swam down her throat; she screwed the lid back on and skimmed the bottle across her sweaty forehead.
Renewed urgency compelled her into a sprint back down the alley, toward the gas station. If nothing else, she was able to find her way back without a miss, thanks to that big red pickup still parked in the stall, which was about the only thing she could remember when she took off after the purse-snatcher. She had to hurry–did they have cops here in Paxton Springs? For sure not a 911 center. The cashier would know who to call, and Ava raced toward the glass-front doors, ignoring the small crowd that had gathered near the entrance.
That black t-shirt stopped her cold.
There was the teen-ager, sitting on the oil-stained pavement next to the gas pump. The same one she’d used to fill her tank. He sat with his knees pulled up and his head hanging down. Her purse lay on the hood of her car, just as plain as day, and what was going on?
“Hey, you!” She rushed toward him. “What were you doing, stealing my purse?” She resisted the urge to smack him with it. He appeared sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. Medium height and thin-framed with clothes that could use a good laundering. “Who do you think you are, taking something that doesn’t belong to you?”
“It’s all there, ma’am.” A male voice, smooth as leather and gentled with a drawl, startled her. “He didn’t have time to do much of anything but run.”
Her gaze jerked upward to the tall cowboy slanted with one hip against her car, muscle-thewed arms crossed casually over his chest. The brim of his fawn-colored Stetson shadowed his aviator sunglasses; a red bandanna circled his neck.
Clearly, he’d been waiting for her. A slow heat curled through her belly, a warmth that had nothing to do with the Texas sun and everything to do with the raw virility of this man.
“You found him?” she asked unnecessarily. Obviously, he had, with far more skill than she’d managed. “How? I mean–”
“Sometimes, you just have to think like a thief.”
A faint smile softened his hard mouth. She could feel him watching her behind the shaded lenses, and her breath quickened. He disconcerted her, left her scrambling for composure.
Ava was rarely without her composure. It had taken her a long time to know how to gain it and hang on to it. Few had the power or skill to shake it.
When before had a man succeeded?
She didn’t know what this one was thinking, but he was slowly weakening her defenses, and Ava needed all the control she could get. It was how she’d survived all these years.
Control. Composure. Focus.
“Go on. Check your purse. You’ll feel better,” he murmured.
Her shoulders squared. Maybe he was amused that her money meant so much to her. Was it that obvious? He wouldn’t know she’d lived in poverty most of her lifetime, something she was determined to change.
“Thank you. I will.”
She took a quick step back and snatched her purse off the car hood. There was her billfold, still inside, still unzipped and lying wide open like she’d left it when she went to buy water, intending to return the credit card and receipt to their places after she was done. But a quick riffle through the bills showed the cowboy was right.
All one thousand dollars were there.
She schooled her features to show a calm she didn’t feel. She didn’t know why she didn’t want the cowboy to know she was relieved. Probably because it implied weakness. Vulnerability.
Growing up, Ava had been both for too long.
And she wasn’t going to be either anymore.
Especially not in front of this big, strong, hunky cowboy.
He reached out a long leg and nudged the kid with the scuffed toe of his boot.
“Tell the lady you’re sorry,” he ordered quietly.
The golden head lifted. He was slow to meet her eyes.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Why did you take my purse?” Ava couldn’t stop herself from asking. “You knew it was wrong, didn’t you?”
He shrugged, dropping his head again. “I wanted money.”
Ava pressed her lips together. Of course, he did. What other reason could there be?
Well, she supposed, the whole thing was done and over with. She wasn’t going to press charges or anything. Hopefully, the kid learned his lesson, and for her part, she’d make darn sure she didn’t leave her purse in her unlocked car again.
But it seemed the tall cowboy wasn’t quite as forgiving.
He grasped the kid’s arm and hefted him to his feet with cool ease. “C’mon, son. We’re going to pay a little visit to the deputy.”
He paused. Those aviator sunglasses angled her way. A corner of his hard mouth lifted, and he touched a finger to the brim of his hat. Before she could argue that a trip to see the local law enforcement wasn’t really necessary, or even expected on her part, he turned, taking the teen-ager with him in a no-nonsense walk away from the gas station.
“You all right, ma’am?”
Ava dragged her stare off the cowboy. The twenty-something cashier, sporting a ponytail and no make-up, approached her.
“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks.” Ava pulled out the dollar bills from her back pocket. “Here you go. I haven’t paid you for the bottled water yet.”
The cashier dismissed her offer with a wave of her hand. “No, just take it. It’s the least I can do.”
“Oh, but I don’t expect–”
“We’re good folks here in Paxton Springs, ma’am. Don’t let what just happened make you think we’re not.” She nodded, her features gentling. “Beau is tough, but he’s fair, too. I’m guessing that kid won’t try to take anyone’s purse again, at least not around these parts where Beau might catch wind of it.” She paused, indicating Ava’s license plate with a small gesture. “Looks like you’re a long ways from home. Wherever you’re going, you drive safe now, y’hear?”
She turned on her boot heel and went back into the gas mart. Ava opened her mouth to tell her she was headed out to the Blackstone Ranch, and she’d be in Paxton Springs for a while yet, and maybe they’d see each other again. Mostly, she wanted to ask way too many questions about the tall cowboy, but since it was really none of her business who he was now that he’d walked out of her life, she thought better of it.
Instead, she climbed back into her car, strapped on her seat belt and started the engine.
But as much as she had to focus on her real purpose in coming to Paxton Springs, keeping her promise to Erin, her mind replayed everything that had transpired since she arrived, like a movie, in vivid technicolor.
That big body, tanned from the sun, corded with muscle.
That low, smooth voice.
That simple touch to the hat brim.
Heat swirled through her belly all over again, fluttering her pulse, stirring every fiber of her femininity.
He made her ache.
She turned the air conditioning on full-blast, put the car in gear and drove back onto the highway.