Authors: Jennifer Faye
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional and a product of the author’s imagination. Any similarities to real people, living or dead, is purely coincidental and unintentional.
Copyright 2015 © Jennifer F. Stroka
All rights reserved.
This book is for your reading enjoyment only. No part of the book may be reproduced, copied, or shared without the express written permission of the author.
Published by Lazy Dazy Press
ISBN-13 (digital): 978-1-942680-02-4
ISBN-13 (paperback): 978-1-942680-03-1
Whistle Stop Romance series:
A Moment to Love
A Moment to Dance
Book 3: A Moment on the Lips
Thanks & much appreciation to:
Cover Design & Formatting: The Killion Group
Content Editor: Tessa Shapcott
Copy Editor: Joyce Lamb
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A clean slate.
And a chance to begin again.
Ella Morgan stepped out of her car onto the quiet street of Whistle Stop, New Mexico. The April sunshine rained down on her as she lifted her smiling face to bask in its warmth. After the whirlwind of settling into the cabin she’d recently inherited and learning the ropes to her new teaching position at the local school, she was plain worn out. All she wanted to do was grab a few items for dinner at Marty’s Market and head home.
She stepped onto the curb to put money in the parking meter when a young boy in a white T-shirt and denim shorts darted in front of her, causing her to teeter to a halt. Ella shook her head in disbelief before dropping a quarter in the meter.
A gentle breeze tickled across her skin, carrying with it the aroma of grilled burgers. She sucked in a deep breath, and her stomach rumbled.
She glanced up the street at the white block building with the red and white awning—Benny’s Burger Joint. She sighed, remembering how her grandparents had treated her to one of Benny’s huge green-chile cheeseburgers smothered in melted Monterey Jack cheese while on summer vacation. That was back in the good days—back before it all went so wrong.
She swallowed her craving and started toward the little market, anxious to put some distance between herself and the diner. No sense daydreaming about a dinner she couldn’t afford. At this point, she had to keep track of every penny—
A swift movement caught her attention. The same young boy dodged between two parked cars. He stepped into the street and came to a stop. What in the world was he doing? Juggling something in his hands? A small animal?
The hum of an approaching vehicle had her peering down the road. A red pickup at the other end of the block barreled toward them, going far too fast.
Her heart clenched.
“Hey! Move!” she screamed, waving her arms in the air.
The child didn’t budge.
Had he heard her? Did he have any idea of the danger he was in?
An angry horn blast sent adrenaline surging through her body. With her long skirt hiked up, she raced the short distance to the boy.
The squeal of tires sounded as she lunged forward. Her fingers clenched in the boy’s shirt. With every ounce of strength, she yanked. The force threw them both back between the two parked cars.
The jolt of the child’s body bumping into her and the unevenness of the pavement caused her to stumble. Her free hand flailed through the air. With a thud, her backside landed hard on the asphalt. Her back teeth rattled together. The boy, with his heavy backpack, landed on her legs. In a fraction of a second, the tractor-trailer rumbled past. A gust of warm air rushed over her as pain ricocheted from her hip down her leg. Thank God, they were safe.
The child yanked forward, struggling to free himself from her hold. He didn’t appear to be more than nine years old. And lucky for her, he was skinny.
“Let. Me. Go. You’re ruining my shirt.”
Not realizing she still had her fingers clenched on the back of his shirt, she loosened her grip while still keeping an eye on him. This child was too young to be left to his own defenses, as was evidenced by the near-miss with the truck.
“Where are…your…parents?” She struggled to get the words out between ragged breaths.
The boy pulled away from her. “I don’t have any.”
“What’s your name?”
He backed away from her toward the sidewalk while still cupping something in his hands. “I’m not telling you. You’re a stranger.”
Not only had she risked her own neck and most likely ruined her favorite skirt to save him, but now he refused to be cooperative. She frowned at him. If he wouldn’t give her a straight answer, surely one of the town’s residents would stroll by and let her know where he belonged.
In answer to her thoughts, she heard a vehicle slow to a stop. A door opened, followed by rushed footsteps. Good. Someone was here to help sort things out.
