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Zara Mitchell wasn’t surprised that the piece of crap car she’d bought for less than $5000 on her way out of Los Angeles crapped out in the middle of nowhere Texas. Eight months pregnant, on her way to start her new life in Last Stand on December 1st. It seemed as if this year had been sending her a hard message and, honestly, Zara was ready to leave it all behind.
The only good thing to come out of it was this chance to start over and of course the baby growing inside of her. It didn’t matter that the man who’d gotten her pregnant had been a lying asshole, this baby was going to be the dream family she’d always wanted but had never found. Her fresh start. Her chance to get her shit together not for herself but for the baby.
She’d resisted knowing the sex of the child though the doctor had offered to tell her numerous times—she didn’t need to know if she was having a boy or a girl. She wanted everything about her child to be a surprise. A good surprise to make up for the bad ones that had been dogging her for all of her twenty-five years.
She was getting whiny even to her own ears. She checked her phone again and it still had zero bars and no signal. She rubbed her hand over her heavily pregnant belly. “Once again, Sprout, it’s just the two of us. Let’s see if we can diagnose the problem.”
She’d never had any interest in cars or vehicle maintenance so the chance of her figuring out what was wrong with her car with no internet to search was pretty slim. But she opened the glove box and a red-striped ribbon fell out along with a car chamois. She put the chamois on the dashboard and ran the grosgrain ribbon through her fingers. She loved the feel of the fabric and tucked it into her bag, which was lying on the floor near the passenger seat, before she fished the car manual out. She’d barely opened the densely worded book when she heard a massive truck rumble up behind her.
She looked in the rearview mirror and noticed that the truck was everything that her little jalopy wasn’t. Big, shiny and definitely fresh off the dealer’s lot. The door opened and a man hopped down. She couldn’t see his face too clearly, but he had thick, longish, brown hair sun-streaked with blond. He wore a pair of white jeans and white T-shirt that fit his frame like a second skin and he had an open blue chambray shirt on over it.
He looked like he had stepped out of the pages of GQ or off a runway from some big-city men’s fashion show as he walked toward her. He moved with the kind of caged grace that she had noticed in lions at the zoo when she’d sketched them. There was something inherently masculine about the way he moved, and she turned to look out the window at him for a better view.
She reached up to tuck one of the strands of hair that had escaped her low messy bun during the long drive from Dallas down to Texas Hill Country. She wore a pair of maternity leggings under her rust-colored tunic. It was chilly compared to Los Angeles in Texas but not cold. He stopped a few feet from the driver’s side door of the car, and she opened it and got out.
“Hey there. Do you need some help?” he asked.
His voice was a deep, rich timbre that reminded her of the bassoon in the orchestra. Even the baby liked it, rolling in her stomach toward the sound. She put her hand on top of her stomach to connect with the child.
“Yes. My car sort of coughed and sputtered and then just died. I can’t get it to restart and I have no cell phone reception out here.”
“I don’t know much about vehicles except how to check the oil and change a tire. My mom insisted I learn before she let me get my license,” he said.
“Smart woman. I wish I’d learned. But I hate driving,” she said, wishing she’d put some lipstick on before she’d gotten out of the car.
Up close he was even more attractive than she’d imagined. He had thick brows over eyes that were so light blue they looked icy and otherworldly. He had high cheekbones and a firm-looking mouth with full lips and an easy smile. His teeth were white and straight—she guessed either braces or cosmetic; they were that perfect. He had a mustache and beard that were nicely trimmed and seemed to help bring her gaze back to his mouth.
“She can be,” he said. “Pop the hood and I’ll take a look.”
She got back in the car and then stalled. She had no idea where the button to ‘pop the hood’ was. Honestly, it was moments like these that had her worried about raising her baby. There were so many things—basic things—she just didn’t know how to do.
She took a deep breath and remembered what her best friend Amelia had said. She could learn them. She looked around for the mechanism and finally saw it under the steering wheel to the left. She pulled it toward her and heard the ping as the hood released.
He reached under the hood and lifted it up and Zara sat there for a few moments before getting out and going to stand next to him. He was fiddling with some of the knobs on different parts of the engine. She hoped this made some sort of sense to him because the engine looked confusing as heck to her.
“So…I have no clue,” he said with a laugh. “How about we lock up your car and I drive you to the nearest town. I think we’re about thirty miles out of Last Stand.”
“Are you heading to Last Stand?” she asked.
“Me too,” she said. “Okay. I’d appreciate that. And just so you know even though I’m pregnant I still pack a pretty strong punch and have pepper spray, so don’t try anything.”
He held his hands up at his shoulders. “I’ll consider myself warned but you don’t have to worry. I’m a good guy.”
He seemed like it. But Zara had been deceived by men more times than she wanted to admit and knew that her own gut had a horrible track record.
