Книга - Charlie’s Angels

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Charlie's Angels
Cheryl St.John


Charlie McGraw never should have bought the angel book for his precocious daughter.Because then Meredith wouldn't be convinced that getting a new mommy was as simple as having an "angel" sprinkle him with her "miracle dust." And she never would have believed the beautiful blond-haired woman who drove a truck called the "Silver Angel" was some treetop angel come to life.Starla Richards was no angel. But try telling that to a five-year-old who was so starved for a mother's love that she'd stowed away on Starla's rig. Or convincing herself that miracles just didn't happen to ordinary people when Starla found herself snowbound with the handsome, caring widower and his adorable daughter….









“I’m not an angel. I’m just a person,” Starla explained.


Meredith opened her book. “This is the mommy and daddy,” she said, pointing to an artist’s rendition of a couple in a house with a roaring fireplace. “The daddy has lots of work to do. He comes home too late at night and the mommy and the little kids are sad, ’cause they miss him.” She turned a page. “See, they decorate the tree, but the daddy isn’t there.

“Then the beautiful angel on top of the Christmas tree hears how sad they are and she comes to life,” Meredith continued. “She sprinkles miracle dust on the mommy and daddy. The daddy kisses the mommy under the mistletoe, and then he stays home and opens presents with the kids. See, the angel looks just like you.”

The woman glanced over at the white-robed apparition. “Meredith, I’m not an angel. How am I going to convince you?”

Meredith just shrugged. The angel lady probably had to keep it a secret in case everybody wanted miracle dust and there wasn’t enough!




Charlie’s Angels

Cheryl St.John










CHERYL ST.JOHN


A peacemaker, a romantic, an idealist and a discouraged perfectionist are the words that Cheryl St.John uses to describe herself. The author of both historical and contemporary novels says she’s been told that she is painfully honest.

Cheryl admits to being an avid collector who collects everything from dolls to Depression glass, brass candlesticks, old photographs and—most especially—books. She and her husband love to browse antiques and collectibles shops.

She says that knowing her stories bring hope and pleasure to readers is one of the best parts of being a writer. The other wonderful part is being able to set her own schedule and have time to work around her growing family.

Cheryl loves to hear from readers. You can write her at: P.O. Box 24732, Omaha, NE 68124.










Contents


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

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Epilogue




Chapter One


Christmas was for families. Charlie McGraw glanced around the cheerfully decorated interior of the Waggin’ Tongue Grill. A two-foot artificial tree sat at the corner of the counter by the cash register. Lighted garlands had been draped around the window opening that looked into the kitchen, and from the back Harry Ulrich’s off-key baritone could be heard humming a tune that switched between “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Yellow Submarine” every other stanza. Finally Charlie’s attention wandered to the other patrons.

Snippets of excited conversation drifted his way, making it obvious that Kevin and Lacy Bradford and their two kids had just returned from a shopping trip. Just in time, too, if the snow blowing across the nearly empty parking lot was any indication. Heavy snow had been falling and drifting for most of the day. Charlie wouldn’t have brought Meredith out in this weather without his four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee.

At another table, Forrest and Natalie Perry took turns picking up a spoon that their chortling baby girl threw onto the floor. Their son, Wade, chattered while finishing off a dish of ice cream. The Perrys lived within walking distance of the Waggin’ Tongue.

Charlie glanced at his five-year-old daughter. That morning he’d wrestled her curly dark hair into a fabric-covered elastic band, but strands were trailing down her neck already. He should take her shopping when the weather cleared. Try to get in the holiday spirit. Have her pick out some gifts for her grandparents.

With school closed for two weeks and no kindergarten diversion, Meredith was bored and had taken to following him around his workshop, asking at least ten rapid-fire questions a minute. His responder had been on autopilot most of the morning.

“If a doctor cut open your neck, could he see hiccups?” she asked now.

“He could probably see muscles moving or something. I really don’t know. I think hiccups come more from your chest.”

“If he cut open your chest, then could he see hiccups?”

“Maybe. But a doctor wouldn’t do that.”