“What’s going on?” a deep male voice bellowed.
If the man’s thunderous tone was meant to gain attention, it did the job. The boy rushed over to the man, obviously familiar with him. Ella straightened and dusted herself off. She frowned when she detected a long rip in her skirt. She might be able to mend it, but it’d never be the same.
With a resigned sigh, she turned her attention to the man. She had to crane her neck to see the man’s face. My, he was tall, probably six-four, if not more. Her line of vision drifted down to his navy T-shirt, which was pulled snug over his broad chest. Her gaze lingered, taking in the white insignia of the Whistle Stop Volunteer Firefighters in the upper left corner with Station House 87 printed below it. She wondered if he was in fact a fireman. By the looks of his hefty biceps, he certainly was strong enough.
“I’m waiting for an answer,” the man’s voice boomed.
When she found him staring at her instead of the child, she was startled. Her gaze moved to the boy. The kid shot her a smug now-you’re-in-trouble look.
The scowling man shoved his deep brown Stetson higher, revealing a hint of dark hair. His tanned face was obscured by a bit of scruff, but it was his eyes that did it for her. Their chocolate shade with gold flecks drew her in with their intensity. He wasn’t bad-looking—a shame he was so abrasive.
“She grabbed me.” The boy pointed an accusing finger at her.
The man crossed his arms and glared at her. “You better tell me why you had your hands on him before I call the sheriff.”
The once-deserted sidewalk now had a few people passing by. Ella glanced over her shoulder to find pedestrians pausing to stare in their direction. She wrung her hands together and turned away. Heat flared in her chest and rose to her cheeks.
Just what she needed—a scene sure to be followed by gossip. She’d hoped to leave that all behind in Albuquerque. For the first time, she wanted to fit in, feel accepted. And if the cowboy kept shouting, he’d ruin her fresh start in Whistle Stop.
She lowered her voice to a hushed tone. “Must you raise your voice? People are going to think I’ve done something wrong.”
His unwavering gaze held a clear sign of wariness. “Haven’t you?”
She glowered back at the infuriating man. “No. I haven’t. You’re making a scene for nothing.”
He glanced around, noticing the people gawking. A forced smile pulled at his lips. “It’s okay,” he said to the people. “Just a little misunderstanding.”
Once the people moved on, he turned back to her and crossed his muscled arms. “You still have some explaining to do.”
Irritation swirled in her chest. How dare this man stare at her as if she’d committed a crime? She’d just saved the boy’s life. And worse, she could still feel people staring at the back of her head. So much for her desire to keep a low profile.
She bit back her indignation and strained to keep her tone neutral. “The boy ran into the street and was about to get hit by a truck when I yanked him out of the way.”
“I was okay. I’m not a little kid anymore.” The child pulled his shoulders back as his chin jutted out. “She’s the one who made me fall.”
The man’s eyes opened wide before he gave the boy a quick once-over. “Johnny, are you okay?” The child nodded. “Good. Now explain what you’re doing here. You’re supposed to be waiting for me at the community center.”
“I waited, but you forgot me. Again.”
The muscles in the man’s neck flexed. He cleared his throat. “Some things came up at the ranch. I had to deal with them before I could leave.”
“Uh-uh. You forgot me.”
“I did not.” The man’s voice rose again. He waved a finger at the little boy. “You should have waited. I’m only five minutes late.”
“Nuh-uh. More than that.”
The man glanced at his watch. “Er…ten minutes late.”
This was getting them nowhere. Ella stepped between the aggravated adult and the wide-eyed child, hoping to defuse the situation. “Perhaps the boy was confused about what to do.”
Johnny glanced at her, his eyes alight with surprise that she’d come to his defense. Still, she agreed with the man. The child was far too young to be running around town—even this small town—by himself. She sensed a deep-rooted problem between father and son, but since this wasn’t a school issue and Johnny wasn’t her student, she must tread lightly.
The man shot her a cold, hard glare that caused the breath to catch in her throat.
“Thank you for saving him, but I’ll handle things from here.” The man turned to the boy. “None of this excuses you from running off. And what’s that you’re holding?”
