Excerpt for The Sheriff's Christmas Angels by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Sheriff’s Christmas Angels

Debra Holt

 

 

The Sheriff’s Christmas Angels

Copyright © 2017 Debra Holt

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-947636-36-1

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Dedication

The Sheriff’s Christmas Angels is my first holiday romance. I wanted to revisit McKenna Springs for this heartwarming story. All the ingredients are here… two hearts searching for their counterpart, an adorable child wishing for a mother, a lost puppy in need of her forever family, and all believing in the power of love and wishes made to a Christmas angel.

I am dedicating this book to my family who taught me about the joys and the miracles of the Christmas season based in love and unending faith and hope. And especially to my grandmother, Sallie Mae Hannum, who taught me about the magic of wishes made to Christmas angels. I believed with a simple child-like faith then and to this day, there is an angel placed first on our Christmas tree before any other decorations. And quite a few wishes go along with her placement.

The story I wrote also highlights another belief that was instilled in me by my grandmother. That is the belief that people come into our lives often when we never expect them, but when we need them the most. We might not realize their purpose at the time, but they are often answers to our prayers and needs. Such is the case for the Drayton family in this book and for Emma, and even little Angel. All their lives intersecting by chance, but bringing such love and joy where most needed.

My Christmas wish for each of you this season is that you may find the peace and joy of the holiday and hold it in your heart all year long. And may you know the true treasure of Christmas angels in your own life.

Happy Holidays,

Debra

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Epilogue

The Texas Lawmen Series

About the Author

Prologue

Charlie needs a mother and you need a wife. It’s high time you realized that.”

Cole Drayton slammed the milk carton back on the shelf and shut the refrigerator door none too gently. He let out an exasperated grunt in reply while trying to temper the words that wanted to fly from his mouth. They were words that would probably get his mother headed after him with a bar of lye soap in her hand.

He took a couple sips of the coffee to let his thoughts simmer down. He wished he had just kept going past the turnoff to the house and gone on to the diner in town instead of coming into his kitchen a few minutes ago for another cup of coffee. That was when he had found his mother already seated at his breakfast nook… lying in wait for him. A deep breath drawn inward gave him patience to maintain an even tone with her.

“I had a wife. It didn’t work out all that well, if you recall. We keep having this conversation and the outcome is always the same. I realize you mean well, Mother. But this is my life… mine and my daughter’s and—”

“And you want to keep your head buried in the sand. Look around you, Cole. You work from sunup to sundown. You weren’t busy enough helping your dad run the cattle operation while he farmed our place, you had to step in and fill Riley’s shoes as acting sheriff of this county when he got hurt in that car wreck a few months back. Your child is either with a daycare worker or me. And I’m getting older by the day and can’t do all the things with a child that a younger woman can. Not to mention this house needs a thorough cleaning more than once in a blue moon. It might as well be a hotel with all the lack of personal touches and the—”

“Running a ranch and being a sheriff, interim or not, doesn’t leave a lot of time for interior decorating. This house suits us just fine the way it is. Are you telling me that you don’t want to keep Charlie any longer? I’ll find someone to come in and take care of her if you need a break.”

“And where will you find a reliable person to do that between here and Frost Creek? It’s easy to say the words, but the reality of doing it is another story and next to impossible. There’re mighty slim pickins’ between the farmers and ranchers’ wives and the old maids. Most able-bodied, younger women are career-minded and drive into Austin or San Antonio to work or have gone off to college.”

“Exactly true with finding a wife… even if I ever wanted one of those again. Which I do not. Or do you have one of those old maids you mentioned in mind for the job?”

“It would be a heck of a job, too… putting up with the likes of your hardheadedness. She’d need the patience of Job and the hide of an Arkansas mule.” Mae Drayton’s voice softened as she gazed at the tall man leaning against the cabinet across from her. “Son, you’re working yourself too hard trying to escape something that isn’t there any longer. Pamela’s leaving you like she did shouldn’t color how you see all other women. Charlie needs a woman’s touch here and especially as she grows older. I’m not saying put an ad in the newspaper, but just open your mind to thinking about it and become more amenable. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes open for someone, too, who could come in here and help with Charlie and the house. And if I find someone, promise me that you’ll keep an open mind and give it a good try. Promise?”

That brought a pair of gray eyes straight to hers along with the scowl lines in his forehead. “No, Mother. You keep your eyes to yourself and do not go looking for more trouble for me. It’s time you left to pick up Charlie, and time I got back to work.”

He set the coffee cup into the sink and straightened, grabbing his hat off the back of the chair. Sliding it on his head, he moved to the backdoor, and then paused.

He gave her one more level look. “If you want to really help me out, find a good computer-literate person to get that mound of paperwork off my desk. The cattle accounts are behind going in the books by a couple of months or more since I don’t have the time or patience to deal with it all when I do get home. That’s something you can do with my blessing. As for the other… I mean it, Mother. Leave my personal life alone. I’m doing just fine on my own.” The closing of the door behind him put a period at the end of the discussion.