“Where do French fries grow?”

“You cut potatoes into French fries, and potatoes grow in the ground. In Idaho mostly.”

“Is Idaho far away?”

“It’s in the United States.”

She drowned another fry in ketchup. “When are we gonna get a tree, Daddy?”

“Hmm? Oh, soon. We’ll get one soon.”

“That’s what you said the before time, and Christmas is almost here.”

Charlie channeled his attention to this last real concern of his daughter’s. He leaned over and dabbed a napkin at the corner of her mouth. “I know, honey, but I’ve had a lot of projects to finish so my customers will get their gifts by Christmas.”

She gazed at him with wide blue eyes. “When my mommy was here and I was a baby, did we have a Christmas tree?”

Charlie prepared himself for another endless stream of mommy questions. “Yes, of course we did.”

“Did we have a beautiful angel on top of the tree?”

“We have a star for the top, remember? Same one we’ve always had.”

Meredith plopped another dripping fry into her mouth and reached beside her for the book she’d carried everywhere for the past two weeks. He’d picked it up for her at the Dime Store, and she’d insisted he read it to her several times a day.

“We could go over to the library and borrow some new books,” he suggested. He knew that one by heart.

“Do they have angel books at the libary?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to ask Miss Fenton when we get there. If it’s still open. Take a bite of your burger.”

Charlie’s meal was nearly gone and Meredith was still munching fries and asking questions. He picked up her hamburger and fed her a bite.

She chewed and swallowed before asking, “Is my mommy a angel now?”

Charlie didn’t believe people turned into angels, but he didn’t want to destroy any belief that gave his daughter comfort. “What do you think?”

“I think we should find a new mommy for me. You could marry Miss Fenton, Daddy, and she could come live with us.”

“Meredith, I barely know Miss Fenton.”

“What about my teacher, then, Miss Ecklebe? She’s real pretty and she sings nice.”

“That’s Mrs. Ecklebe. She’s already married.”

Meredith frowned and her rosy lips puckered in displeasure. “Oh.”

She’d become obsessed with wanting a mother and talked to him about it incessantly. Though he’d been widowed for several years, Charlie had no desire to find another wife. Just another flaw in his character, perhaps, but he didn’t believe true love actually existed, and he couldn’t live his life doing things just because other people wanted him to. He’d been down that road before and had no desire to revisit.

Charlie laid his hand on his daughter’s dainty shoulder. “We don’t really need anyone else. We’ve got each other.”

Her dark lashes swept up and those blue eyes fixed on him as if to say, Maybe you don’t need anyone else, bub. If she was fifteen, she’d have said, Yeah, right.

Why should he feel guilty? That was what this twinge in his chest was, right? No reason for guilt. None whatsoever. A man didn’t go in search of a woman just to appease a lonely child. It would be different if he were lonely himself.

Okay, so maybe he was a little lonely. But not enough.

But what would he do when she was fifteen? The thought scared him senseless.

He glanced away from Meredith’s assessing gaze to the Bradfords. Sure, they looked like the ideal little family: beautiful wife, one girl who looked like her mom, a little guy with a chin like his daddy’s, but who knew what went on at home? Or what didn’t. True and lasting love only existed in the movies…and then you never actually saw past the credits to what happened when the bills rolled in and disagreements crept up. No, not enough.

Against his better judgment, Charlie glanced at Forrest and Natalie Perry holding hands on top of the table. If he didn’t believe that, he’d have to believe it was a flaw in his character; other couples seemed happy.

Meredith’s attention turned to the window beside their booth and he followed her gaze. A silver rig with blue detailing pulled into the lot, snow swirling around the cab and trailer as it rolled to a stop. The words Silver Angel were emblazoned on the door, a painted pair of wings adorning the S, a tilted halo floating above the A.

“What’s that say?” Meredith’s voice was laced with awe.

“Silver Angel,” he told her.

She grabbed up her book. “Look! It’s just like the halo on my angel book!”

“So it is.”

They watched as the driver’s door opened and a parka-bundled figure stepped down into the snow and trudged toward the café.