J.T. Williams was glad that he’d stopped to help the stranded motorist. She was the perfect distraction that he needed. He’d left New York City fueled by anger and defiance but the closer he’d gotten to Texas the more nervous guilt started to take over. He’d traded in the Ferrari his parents had given him for his twenty-first birthday for this truck outside of Shreveport. He was mad that he had a sister he’d never known about. He was f-ing twenty-five years old for Pete’s sake. His parents really should have mentioned her before this.
The worst part is that he knew if his father hadn’t gotten drunk on the Friday after Thanksgiving and ruined his mother’s tree-trimming party, he still wouldn’t know about his sister. It was only their fight that had stirred up the past and brought that truth bomb that J.T. hadn’t expected.
“So, you from here?” he asked. He needed to get out of his head, or he was going to start driving recklessly, fueled by his anger once again. He wanted to be distracted by the pretty, pregnant lady with theblonde hair and large brown eyes that made him wish she wasn’t someone else’s.
Well not too distracted, he thought, like he definitely didn’t want her to go into labor or anything like that.
Which clearly, she would be. She was largely pregnant and true he had no experience with women who were expecting. So small talk. If he’d inherited anything from his charming and sophisticated mother, it was how to put others at ease and keep the conversation moving. Only now he knew that the topics were shallow and superficial. She kept it moving on the stuff that didn’t matter, like sisters—
“I am going to be. But I’m not,” she said. “I know that sounds complicated but I’m moving here. So, I’m not from around here but soon I will be.”
Her voice light and breezy, she sounded like she was smiling when she spoke, and he couldn’t help but smile along too.
“Good,” he said. Then realized that he was starting to like her. Was she single? Shouldn’t her partner or husband be here with her? “Are you…never mind.”
He realized it wasn’t any of his business. As nice as it was to allow her to divert his attention, he knew that he wasn’t staying in Last Stand. He had rented a house until January. That would give him enough time to meet his sister and then figure out if he wanted to try to have a relationship with her.
“Were you going to ask about the baby’s daddy?” she asked with a bluntness that was refreshing.
He gave a startled laugh. “Yes. I know it’s none of my business, which is why I stopped myself.”
“He’s not in the picture. It’s just me and Sprout here,” she said, resting her hands on the top of her belly.
It was hard to tell how she felt about that. There wasn’t any true anger in her words but more of a void. Like she’d decided not to let that situation take any more of her energy. He would give half of his fortune for a little bit of her attitude right now.
But he’d never been one to let go of anything. Everyone said his tenacity was why he was so strong. It was also why he was here now.
He wanted to figure out how to think about family and everything without all the anger and guilt and regret and just f—it. He wasn’t doing a good job of allowing her to distract him.
“Then I’m glad I came along when I did,” he said. “Sprout, eh? That’s an interesting name choice.”
She started laughing and he noticed from the corner of his eye that she shook her head and a strand of hair came free, curling around the side of her face. She tucked it back up behind her ear.
“It’s not going to be the baby’s name. It’s just my nickname until he or she is born. Since I’m starting completely over and didn’t know what to expect I thought I’d let the baby’s gender be a surprise too.”
“Do you have family here?”
“No. My best friend is from here and she just moved back a little over a year ago, so when I told her I was going to throw a dart at the map of the US and pick a place to start over and raise Sprout, she suggested I come here. So here I am.”
She was different, he thought. Quirky, funny, strong with a kind of strength that was quiet, but he’d wager powerful. He couldn’t imagine moving to a place he didn’t know and just starting over. He was on a fact-finding mission and that was it. He had his home to return to.
“Did you think about waiting until the baby was born?”
“You know, I did. But the baby’s father is kind of a big deal where I’m from and every time I see his image on TV and billboards I just kept being confronted with his lies. I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I bought that car and left.”
“He lied to you?” he asked. He was leading her, trying to find out more about the father of her kid, but at the same time it wasn’t any of his business. It might make a good song, he thought. He’d been making a living writing and arranging music since he was eighteen. But even that was up in the air now.
“Yes, he did. In fact, that’s the one thing I can’t tolerate. A man who doesn’t tell the truth,” she said.
“Me either,” he admitted.
“Got a lying baby daddy of your own?” she asked in a teasing tone.
“Just a lying father. It does make you kind of vigilant about the truth. There was a time when I thought white lies were fine but not anymore. They lead to the kind of pain that has far-reaching consequences.”
There was a lot of complicated stuff behind his statement and Zara didn’t have time to try to solve it for him. She had her own issues. She’d quit her job as a makeup artist before leaving L.A. because that work was a little too feast or famine for a single mom. She’d submitted some artwork to a graphic design house in Austin and they’d offered her a job starting in January. She would be able to work from home so it was ideal. They also had health insurance and offered her a nice salary.