She rose and moved to the window to watch her son’s retreating back as he crossed to his white SUV with the markings of Chisos County Sheriff on its side. Just like his father. Cole was in a “mood” and needed some space. She knew him well enough to know he would head down the flat highway, let the window down, and turn up the radio that only ever played old rock ’n roll songs from the fifties. That had been his grandfather’s doing in teaching him to listen to the oldies stations from the time he could walk good enough to go off with him in the older man’s red and black truck… the same one he had restored and sat in the garage now. Her son needed some shaking up from the normal routine… heck, he needed just some shaking period!

Her mind was already working on a plan. She wasn’t certain what the plan would look like, but she had to do something. Her heart ached for Cole and little Charlie. The house was too quiet and too empty… even when they were both in it. Her son was moving through life but not living it. She had to do something and time was not going to slow down. She had to believe that somehow, someway an answer to her prayers would be sent. She just had to keep believing there was a miracle out there somewhere.

Chapter One

In the space of less than an hour, the sunshine had disappeared as the dark midnight blue of the first “blue norther” barreled down from Canada across the mid-section of the country. Temperatures dropped almost thirty degrees in less than an hour over this portion of the edge of the hill country of Texas. The wind had whipped around and increased to a blustery forty miles per hour, with gusts adding another ten or so miles on to that number. Brown tumbleweeds raced and bounced over the fields and across the roadway ahead of her.

The wind threatened to push the battered green pickup off the blacktop. Emma Cramer increased her grip on the steering wheel, her hands already cramped. Now and then she released long enough to wipe a sweaty palm along her jeans’ leg. The heater worked sporadically but was useless for the most part. With very little funds left in her pocket, there would not be any repairs to be had anytime soon. She would just have to add an extra layer of clothing or two, at her next fuel stop. Being resourceful. That was what her mother had called it.

Growing up, if there were awards to be given out for the “most resourceful”… her family would win it hands down. At least that was how it felt to be in a household of too many debts and never enough money. If there was anything to be counted on, it was the fact that tomorrow could, and often would, be worse than the day before. She had grown up waiting for the other shoe to drop, which it invariably always had. Her eyes gravitated to the falling fuel gauge. She had to stop soon.

Reaching over, she turned the radio up a bit. There was too much darkness around her, in the graying skies and the thoughts in her head. She had hit on the oldies-but-goodies station a little while back and that had been a bright spot. While her mother had waited on tables, it was usually these oldies that the juke box played in the country truck stops, and Emma had found herself taking a liking to the upbeat music. That was one holdover from her childhood that hadn’t been a dismal memory. At the moment, they were playing a tune by the Beach Boys… something about a little deuce coupe. She tried to hum along with it to bring her mind to another place, but it didn’t last long. Not even the music could get her mood to lighten.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She had been brought up with that southern platitude ingrained in her DNA. If that was the case, she was the strongest person to escape from Harlan County. At age eighteen, she had been handed her high school diploma, stepped off the stage, and then went to the cemetery the next day to bury her mother.

Grace Cramer had survived two husbands, one an alcoholic and the other a paroled abuser, had buried one child and raised another. She had worked every odd job she could find to keep a roof over their heads after she had left her second husband in the dead of night when Emma was nine. But all those years of hard life caught up with her when Emma had begun high school. By the time her senior year came along, her mother didn’t have any more strength left in her when colon cancer hit and moved quickly to take her.

At age eighteen, standing beside the cheap coffin that held her mother’s remains, she had vowed that somehow the future was going to be different… no matter what she had to do or how long it took. She would find the better life her mother always told her was just around the corner. All Emma had to do was believe. Well, ten years later, she had little else but her belief, and it was getting harder each day to hold on to it.

As the sky darkened ahead, so did Emma’s thoughts as they returned to memories of her life years ago. The trailer she and her mother lived in wasn’t theirs. The furniture was patched and wouldn’t even pay a junkman the gas it would take to pick it up for disposal. Emma had packed a few personal items into two cardboard boxes and gave the rest to neighbors in the trailer park or to the local Goodwill store. She put the silver chain with the small cross on it around her neck. That had been her mother’s only jewelry… an heirloom from her own grandmother and mother.

It and the old, worn photograph of the guardian angel, hovering over two small children while a storm raged outside her wide-spread wings, were the items her mother had made certain to hold on to during each move. Emma had often studied the angel in the photo as a child. She wondered if there were real angels and how did she find one? Silly musings of a child. The photo and necklace were the two items she carried with her now. The sum total of Emma’s life and her family fit in the back seat of the old truck. Then she had left the cemetery and Frost Creek in her rearview mirror. That was then… and this was now.

Here she was, on her way back… a sort of pilgrimage to her past as she moved toward a future she had fought hard to achieve. Besides the cross, the bible, and the newer, yet still used pickup she had purchased a couple years before, she had a piece of paper that proved she had graduated from the community college in Corpus Christi, with a degree in office management and computer systems. It had taken her longer than most students since she had to hold down two jobs, one in a church nursery school three days a week and one at the discount store’s graveyard shift, four evenings. Between making money for school and going to classes, there had been no time for anything else. And before she had saved enough money to get in the door of the school to begin with, she had worked three years as a beautician and a waitress.