The bell over the door rang.

The driver of the rig stomped snow onto the mat and removed thick gloves, a blast of icy air snaking in and reaching Charlie’s ankles.

A slender hand raised to push back the hood of the parka. A shiny waterfall of silver-blond hair spilled across the snow-flecked shoulders of the coat. The ethereally beautiful woman looked like no trucker Charlie had ever seen. Pink tinged her model-perfect cheekbones, and she stuffed the gloves into her pockets before rubbing her hands together.

Meredith inhaled audibly, but Charlie felt as though it had been him. He couldn’t seem to fill his lungs, and his chest hurt.

The woman hung her coat on one of the pegs inside the door, revealing a slender shape in long-legged, hip-hugger jeans and a soft-looking pale pink sweater that emphasized her tiny waist. She made her way to the counter, and as she did, every eye in the place was focused on her.

She glanced around, almost self-consciously, nodding a greeting to the families at the tables, before her gaze landed on Charlie and Meredith.

If he didn’t take a breath soon, Charlie was going to pass out. He concentrated on breathing in and releasing the air slowly, inconspicuously. He would never admit he’d been waiting for her to look their way.

Her extraordinary eyes were the most translucent blue he’d ever seen, combining with her unusual hair and silver-hued brows for a dazzling prettiness. She smiled and gave them a little wave.

Meredith waved back, delightedly. “Daddy, she’s so pretty!”

The young woman turned toward Shirley Rumford who handed her a menu and placed a glass of water in front of her. “What’ll ya have, sweetie?”

The vision tucked her hair behind her ear while she looked over the menu, revealing a pearl earring in the lobe of her shell-shaped ear. “Something hot. It’s freezing out there. What kind of soup do you have?”

Shirley chanted the short list of soups.

The Perrys called a goodbye to Shirley and left the café, bundling children out into the cold. A few minutes later, the Bradfords paid for their meal and followed. Charlie’s gaze was drawn back to the young woman at the counter.

“Daddy, can I go see her up close?” Meredith whispered, none too quietly.

Charlie caught himself staring and turned his attention to the cup of coffee in front of him. “No, it’s rude to stare, and we’re going to mind our own business.”

“But—”

“Meredith, turn around and finish your hamburger so we can go see if the library’s open.”

His daughter plopped back onto the seat and crossed her arms over her chest. With a dejected pout, she stared at her plate. Five minutes later she still hadn’t finished her food.

“You’ve only taken two bites,” he said. “You work on that while I use the rest room and pay our bill.”

“Okay.” She sighed and picked up the cold hamburger.

Charlie headed back to the rest room.

Meredith sneaked another peek at the angel lady who’d come in from the storm. She was the most prettiest angel ever, even prettier than the treetop angel who came to life in her book.

She flipped open to the page where the angel sprinkles the mommy and daddy with miracle dust and they kiss under the mistletoe. In the picture, all colors of lights twinkled on the beautiful Christmas tree, and three little kids with fuzzy slippers and happy smiles watched from between the stair rails.

If Meredith could get an angel to sprinkle her daddy with miracle dust, he would be happy again. Happy like he used to be. Happy enough to get a new mommy for her, and then they would be a family, just like the family in the book.

Daddy hadn’t been happy for a long time.

She tucked the book under her arm, gave the semi-trailer a long assessing look and turned her focus back to the angel lady who was paying Miss Rumford for her food.

Meredith had an idea.



Charlie returned from the rest room to find both red vinyl seats of their booth empty. More than half of Meredith’s cold burger sat on her plate. She must have gone into the other rest room.

He sat and observed the snow for a few minutes. Checked his watch. Glanced around the deserted café. Finally he got up and wandered back to the narrow hall that held the rest rooms. Tapping on the door to the women’s, he called, “Meredith, you about done in there?”

No reply.

“Meredith? Hello?” Maybe she wasn’t in there. He opened the door six inches and called again. “Meredith? Anyone in there?”

Lord, maybe she’d fallen and hurt herself! He shoved the door open and searched the tiny room with two sectioned-off toilets and a sink. Empty. His heart kicked into overdrive.