She just murmured her agreement and was glad to see that they had something in common.
“What brings you to Last Stand?” she asked.
“My dad used to come here once a year and he was talking about how charming the town is, so I thought I’d check it out,” he said. “My holiday plans for this year fell through.”
“Your lying dad?” she asked.
“Yeah, him. So this is me being contrary,” he said. “Just once I want him to be right about something.”
“That happens,” she said. “I think you picked a good time to come. My friend mentioned they do a lot of fun stuff for the holidays. Lots of traditional markets and a German market and tree lightings. Sounds picture-perfect to me,” she said. Thinking about raising Sprout in a place like Last Stand had just seemed to reinforce her decision to pack up and move.
She wanted Sprout’s life to be here, not in the past where lies and deceit and betrayal were the only things life could offer her baby.
She realized she was being a tad melodramatic even if it was just in her own head and also realized she was getting hungry. They were approaching Last Stand and she couldn’t help herself; she took a picture of the Welcome to Last Stand sign as they drove past.
New start. Fresh people and places and no more screwups.
She had the baby to think of so she couldn’t just follow her impulses; it was time to start making decisions and thinking about the consequences.
“Um, do you want me to drop you at your friend’s?” he asked.
“I’m not sure if she’s home or not. She’s sold me her house in town… She lives on a ranch,” she said. “Let me text her. You can probably just drop me off someplace.”
“I could, but I’m not going to. I’m supposed to go to Kolaches, and then contact the Realtor who has the keys to the place I rented. How about if we go there and you can get in touch with your friend?”
“Sounds perfect. I’m starving and it will be good to not be waiting by myself.”
He drove through town following the directions on the GPS to Kolaches. It was off Main Street and had pull-in parking. She couldn’t help but keep looking at the buildings on Main Street.
Some of them had started decorating for the holidays and it was everything she’d always wanted. It seemed she’d never been in neighborhoods or towns that really went all out for the holidays, but Last Stand did.
He was fiddling with the radio station, turning off a song by Jax Williams. “Country music isn’t your thing?”
“I like country, just not Jax Williams,” he said. “That’s not entirely true. Normally I like his music but right now it’s not hitting the right chord with me.”
“Fair enough. I went through a thing with Pink a few years ago where I just felt like she wasn’t speaking to me,” Zara said.
He parked in front of Kolaches and she looked in the back seat of the cab of his truck where he’d put her suitcases when he’d rescued her from her stranded car. Should she grab them now?
“Leave your stuff until your friend gets here. We should see about finding a tow service and a garage so you can get your car fixed,” he suggested.
“Good idea. I’d better start with that,” she said.
“I’ll give you some privacy,” he said. “I’ll order some drinks and food and get us a table. Just tell me what you want?”
She couldn’t help but be touched by how nice this stranger had been to her. She knew it was the Christmas season and many people took the time to help their neighbors, but she was still touched. They walked over to the laminated menu posted near the front door and she told him what she’d like and offered him some money, but he declined.
She watched him go inside, trying not to let her eyes linger on his long legs and those jeans that cupped one fine ass. Instead she pulled her phone out, happy to see she had a decent signal. She texted Amelia.
Zara: Hey girl. I’m in Last Stand. Had a bit of a mishap with my car. But a Good Samaritan rescued me. I’m at Kolaches. Can you meet me?
Amelia: Yay! I have been going crazy waiting for you. I’m at my mom’s store; I’ll come over and meet you. What’s up with your car?
Zara: Broke down outside of town about thirty minutes ago. Do you know a mechanic I can send to pick it up?
Amelia: Cal’s brother will get it. Text me the details and I’ll send it to him.
Zara: I don’t want to impose.
Amelia: You’re not. Can’t wait to see you.
Zara: Me too.
For the first time since she realized that Raul was married and had another family hidden away in Sacramento, she didn’t feel alone. She was strong and could handle things on her own but it was nice not to have to. Amelia had been a lifesaver. More than once, Zara had thanked her lucky stars that she had such a good friend.
She went inside and saw the guy… She didn’t know his name, something she needed to fix. He waved her over and she walked toward him, past the strangers who she knew would become familiar to her as she created her own life and family in Last Stand.
“Did you get in touch with your friend?” he asked after she sat down.
“I did,” she said, wishing she’d worn slip-on shoes instead of boots because her feet hurt. “She’s on her way over to meet me. I told her about you…but I realize we never introduced ourselves.”
“I noticed that oversight as well.”
“I’m Zara. Zara Mitchell,” she said.
He was interrupted as Amelia descended on their table and Zara stood up and started to cry when she saw her friend, she was so happy. She hugged Amelia and her friend hugged her tightly back.
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too. Amelia, this is the guy who rescued me. A true Christmas savior. Jay, this is my best friend, Amelia Corbyn.”
End of Excerpt