After graduation, she had been placed in a job in the business office at the local hospital. It was a job and it paid. But there was still an empty restlessness inside her and so she had saved what she could to make the trip to Dallas to interview for two jobs that would finally pay enough for her to realize the benefit of having that degree. Her phone interviews for each had been successful and earned her the callbacks that set her out on the road toward the future she dreamed of having for so long. Maybe she was on the road to finding where she belonged and could actually put down solid roots for the first time in her life. It was both lonely and scary… to have come from nowhere and not be sure of where she was headed. That was okay with her. She knew what she had left behind so whatever lay ahead had to be better.

The flash of a red light from the dashboard brought her attention in a heartbeat. Are you serious? Her heart plummeted in her chest. “This can’t happen… not now.”

Simultaneously, her brain hopped from what she had left in her bank account to where she was in relation to her destination. Not for the first time, she derided herself for making the out-of-her-way detour to her old hometown. She should have stuck with the safest, straight shot major highway, instead of being on a two-lane back country road. She doubted she would even reach Frost Creek, much less Dallas. Her eyes began searching the distance ahead for some sign of a service station or hint of civilization.

Rolling plains and hills stretched to the horizon in all directions, here and there the alternating rows of idle farmland broke the scenery along with patches of treed land and taller grassland pastures. Emma fought down the growing sense of unease at her situation. Keep calm and think it through.

“Please let me find a gas station and not be stranded on the side of the road,” she begged aloud in the silence of truck.

She had gotten used to having her own voice as her companion in most cases. It was moments such as this that she felt the sudden wish for someone tangible to reach out to for help… for some degree of comfort knowing one wasn’t totally alone. But there wasn’t anyone but herself in that truck. Not even the Elvis tune playing on the radio could turn things around. His soulful voice just made it worse. She punched the button and silence was a deafening roar.

At that moment, her gaze lit on a tall sign and as she neared, she saw it was attached to the roof of a small, older building that was a convenience store with two fuel pumps standing out front. She doubted there would be a garage or mechanic to be found there, but at least it was a starting point.

Emma pulled the truck in front of the first pump and shut off the engine, silently praying she would be able to start it again once she fueled up. She stepped out of the truck, immediately grabbing the front of her denim jacket and hastily buttoning it against the strong wind with its chilly bite. Making a mental note to retrieve her wool cap from the bag in the back of the truck to keep her ears warmer, she hurried past the only other vehicle visible, a newer model SUV, parked next to the building.

A bell jangled over the door as she stepped through it. A gray-headed man, probably in his seventies, sat on a stool behind the counter to her right with a newspaper spread open on the counter in front of him. He looked up with a smile on his weathered face and nodded.

“Mighty windy out there… mind you don’t blow away. You’ll end up in New Mexico if you do.”

She gave a return smile. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Moving closer to the counter, she withdrew her wallet from her pocket, sliding a twenty over the counter. “I need some gas. And I need to know where I might find the closest garage or mechanic? I’ve got a warning light that came on about five miles back and need to get it checked.”

“Hmmm… there’s a mechanic about twenty miles on down the road. Abel Bassey. He has a shop in McKenna Springs. But not sure he’ll be around when you get there. He’s also an emergency lineman for the power company and there’re some lines down in the eastern part of the county. I heard he’d been called out earlier today.”

“Guess I’ll have to take my chances. Thanks for the information. By the way, do you have a ladies’ room available?”

“Sure do. It’s around the corner of the building outside—added them on last spring. You might have to wait a minute or two, there’s another customer ahead of you.”

“Thanks, again.”

“You have a safe trip down the road, little lady.”

Emma still had the smile on her face as she left the building and opted to pump her gas first. Making her way around the back of the building a few minutes later, she didn’t see anyone else and, after a brief knock on the door with no reply, figured the other patron had gone around the other way. At least Emma wouldn’t have to waste time standing and waiting in the cold.

Upon her exit from the restroom, she took a couple of steps when a pleading voice carried across to her on the wind, stopping her and holding her attention. An older woman stood at the entrance to what looked like an old, dilapidated garage, situated at the edge of the back-fence line about twenty yards to her right. Half her body was wedged inside the small opening that didn’t look all that safe, the door hanging lopsided on one side. From the tone of her voice, Emma could tell she was worried. Emma hesitated for a second, she could ignore the little voice in her head and get moving on down the road… or not. Pushover.

She crossed the gravel area toward the woman. If anything, the temperature was dropping and the lady really didn’t need to be out in it with her light sweater around thin shoulders. Emma judged her age to be mid-sixties to early to seventies maybe, with simply-styled white hair in a short length. Something about her brought a remnant of a memory of her mother.

“Excuse me,” Emma said, announcing her presence. “Is there a problem I can help with?”

Instant relief showed in the light gray eyes turned in her direction. “Oh, my. Could you? I can’t get through this space… and my granddaughter went in there after some stray puppy and I’m having a time trying to get her out.”

Emma looked at the cracked wood of the door. “I don’t think we can trust trying to open it any farther—it might fall off the track totally if we did that. What’s her name?”

“Charlie… Charlene, actually. But we all call her Charlie. She’s five going on fifteen sometimes… and stubborn as her dad, too.”

“Well, let me see if I can crawl through the space.”

“Please be careful,” the woman said, as Emma went down on her knees, and looked at the opening. “Here, take my gloves so the gravel won’t cut your hands.” The woman quickly shed the caramel leather gloves she wore and offered them.

“Thank you, but the gravel might ruin them.”