“A puppy.” The little boy held out his cupped hands. “Something’s wrong with him.”
What in the world? An ugly yellowish slime and black grease covered the poor creature cradled in the boy’s palms. Worse yet, the wee thing wasn’t moving.
The man knelt down to inspect the ball of filthy fur. Ella stepped closer, her heart thumping hard. She pressed a hand to her chest. Had the animal died?
Please say it isn’t so
“It hasn’t moved since she knocked me over.” The child glared at her before turning to the man.
Had she done something to injure the puppy? Her body tensed as she replayed the events in her mind. If she had, it’d been inadvertent. And the memory of that red semi with its shiny chrome bearing down on the boy confirmed that she’d done what was necessary.
The giant of a man moved with slow, steady movements as he took hold of the animal. His long, lean fingers slid across the soiled fur, pausing over the tiny rib cage. “He’s still breathing, but he doesn’t look good.”
The concern reflected in the man’s eyes touched something deep down in Ella, making her re-evaluate her opinion of him. No man who cared for a helpless animal could be all bad. Perhaps there was more to this man than his loud, gruff exterior.
“May I see the puppy?” She hoped the man had missed something.
He held out his hands. The small puppy looked to be some sort of miniature schnauzer-poodle mix. She visually examined the animal’s matted fur, noticing the outline of his ribs. She was hesitant to touch him for fear of making things worse. “What in the world happened to him?”
She’d always had a soft spot in her heart for animals, though she’d never been allowed to own one as a child. Some day she planned to adopt a puppy, once her life was settled.
Johnny stood next to her, tears tracking down his pale cheeks. Her heart ached for the little boy. She blinked back the moisture gathering in her own eyes. How could someone be so depraved as to try to drown a helpless puppy in…what was that? Motor oil? The thought sickened her.
Johnny’s backpack slipped from his shoulder, landing on the ground with a thud. He scrubbed his eyes with his grungy hands. Ella blinked repeatedly, trying to keep her own emotions in check. She couldn’t make this moment any worse for the child. Her gaze collided with the worried look in the man’s eyes.
She had to do something, anything but stand there. She reached into her purse and withdrew some tissues. Ignoring the foul stench, she wiped the slime from the dog’s tiny muzzle, then his eyes, followed by the rest of his face. The dog didn’t resist, as though understanding her intent was to help him. Or maybe he was too far gone to care.
“This little guy needs a vet,” she said, realizing she was stating the obvious. It was just that she didn’t want the man to give up on the puppy.
“There’s none in town, but tomorrow there’s one stopping by my ranch to check on a couple of horses. I could ask him to have a look…if he lives that long.”
In response, the puppy moved his head and eked out a whimper. Ella glanced up to find a smile tugging at the corners of the man’s mouth. Her heart leaped with joy. This little puppy was a fighter. There was no other way to explain him living through such misery in his short life.
“He’s gonna live.” Johnny smiled through his tears.
Ella noticed how the child’s happiness reflected on the man, easing the stress lines on his face. The man was actually pretty good-looking when he wasn’t scowling at her. She couldn’t resist smiling herself. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the moment.
“Don’t get too excited,” the man warned. “We don’t know what might be wrong with him.”
“Where exactly did you find him?” she asked the boy.
He pointed to Pete’s Gas and Lube.
There wasn’t a person in sight. The bay doors were shut, with a closed sign on the office door. None of this made any sense. Who would do such a despicable act?
“Pete’s out of town,” the man supplied. “On a fishing trip, I think.”
She frowned. “I wonder how the puppy ended up in this condition.”
“I was walking home and heard something.” Johnny stroked the puppy, oblivious to the animal’s desperate need for a bath. “I found the puppy in some icky oil.”
Her heart sank, thinking of someone trying to drown a puppy. How could anyone be so evil?
Uncomfortable with this line of thought, she rubbed her hands together. Her fingertips slipped beneath her long sleeves and massaged the uneven scar tissue. When she realized her actions, she yanked the cuffs down over her wrists as far as they would go.