Spinning on his heel, he hurried back out into the café. The booth where they’d been sitting was still empty. The room was devoid of customers. Shirley was setting napkin-wrapped rolls of silverware on tables. “Shirley, did you see where Meredith went?”

The sixty-something woman looked up from her chore. “I thought she was in the back with you.”

“No, she was right here when I went to the men’s room.”

“I didn’t see her, Charlie.” Shirley called to the kitchen, “Harry, you seen anything of the McGraw girl?”

Harry and Shirley had owned and run the Waggin’ Tongue together for a hundred years, old friends, apparently without romantic involvement, though speculation in Elmwood ran high.

Harry pushed open the swinging door from his domain. “Charlie’s little one?”

“Have you seen her?” Charlie asked, real panic lacing his voice now and wrapping his throat tight. He purposefully swallowed the alarm and took a deep, measured breath to keep his thoughts rational.

“Haven’t seen anyone. Been in the back room countin’ supplies.”

Unconvinced until he saw for himself, Charlie pushed past Harry. A few cartons had been stacked here and there; a chain guard and bolt locked the rear door. He inspected the back room, where Harry’s grocery list lay on a stool.

“She has to be here somewhere,” he said to convince himself, pushing through the swinging door and hurrying to check places he’d obviously missed.

He peered under every table and booth, behind the potted plants. He straightened like a shot. Her puffy pink coat was gone. Turning and staring at the empty seat, his frazzled brain registered what the absence of Meredith’s coat meant. “She went outside.”

Without bothering to grab his own coat, he sprinted out the front door. She must have tired of waiting for him, or still pouting, had gone out to the Jeep to wait. Maybe she’d been impatient to get to the library.

Fully expecting—praying—to find her in the unlocked vehicle, he ran forward and yanked open the passenger side door. His gaze shot to the empty seat…the bare floor. No puffy pink coat. No angel book. No Meredith.

Leaving the door standing open, Charlie stared around the deserted parking lot, the frigid biting wind bringing tears to his eyes, his chest hurting as though someone was standing on it.

Running back toward the café, he studied the ground for footprints. Something caught his eye, and he bent to pick it up. A pink mitten.

Charlie held it while the pressure in his chest built to a painful crush. The area in front of the door was completely trampled, and his own boot prints were plainly visible, though quickly filling with blowing snow. The wind erased any evidence within precious minutes.

Shirley opened the door and called out. “Find her, Charlie?”

He shook his head, trying to make sense of Meredith’s disappearance, trying to keep his terror under control so he could think straight and find her.

Harry, bundled in a plaid wool coat, brought Charlie’s brown leather jacket out to him. Charlie pulled it on and stuffed the mitten into the pocket. Together they made a circular check of the building and the parking lot, checked the locked car that sat at the corner with a For Sale sign obliterated by snow. They searched beside the ice machine and the cold drink machines and inside the enormous trash container.

“I’d better call the sheriff,” Charlie said, his voice as calm as though someone else was speaking. Odd, because on the inside he was screaming his head off and crying like a baby. “And I need to check the library.”

Shirley wore a stricken look of concern when they returned and Charlie lunged toward the phone behind the counter. She grabbed Harry’s arm and the café owners watched Charlie with eyes round and wide. Nothing like this ever happened in Elmwood. No one had ever been—

Charlie stopped his thoughts dead and punched numbers on the phone. The deputy, Duane Quinn, answered. “This is Charlie McGraw,” he managed to say. “My daughter is missing.”




Chapter Two


Time had never passed so slowly. Charlie threw up his meal, followed later by the cup of coffee he drank to calm his nerves and wash the taste of fear out of his mouth. The sheriff, Bryce Olson, showed up and made the same search of the premises, coming to the same conclusion: Meredith was nowhere to be found. Bryce jotted notes on an incident report clamped to a clipboard.

“Who else has been in here?” he asked Shirley. The lawman showed genuine concern, which comforted Charlie at the same time it terrified him, because this was all too real.