“Honey, I have more gloves. You need to protect your hands.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Emma knew the tone.

She needed to do what she was told by her smarter elder and more memories of her mother returned. It had been a while since anyone had given a thought to her well-being. Donning the gloves, she eased first one shoulder and then another through the opening. Once inside, she rose slowly, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. There were a few half-dollar size holes in the roof allowing shafts of light from the fading day to come through, but there were still shadows all over. A movement in the far corner caught her attention. She inched forward.

“Charlie… is that you? My name is Emma. Your grandmother needs you to come out now. It’s really not very safe in here.”

She heard a tiny whimper of an animal. Her eyes zoomed in on the area it came from. That was when she saw the small huddled figure on the ground next to an old couch with springs hanging out of the remnants of its cushions. The child looked up at her with wide eyes that immediately caught her attention. They were large in the pale face and a lighter silver gray color, but there was no mistaking she was related to the woman waiting outside. Those eyes must run in the family. Emma moved forward one step at a time. She stopped a couple feet from the child, trying not to intimidate or upset her. She lowered herself to rest on her knees, a smile of encouragement on her face.

“Is there a puppy under there you’re worried about?”

The little girl nodded her head; moisture glistened in her eyes that remained on Emma.

“Well, if I try to get it out, will you go outside with your grandmother for me?”

Immediately, the head nodded up and down as the child recognized the offer of help.

Emma held out her hand. “Take my hand and we’ll get you to the door and then I’ll come back for the puppy.”

“Promise?” The child finally used her voice. It was small and hopefulness colored its tone.

“I promise.”

Charlie stood and placed her small palm inside Emma’s. She wanted to immediately gather her up and try to get her warmer, but it was best to move slowly and get her to her grandmother. In a couple of moments, she was at the small opening and helping Charlie crawl through to the other side. Once that was accomplished and the girl was in her grandmother’s embrace, she turned back to the old couch.

Bending down, she had to practically lie down on her stomach amid all the litter and gravel and other things she didn’t want to think about such as bugs and spiders and whatever else. She was grateful that the weather would preclude anything of a slithery reptile lying in wait and that she would definitely not tangle with. Taking out her cell phone, she shone the screen’s light quickly so she could make out her objective.

The puppy was small. The head with one ear up and the other floppy and drooping downward seemed to be the largest part of its body. Slowly, she reached her hand out, trying not to frighten the animal any more than it already was and testing if it was going to come quietly with her. Touching one of its paws, she began stroking it slowly, her voice low and coaxing. Eventually, she was able to get a good grip on its front leg and she began to pull the dog toward her, while trying not to hurt him at the same time.

When the puppy finally emerged, she grasped him and sat back for a few moments to take a look at the creature that had caused so much trouble. It was definitely a stray. Tiny bones had a thin covering of skin and coarse brown and white hair stretched across it. He turned out to be a she. The large caramel brown eyes locked in her direction were huge with fear. There was a lot of white spriggy hair around her neck with a smattering of brown spots from her soft ears to the tip of her little tail. Her lineage was definitely “mutt”.

“So, you’re the troublemaker in all of this. There’s someone waiting on you, little one. Let’s go.” Retracing her journey, she was soon outside the structure.

The storekeeper had joined the pair waiting on her.

“You got her! Can I hold her?” Charlie was already reaching arms towards the animal.

Emma glanced at the older woman for a moment and then, getting a head nod, she released the puppy to the child.

Immediately, the puppy was cradled inside the puffy purple material of the child’s jacket. “You need to get warm. I’ll get you warm.”

“That’s a scrawny little one.” The storekeeper shook his head. “It was her and two others and the mother here for a couple of days. Saw them get dumped by a guy in a silver truck. He barely slowed down.”

“I don’t understand how people can be so cruel to helpless animals. Are the others around here?” The woman looked over at the man.

The slow shake of his head went along with a look in reply to her question that told Emma this little guy was probably the sole survivor of a bad situation. Her heart ached for the orphan… it was a kindred spirit of sorts.

“She needs a home, Grandma. We have to take her home.” The little girl’s eyes were wide with pleading and the pup seemed to be adding her own emphasis with soft cries at the same time. “She’s cold and hungry and has no mommy… just like me.”

Those words rang in the cold air and seemed to hang there for several moments. A sudden knot formed in the center of Emma’s chest that made it hard to breathe.

“Charlie, you know your dad’s rule about pets. He would be upset if we came home with a dog… much less a puppy that needs extra attention and care.”

Charlie was on the verge of tears when she turned her eyes on Emma again. “Please… can you take her? She needs a home really bad. She’s alone and scared. Please, please help her.”

“Don’t cry. I’ll take her.” Have I lost my mind?

What possessed her to say those words? What was she going to do with a dog when the only roof she had over her head at the moment was a semi-functioning pickup loaded with all her worldly possessions? It was the little girl’s tears that had done it. That and memories of how it felt to have her heart breaking over the loss of a treasured animal. She pushed the old memories away and took a deep breath. The past had no place in her present.

A small body was launched against her legs and one arm snaked around her waist while the child still tried to maintain control of the squirming pup. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I know she’ll be good for you. Do you live around here? I could come visit her maybe?”

