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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 and a handful of diners and small businesses, Paxton Springs, Texas, 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, but she’d have plenty of time to explore later. For now, her trusty economy car was thirsty. Despite being eight years old, the Toyota handled the long drive from New York City like a champ. Her first car, and a used one at that, had proven to be a worthy investment.
She pulled in next to the closest pump and shut off the 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 had 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 had been born frugal. She was her mother’s daughter, after all.
She climbed out. The midafternoon heat clung to her cooled skin like glue; even the pump warmed 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 teenage boy with golden, waist-length hair held the door open for her. 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, 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.
The teenager yanked the door open, reached inside, and grabbed her purse, and full-blown horror rolled through her.
“Hey!” she cried out. “Hey! Stop!”
Her money. Her savings. Oh, God.
She bolted through the door. A glimpse of black and golden disappeared around the back of the station, and she tore off after him, past an ice machine, an oversized trash can, bags of landscaping bark stacked along the front of the gas mart. A big red pickup eased into a parking spot, and she ran past that, too. Someone yelled, then several more people did; she turned into a heavily rutted alley strewn with gravel, and their voices faded behind her.
The T-shirt was too far ahead to give her 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 her flip-flops 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 to the street, she searched there, too. Up one side and down the other.
He was gone.
She refused to stop looking. Damn it, she needed that money and no scrawny kid was going to keep her from it. 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 and found it virtually empty except for another teen, 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 with no sign of the kid.
Tears stung her eyes. 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 of her private information that had been stolen, inevitably making her life miserable, but that was not the point of this whole fiasco…
She still gripped the bottle of water in her fist. She inhaled, then exhaled, to clear her brain. At least she had enough cash to pay for the water; 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.
She couldn’t waste any more time standing here, feeling sorry for herself, so she sprinted 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 kept running, her mind keeping pace with her feet. Did they have cops here in Paxton Springs? A sheriff’s office? The cashier would know who to call, and she raced toward the glass-front doors, ignoring the small crowd that had gathered near the entrance.
A black T-shirt stopped her cold.
There was the teen, 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, as plain as day, and what the hell was going on?
“Hey, you!” She changed course, headed right for 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, muscled 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. Her composure sank, too, like a rock in quicksand.
She 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 growing up, mostly alone, for the majority of her childhood.
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 on more pennies than dollars throughout her lifetime, that she’d been thrown out into the world too soon, forced to scrimp and save for the most basic of necessities.
Something she was determined to change.
“Thank you. I will.”
She took a quick step back and snatched her purse off the hood. There was her billfold, 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 refused to let the cowboy know she was relieved. She wouldn’t let him see a shred of weakness or vulnerability about her.
Growing up, she’d 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, his eyes slow to meet hers.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Why did you take my purse?” She couldn’t stop herself from asking. “You knew it was wrong, didn’t you?”
He shrugged, dropping his head again. “I wanted money.”
A long breath slid out of her lungs, draining her annoyance. Of course he did. Didn’t everyone? Besides, who was she to judge? It wasn’t like she’d never stolen anything herself. Being fourteen and having a purse full of high-end department store makeup to impress the girls she hung around with had been more important at the time than finding a way to pay for it.
It’d been a tough lesson to learn, thanks to a strict punishment her foster mother handed out, along with warning Ava within an inch of her life not to do it again.
Which she hadn’t. Ever.
As far as she was concerned, the whole thing with this kid was done and over with. Hopefully, he 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.
“You want to press charges or anything?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “No.”
He grasped the kid’s arm and hefted him to his feet with cool ease. “Then c’mon, son. We’re going to pay a little visit to the deputy.”
Hadn’t she just said she wasn’t going to push the issue and that a trip to law enforcement wasn’t expected on her part?
“Wait.” She frowned. “Is that necessary?”
He paused. Those aviator sunglasses angled her way. “I think it is.”
“Just let it go. I have my money.” She forced a smile. “No harm, no foul, right?”
“Not sure how it is in New York, but that’s not the way we do things around here.”
A corner of his hard mouth lifted, and he touched a finger to the brim of his hat. He turned, taking the teen with him in a no-nonsense walk away from the gas station.
She didn’t move. Were all cowboys out here as arrogant as he was? He made it sound like being from the east was somehow inferior to this part of the country.
“You all right, ma’am?”
Ava dragged her stare off the cowboy. The twenty-something cashier, sporting a ponytail and no makeup, 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 way 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 climbed back into her car, strapped on her seat belt, and started the engine.
Yet 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.
They had a difference of opinion, but that didn’t keep the heat from swirling 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.
End of Excerpt