“The Perrys were here,” Shirley told Bryce. “The Bradfords, too. And a lovely young woman trucker. That’s it. Weather’s keeping people home.”

At her mention of the weather, Charlie’s alarm intensified. Had Meredith run off into the cold alone? She wouldn’t. Would she? She was only five; she didn’t know all the dangers.

Had someone taken her out on the treacherous snow-drifted roads? Deliberately taken her?

“Let’s call the Perrys and the Bradfords,” Bryce said. “What about this woman you mentioned? Anything suspicious about her?”

Shirley shook her head. “Had some soup and bought coffee to go.”

Charlie knew there were plenty of demented people in the world. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the possibility of that beautiful young woman being a part of anything like that. But the television news relayed stories every week about abducted children. He’d heard all those horror stories about teenage girls being drugged and taken away from malls to be sold into prostitution. His stomach contracted again.

Meredith had to be all right, because Charlie didn’t know how he could deal with it if she wasn’t. If anything happened to his little girl…or if he never knew what became of her…

Stop. Get a grip on yourself. There’s a simple explanation. She would turn up and he’d have to decide whether to spank her or hug her first. Even if that woman was part of a kidnapping operation, how would she have known that she’d find a child in this particular out-of-the-way café in a storm? The hand he raised to his forehead was shaking, so he stuffed it into his jacket pocket…where his fingers found the soft material of her mitten.

Panic rose in his throat and he swallowed it down.

Bryce’s cell phone rang and he answered it quickly. “Olson. Yeah, Sharon.” Sharon was the sheriff’s dispatcher, and Bryce listened before he spoke. “Nothing, huh. Okay. Give me numbers for Forrest Perry and Kevin Bradford.” A moment later Bryce jotted phone numbers on the edge of his paper. “Okay. Stay put.” He disconnected the call.

“Clarey Fenton closed the library early,” he told Charlie. “Over an hour ago. Duane checked the streets between here and there. Nothing.”

Charlie absorbed the information.

The sheriff called both of the families who’d been in the café and learned nothing, then clipped the phone to his belt. “I’m gonna call the state boys.”

Charlie nodded, numbness setting in.

“We should probably even have ’em watch the road for that truck, since it’s our only other possibility.”

“It had an angel on the side,” Charlie said. “The cab was silver with blue detailing, and the logo on the door read Silver Angel.”

“Real good, Charlie. That’ll give ’em something to go on.”

“Maybe she tried to go home,” Charlie said suddenly.

“Would Meredith do that?”

“This whole thing doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know what she’d do. I’d better drive along the road and look.”

“I’ll get my truck and we can check both sides,” Harry said.

It was two miles to Charlie’s log home. A long way for a little girl in a snowstorm. A little girl without snow boots or insulated pants. He’d carried her from the house to the Jeep and from the Jeep to the café.

If Meredith was trying to walk, she could easily veer off the road or fall into a ditch.

Charlie got out every fifty feet or so and surveyed the sides of the road and the wooded areas, even calling her name. If she was out here, she might hear him.

But he didn’t know. He just didn’t know where she might be and that was the worst. A patrol car paused beside him. Duane Quinn rolled down the window. “I’ll check up ahead, Charlie. We’ll take turns and that way, we’ll have the entire road covered. Bryce has organized a search in town.”

Charlie nodded, grateful, but desperation and self-reproach were clamping down hard on his control. She’d been bored and lonely, and he’d been putting in long hours at his shop. He could have taken time to go pick out a tree and decorate it—should have, but work dulled the edges of his pain like a narcotic.

He hadn’t been there for his child. He’d wasted all those precious hours he should have been spending with her. What would any of that matter if something happened to her?

Duane drove the cruiser on ahead, and Charlie watched the tire tracks fill with snow. His gaze traveled to the bleak, barren trees and white-covered undergrowth. He reached into his pocket and fingered the soft mitten.

Meredith could be anywhere. He pictured her dark hair curling against her neck and the shoulders of her pink coat; remembered those blue eyes, eyes of innocence. His child, so full of life and questions that she bubbled over with energy, could be in serious danger, and he was helpless.