Three pairs of eyes were trained on Emma in that moment. “Well, I… the fact is,” she began but the older woman spoke up.

“Where’s our manners, Charlie? We haven’t even made introductions with this poor young lady.” The woman stuck her hand out. “I’m Mae Drayton and this is my granddaughter, Charlene, as you already know.” She looked at the man beside her.

“Jim Davies,” he spoke up, extending his hand to Emma following Mae’s example. “This is my store and all.”

“It’s nice to meet all of you. I’m Emma Cramer.”

“And are you from this area?” Mae’s question was a natural one.

“No… not really. I lived in Lassiter, a few miles from Frost Creek a long time ago. My mother died and I left the area. I’m just driving through… a little detour on my way to Dallas. I have a couple of job interviews there in the next few days. I only stopped here because my engine light came on and I was hoping to find a garage or mechanic, but Jim told me I have to drive on a piece to find one of those.”

“I can’t visit puppy?” Charlie’s gray eyes clouded over again in her pale face.

“I’m sorry. I—”

“Charlie, the puppy has a good home now and you should be happy about that. And I owe you a good deal of thanks, Miss Cramer, for going after my granddaughter and rescuing both her and the pup.”

“I’m glad I was able to help. I really should be going now since it’s getting dark and the temperature is definitely dropping.” She looked at the storekeeper. “Is the motel still open on the highway there in McKenna Springs? It’s been a while since I’ve been through the area.”

“Yes, it’s still there.”

“Then I best be on my way.” Emma looked down at the child. “Would you like to carry her to my truck?” She received a quick nod in reply.

“I’ll grab a box from the storeroom and some newspapers,” Jim informed the trio and hustled toward the store.

Emma was self-conscious once they reached the truck. She saw Mae’s eyes take in the scene of the few boxes in the back seat and a couple of battered suitcases and knew the woman saw more than what Emma wanted her to know. But Mae didn’t make any comment. Emma remembered she still had on the gloves and quickly removed them, handing them toward the woman. “I’m sorry. I would have hated to go off with these. Thank you for loaning them to me.”

Mae’s smile was warm and reassuring and again, something tightened inside Emma’s chest. “I’m glad our paths crossed, Miss Cramer.”

“Please… it’s Emma. And I’m glad also.” And she meant it.

“You say you’re on your way to Dallas for interviews. What sort of employment are you looking to find there?”

“I have my degree in office management with an emphasis on computer financial systems. I’m hoping to find employment at one of the banks. Two of them offered interviews this week. If not, I’m also experienced in hairstyling, waitressing, and short-order cooking if I have to fall back on something in the meantime.” She tried to play it off as lightly as she could.

Jim arrived at that moment so she had no need to elaborate.

“This box should do and papers are inside it. And I added some canned food and a little pouch of dry food along with a water bottle, too. I’m sure that little one won’t be choosy on what kind of meal she gets tonight.”

Emma took the box and then went to reach inside her pocket, but Jim’s hand raised in the air stopped her. “And no need of paying for nothing. That dog food doesn’t sell all that fast so you’re doing me a favor.”

“I appreciate it, thank you.” The time had come.

Emma sat the box inside the truck in the floorboard of the front seat. She turned to Charlie, bending down to her level. She placed a reassuring smile on her face.

“I know this puppy will never forget the little girl who saved her. And, because you did, I think you should name her.”

Charlie was up to the task. A wide grin split her elfin face with its smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose.

Her eyes lit up. “She’s Angel. The white circle around the brown on her head kind of looks like a halo like on the angel on your Christmas tree each year, right, Granny?”

“I do believe you’re right.” Mae nodded.

“Then Angel it is. Give her a big hug and let’s put her in her box.”

Charlie gave the pup a hug and whispered something in her ear. The grown-ups couldn’t hear what it was. Then she reached over and set the pup inside the box. The pup stayed quiet during this new turn of events, mostly out of fear, Emma guessed as she shut the door.

“Well, goodbye, Charlie, and it was nice to meet all of you. Time for me to be on the road.”

“Drive safely.” Mae raised a hand in a small wave goodbye as Emma pulled away.

For a moment, Emma allowed herself a glance in the rearview mirror at the trio still standing watching her departure. There was no explaining the strange feeling that spread over her as the small scene disappeared behind her. She was leaving something behind her… something she hadn’t felt in a very long time. For a moment, a sudden urge overtook her to turn around and go back. Back to what? She was tired and cold and that was why she was feeling strange. Don’t look back… never. There was nothing for her there.

Chapter Two

Closed. Be back on Monday. Emma read the words a third time, but that didn’t change them or the impact to her world. Of course, it was just her luck. The mechanic wasn’t there. The gas station on the corner had closed an hour ago. There was a small liquor store across the highway with a couple of cars outside it. Three blocks down, she could see the sign of the small motel that had been there over fifteen years. Lights were just beginning to come on along the way even though darkness had come early with the impending cold front and its clouds blocking any sunset from the west.

Emma slid behind the steering wheel again and placed the truck into drive. There was a whining in the engine that hadn’t been there except for the last couple of miles and it had her worried. It wouldn’t be wise to try to make the additional ninety miles or so to Austin when there would be nothing for most of those miles but ranchland and few inhabitants. She pulled the vehicle back onto the highway, passed a couple more closed buildings, and then turned into the parking lot of the motel. Her heart sank when her eyes caught the blinking red letters of the “No Vacancy” sign in the window. By the number of vehicles, mostly oilfield trucks and such, she could guess the sign was correct.

Since the oil boom had surfaced again in that part of the state, hotels rooms and any other places to stay had become a premium. That was another thing that was in the back of her mind… her budget. She had counted in the motel room she would need in the city but not for any along the way caused by the sudden need for car repairs or other detours. There was a soft whine from the floorboard area beside her and she caught sight of the fact the puppy had decided to wake up and check out the situation. She sounded as forlorn as Emma was feeling inside.

“I totally agree, Angel. Guess I’ll think positive and go inside and see if there is any hope like a cancellation or something.” Here she was talking to an animal like she expected her to understand and even engage in conversation with her. “What am I doing with you? I can barely take care of myself right now let alone a dog. Sorry you got stuck with me, little one. Maybe I can find you a better home once we get to the city.”

Her mind went back to the woman and the little girl. They had been nice and the woman reminded her more than once of her mother… before life had gotten her too far down to bounce back any longer. Mae Drayton had a far different life than her mom had endured. She liked to think her mother would have looked like Mae had circumstances been different. Silly thoughts. Yet, she had been drawn to the woman. And also to little Charlie. When she had made mention of the fact she had no mother, that had kicked Emma in the gut. Poor child already had experienced a hard blow in life. Emma sent a quick little prayer into the growing darkness that Charlie would find someone to be her mother soon. Anyone would love to have a cutie like her for their own. Until then, maybe that guardian angel, like in Emma’s childhood photo, would look over her.

Maybe someday… maybe… she might be lucky enough to have such a child. And someone to care for her… to not be alone. Maybe. But then she would just be better off taking care of herself. It only led to heartbreak when she let someone else… or something… and her eyes fell on the little pup… into her life. Keep it simple. Rely only on yourself. That was her motto she had decided a while back. She’d only get in trouble if she forgot it.

Emma found the sign was indeed correct and there would be no rooms available for a few weeks. Things were looking bleaker by the minute. Driving into the heart of the town, the bright neon sign of The Diner on Main Street lured her toward it. Things might look better with a sandwich and something warm to drink. She needed to formulate her next moves with care. As she drove the last block, a strange clanking noise began somewhere underneath her truck. It wasn’t loud, but her ears picked up on it in a heartbeat. Please, not now. Why can’t you just let me get to Dallas?

The bright smile of the waitress was too much for Emma to match as she took the menu from her. The sinking feeling inside her was settling in and things looked more than a little hopeless. She needed her pickup to make it another hundred miles. Reality told her that would not be the case. She had heard that clanking sound once before in her mother’s old sedan. They had to let it rust behind their trailer because they never could gather the over three thousand dollars needed to replace the transmission and other parts. What was she going to do?

“My, my… that sad face doesn’t look like the one I left not too long ago.” The words brought her out of her pity party and up to see Mae Drayton standing next to the booth, a worried look of concern in the soft gray eyes. “You look like you might have lost your last friend.”

“I’m sorry.” Emma summoned a halfhearted smile. “I guess I was deep in thought.” Shaking her head, she widened her smile. “It’s a nice surprise to see you again.”

“I dropped Charlie off at her Sunday school’s slumber party and thought I’d take a quick detour by here to pick up one of Darcy’s cobblers to take home.” She stood waiting with a calming smile on her face.

Emma nodded at the empty space across from her. “If you’d like to sit while you’re waiting?”

The woman didn’t hesitate but slid into the booth, loosening the scarf from around her neck and removing her gloves. She gave the waitress a broad smile as she approached.

“I’ll have a coffee, Maggie. And let’s have a couple of the specials for today.” Her gaze swung over to Emma. “You’ve got to try some of that cobbler, but you need something more substantial in your stomach before you have that sugar.” She gave a laugh and ignored Emma’s attempt to wave off the offer of food. “I hate eating alone and there’s no one home tonight so it would be a waste for me to cook for just myself. Looks like I need your help once again this evening.”

Both Mae and the waitress looked at her then and Emma had a feeling that Mae was a woman who rarely had anyone disagree with any of her plans. She had to admit it would be nice to taste one of those grilled ham sandwiches and bowl of tomato soup that had been coming out of the kitchen to the other patrons. “I suppose I could try—”

Mae didn’t let her finish before she sent the waitress to the back with their order. “This diner has the best home-cooking of anyplace… with the exception of your own home. I’ve fooled my family with it a time or two when I didn’t feel like cooking at my own stove.” Mae had a delightful soft laugh. “Now, suppose you tell me why you looked like you had the weight of the world on those slender shoulders when I arrived?” She changed the subject so fast; Emma was caught off guard.

“It’s… just some truck issues and the mechanic is indeed not available for a couple of days. Mr. Davies was correct.”