With the thick snow falling around him, blanketing the road and the countryside with silence, Charlie gazed heavenward…and prayed.



“‘You’ve got a way with me. Somehow you got me to believe…in everything that I could be….’” Starla Richards sang along with her Notting Hill CD, the coffee she’d been nursing giving her the energy she’d needed. She glanced at the digital clock on the dash. About another six hours to Nashville, unless the storm got worse. Hopefully, the farther south she went, she’d drive out of it.

The windshield wipers kept the snow out of her line of vision, but packed it at the bottom of the windshield and occasionally stuck to the wipers in a squeaky blob that ricocheted to and fro before finally knocking itself loose.

“‘I gotta say, you really got a way…’”

Not exactly how she’d planned to spend the week before Christmas. She should be trying out her lobster gumbo recipe and watering the Christmas tree in her apartment back home in Maine. The grand opening of her restaurant was scheduled two weeks from now and she had plenty of preparations left. But as luck would have it, her dad had broken his leg and landed himself in traction just when this load needed delivery in time for a juicy bonus.

It had been nearly three years since she’d driven a load, two and a half of those years spent in culinary arts school, finishing her degree. Starla hadn’t wanted any part of the road again. Not for any reason.

But this was different. Her dad needed help with the only other thing besides her that meant anything to him, the only thing he’d wanted since her mother had died—this rig. And she hadn’t been able to refuse running the load. She’d grown up on the road, eaten in greasy-spoon restaurants and showered in concrete-block stalls since she was thirteen. It wasn’t like she didn’t know what to do, how to drive, keep the log sheets, make the safety checks. She’d fallen right back into the routine as though she’d never been away.

This truck was much nicer than the one they’d shared all those years. The Silver Angel was her dad’s dream rig.

She would call him in another half hour, just before his neighbor brought him supper, because he would be watching the weather channel and charting her progress. Humming, she plugged her cell phone into the charger and made sure the green light came on.

A soft sound distracted her and she turned down the stereo volume to listen. Nothing coming from the engine. She checked the side mirrors and the road behind her and, once satisfied that it had been nothing, she turned the music back up.

A sound came again. Louder this time, and unmistakably from the sleeper area behind her. Heart lurching, she cautiously leaned to the glove box and pulled out her dad’s revolver. It could be an animal. A cat or a raccoon might have slipped in while she’d been doing her log check. How many times had her dad cautioned her to close the door after grabbing the clipboard?

Starla scanned the white-blanketed vista ahead and behind, then guided the rig off to the side of the road and put the transmission in Park, at the same time unfastening her seat belt.

Jabbing the power button on the stereo, she plunged the cab into silence and turned sideways in the seat to get up. Crouched beneath the head liner, she stepped to the doorway and flipped on the overhead light. There was room to stand straight in the sleeper and she moved forward.

A bundle of bunched covers in the corner of the bed rustled. The hump was bigger than a cat or a raccoon. Heart hammering, she swallowed hard and pointed the gun. “What are you doing back here?”

The covers moved again. Not really a big enough lump to be a person—unless it was a very small person. Keeping the revolver at the steady in her right hand, she leaned forward and, with her left, jerked the blankets away.

She saw a tumble of dark hair first, followed by a small white face and blue eyes. A child!

Quickly Starla jammed the revolver into a storage cabinet overhead and bent to the little girl. “What are you doing here? How did you get in? Who are you?”

The child’s lower lip quivered, and her gaze moved to the cabinet above and back to Starla. “I’m Meredith.”

Completely confused, but relieved that her intruder was harmless, Starla sat on the edge of the bunk. “What are you doing in my truck?”

The girl sat up swiftly, all signs of worry erased, and crossed her stockinged legs. She wore a red jumper with a Sesame Street character on the bib. Grover, maybe. No, Elmo, that was the red one. “You have to help my daddy.”

Knowing full well there was no one else hiding in this cramped space, Starla looked around, anyway. “Where’s your daddy? What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s at home. And he’s sad. That’s why you have to help. If you sprinkle some of your miracle dust on him so he can be happy again, I know he’ll find me a new mommy.”