“Truck issues as in something major, right? Expensive probably and there goes the budget.” Mae summed it up in a nutshell. “I remember those days too well. Seemed every time we were about to see the light of day, some piece of equipment or a vehicle would break down and there we would be broke again. Can’t say how many times I just wanted to throw in the towel and move back home with my family.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Well, I had my husband and two baby sons who needed me to stay strong for them. I came from tough Oklahoma stock and we didn’t give up at the first sign of trouble… or the second or third.” She finished it with a laugh. “I married a tough Texan, too. So, we kept putting our faith in the good Lord and moving forward as best we could.” Her eyes grew softer as memories shared the moment. “While those were very tough times and I wouldn’t want to live through them again, they were still some of the best. They got us to where we are today. Makes us appreciate what we have all the more.” Her gaze landed on Emma. “Enough about me and mine, what can we do about your problem?”

“I just have to figure out how to get my truck repaired and get to Dallas. I’ll probably miss my interview opportunity, but I have to hope there’ll be something else I can apply for. If all else fails, I can fall back on one of my other experiences until I get my funds built up again to move on down the road.”

“Move on down the road…” Mae’s voice trailed off as their food arrived. She didn’t speak again until the waitress had left them and they had each taken a few bites of food. “Sounds like you really would prefer to have a job where your computer and other skills might be put to use instead of standing on your feet all day doing hair or waiting on tables. Am I right?”

Emma nodded her head. “That’s why I worked hard to get through school and all. To take a few steps up that imaginary ladder. But sometimes you have to do what you need to do and not what you want.”

Mae leaned back in the booth, her gaze calm and assessing as it encompassed Emma. “I’m a pretty good judge of character and, from what I’ve seen already, I think you’ll land on your feet. And I think I have a business proposition that might just help you out… and my family, too. But I want you to understand that it is strictly business and not in the least related to a handout of any sort. It’s a tough job with a boss that, well, needs to be reminded he’s part of the human race again… but we’ll leave that detail for right now. You open to hearing my offer out?”

Emma was a little intrigued and she appreciated the forthright manner that Mae had of putting things. What else did she have to do with her time in that moment? “I’m always willing to listen.”

“Good girl.” Mae leaned forward, moving her plate and coffee cup to the side. She settled in and began to speak in a matter of fact way, laying out the details. “Our family has some land just west of here. Over the years, it’s grown into a bigger business than we could have hoped and we are grateful for that. Three years ago, we shifted some of the business… my husband, Vernon, still maintains the farming side of things. Our son, Cole, branched out and maintains the ranching side of our affairs. He’s Charlie’s father. And he is why I need you.” She paused for a moment, taking a sip from her water glass. “Actually, we all need you… each in our own ways. But it’s paramount that I find someone who can get my son’s office into the first semblance of order it’s ever seen. He’s not only having to maintain the cattle part of the business, but he is also the interim sheriff in this county after our regular sheriff was hurt in a bad traffic accident.

“The secondary reason we need you… is Charlie. She’s talked of little else since you left us at that station. She’s usually more reserved with people—almost to the point of shyness. I usually take the majority of care of her during the day, and sometimes the evenings, too, since… well, since her mother left us when Charlie was less than a year old. I’m not a spring chicken any longer and, as you saw today, I can’t quite keep up with a precocious five-year old as I once could. To sum up, I want to offer you a job that is two-fold.

“You’ll be getting my son’s business affairs in order using your computer skills. At the same time, you’ll be helping me out by being the younger person in my granddaughter’s life. She goes to her kinder class during the day so she’s out of your way while you have your office work. Of course, you’ll have a comfortable living arrangement on the ranch, a benefit plan, and your salary will be adequate.”

The sum she added was indeed adequate and then some. Emma was in mild shock and struggled to get her brain and speech in sync. To make that much salary and then have the major living expenses included too… it was almost too much to believe how her luck could change in the space of a few hours. That would enable her to save faster than she could any other way. Not even a half hour before she was at her wit’s end on how she would overcome the latest setbacks in her life and then Mae arrived like some guardian angel out of the blue. Now she was being handed an unbelievable opportunity. “My only experience with children is the little I was with them in a church daycare setting. And then I mostly took care of the babies in the nursery.”

“I’ve seen you with Charlie. And you can’t fool a child. She likes you already. I trust my instinct and I think you’re a natural… you just have to be yourself. It certainly wouldn’t hurt you to be able to put aside a good nest egg, maybe have enough to get a more dependable vehicle, and, if you find you want to move on after say, six months or so… then you’ll have a good recommendation in your pocket and the savings to take you where you want to go. What other offer do you have to beat this one?”

Those words had echoed in her mind more than once since they left the diner and now she pulled her truck into the circular driveway in front of a large, one-story brick home that was long and rambling, set on the sloping rise of a slight hill about fifteen minutes from town. By the number of outlying barns and workshop-type buildings situated a little distance down the slope of the hill, she had a fairly good impression that this was one of those prosperous farms and not just a simple, small, family-run operation as she first pictured in her mind.

“Well, Angel, it’s a job… for the time being. And they allow dogs at this house which is a good thing.” Especially since these were the people who saddled her with the pup to begin with. And Emma could put up with anything that would get her down the road toward that new life.

Stepping inside the front door of the house was instantly welcoming. It was warm and there was an aroma of something freshly baked coming from wherever the kitchen might be. The furnishings were tasteful and “country-charming” as her mother labeled the photographs in the magazines she used to collect and stare at over and over until they literally fell apart. Someday… they would have such a house with furniture and pretty things she would say, pointing to the photos and reminding her daughter of how the future would change for them. When her mother died, Emma had taken the box with the clippings and tossed them in the trash barrel. It was ironic that she now found herself in that world… if only for a brief time.

“Come in and make yourself at home,” Mae called as she hung her coat in the hall closet and then moved into the living room, switching on another lamp as she went. “We have a mud room off the kitchen that we can make little Angel a bed in and get her fed and settled in for the night. The floor is tiled so if she has any accidents not on the paper, it won’t be a problem.”

Emma followed her down another hall and into a large, brick and wood-beamed kitchen that was another page out of a magazine. The mudroom was a good size and Mae opened a closet and took out a basket. “I have an old blanket in here too,” she said, rummaging around. “Here it is. And I’ll get a couple of bowls for her. The backyard is fenced so if you want to take her out for a couple of minutes, I’ll get things settled in here.”

Emma took the pup outside and the wind was even more brisk than a few minutes ago. She sat the dog down on the green grass and stuck her hands inside her pants’ pockets for warmth. She needed to find some gloves for herself when she was next in town. “Hurry, Angel. This isn’t time to explore. It’s dark and too cold.” It seemed Angel was of the same mind.

The pup did what it needed to do and returned to Emma quickly enough. She scooped her up and stepped back into the warmth of the house.

“I’ve got her food and water dishes ready and her bed, too. She might cry a bit in her new surroundings but being back here, she won’t keep us awake.”

Emma sat the pup in her bed and stepped to join Mae in the doorway. “Goodnight, little Angel, sweet dreams.”

Mae closed the door behind them. “If you want to bring in your suitcase, we’ll get you settled next.”

Emma made a quick trip out to her truck and retrieved her purse and the suitcase. Anything else could wait until the morning when she knew exactly where she might be ending up. Back inside the house, she followed Mae’s voice to find her down another hallway and inside a bedroom that was done in blues and greens and was the nicest room Emma had ever stayed in with its fluffy, quilted covers on the double bed and the matching ruffled curtains at the window. The floor was carpeted in a soft cream and welcomed one to take off their shoes and enjoy.

“You have a bathroom through that door, and the closet is here,” Mae said, opening the sliding door and revealing the space with plenty of hangars… more than Emma would use. “If you can think of anything else you need, you just let me know. Our room is at the opposite end of the house. Vernon won’t be in for another couple of hours or so. He and my son are at the cattlemen’s meeting tonight so that could go on and on. You’ll meet him tomorrow. My son will be a little harder to pin down, but we’ll get you both together soon enough. Now, you just make yourself at home, and sleep until you wake up tomorrow. Travel always tires me out so I expect you can use some rest before Charlie has to be collected in the afternoon.”

Emma didn’t waste much time taking a hot bath and getting rid of the travel dust and letting her worries temporarily evaporate with the steam forming from the heated water. For the way the day had started and had gone downhill, things had certainly turned around in a surprising way. Toweling dry, she slipped into a pair of sleep shorts and a tank top. She actually found herself relaxing for the first time in a long while as she cuddled down under the quilted covers, turned onto her side, and allowed a long sigh to escape her. Once the lamp was turned off, the room was in total darkness and she snuggled under the warmth of quilts. Whatever tomorrow would bring, it could wait for the moment. In no time at all, her eyes grew heavier and soon closed and bad dreams stayed away as she fell into a deeper sleep than she had experienced in a very long time.

“You know where your room is,” Vernon Drayton said over his shoulder to his son as they entered the house. “You need something more to eat, like a sandwich, you know where the refrigerator is. Just clean up so your mom won’t have either of our heads. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’m beat. I just need that pillow. See you at breakfast.”

Cole moved down the hall on autopilot. He didn’t need to bother with lights. He had been born and raised inside the walls of this house and knew it like the back of his hand. He stepped into the bedroom, careful to not make noise out of habit. When he came in late from work, it was second nature to try not to disturb his sleeping daughter. He stripped his clothes in nothing flat, mindful to at least make sure they hit the bench at the end of the bed and not the floor. He moved around the edge and then pulled back the cover, sliding his long body onto the cool sheets.

As usual habit, he turned on his side and his arm reached to bunch the pillow next to him. Only the pillow wasn’t there… something else that took a second to recognize was. And, when it registered in his brain he wasn’t alone in bed and he was cupping the curves of a female, that was also the same time there was a swift movement in the bed next to him and all hell broke loose. He tried to break his fall as his body received a blow that sent him reaching out in the dark to try and lessen the impact with the floor.

His loud curses mingled with a shriek from the person jumping from the bed on the opposite side. The bright light illuminated the room just as Cole rose from the floor and faced the other shocked occupant.

“What the hell are you doing in here!”

“Who are you?”

They spoke in unison and then both fell silent… in shock. Emma realized two things in no particular order… one was the fact she was standing in front of a strange man dressed in her scanty attire. The second was the fact the man, whoever he was, was standing facing her with nothing on but a pair of white briefs that left very little to one’s imagination given the way they molded to his lower body. In a different circumstance, she might have stood in gaping awe of how hard muscled and perfectly proportioned he was… in more ways than one. The thought brought crimson heat to her face… and a heat to other parts of her body that should be ignored as fast as possible.


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