Starla rubbed her brow in confusion. “Where is home?”

Meredith shrugged.

Starla pressed, “Where do you live?”

“In a brown house.”

Oh, my goodness. Placing her hands on her knees and biting her lip, Starla concentrated. Couldn’t be too hard to figure out where the kid had come from. The last place she’d stopped had been that café back on the highway a while back.

Of course. The pieces of mental puzzle slipped into place. This child had been seated at a booth with her father. Everyone in the place had stared at the stranger, the lady truck driver, but this little girl had waved and looked happy to see her. “Do I look like somebody you know?”

Meredith nodded happily.

“Who? Your mommy?”

The child frowned then and shook her head.

“Who do I look like?”

“You’re the angel, like the one in my book.” She pointed to the colorful cover. “See?”

“I’m not an angel,” Starla denied, glancing at the picture of the platinum-haired celestial being. “I’m just a person.”

Meredith shook her head. “Says you’re a angel right on the door of this truck, don’t it?”

“That’s just the name of the truck. Men are silly like that. They name things. Like trucks. My dad calls his truck Silver Angel.”

“You’re the angel,” the child insisted, pointing. “This one.” She opened the book and turned pages until she came to a picture of the woman sprinkling sparkly dust. There was a smear that appeared to be ketchup across the corner of the page. “See right here?” Meredith turned enormous blue eyes on her. “My daddy needs some of your miracle dust. Please say you’ll help him.”

“That’s just a story,” Starla told her. “It’s pretend. If I was an angel, what would I be doing driving a truck across Iowa in a snowstorm?”

Not to be dissuaded from her cause, Meredith ignored the denials and used five-year-old logic to explain, “Aunt Edna who lives at the nursey home said she was in a car crash once, and a beautiful angel in a white robe sat right on the seat beside her and kept her from going off a bridge.”

“Your aunt Edna is in a nursing home?”

“She’s not my aunt. That’s just her name. She’s prob’ly somebody’s aunt, though.”

“Well, as you can see,” Starla replied, gesturing to her cashmere V-neck sweater and jeans, “I don’t have a white robe.”

“Uh-huh.” Meredith nodded and pointed to where Starla’s white satin dressing gown and pajamas hung on a plastic hook.

“Those are my pajamas.” Starla shook her head in negation. Or was it confusion? “How did you get in here?”

“I watched when Miss Rumford carried dishes to the back. When you got your coat, I followed. I was behind the gas pumper and saw you take your papers from inside and walk around, looking at the tires and the lights and stuff. You left the door open.”

She certainly had. After all Dad’s warnings.

Meredith scooted toward the edge of the bed. “I have to go potty.”

Starla held her forehead in her hands, her mind thrown into overdrive. She would have to take this child back to her parents. To her father. To that café. She was going to lose…her gaze shot to her watch…nearly three hours, even if she made good time!

The child’s family would be frantic by now.

“Meredith,” she said suddenly. “We have to let somebody know that you’re okay.”

“Daddy’s going to be mad. Really mad.”

“I’m sure he’s more worried than mad.”

“I really have to go potty.”



Ten minutes later, after showing Meredith the camper-size toilet, digging a bag of popcorn from a supply cupboard, then buckling her into the seat belt on the passenger side, Starla asked. “Do you know your phone number?”

Meredith nodded and reeled off the number. Starla jotted it on the edge of a log sheet on her clipboard and unplugged her phone to dial. She got an answering machine. “He’s not there.”

Of course he wasn’t there. He was either at the café or at the sheriff’s department, reporting a missing child.

“He gots a cell phone, too,” Meredith told her.

“Oh! Do you know that number?”

Meredith shook her head.

“That’s okay. I’ll call information for the café. What’s it called?”

“Miss Rumford’s restaurant?”

“Yes, what’s the name of it.”

“Miss Rumford’s restaurant.”

“Of course.” Starla called long distance information and asked for the café in Elmwood, Iowa. She jotted another number down and called it.

“Waggin’ Tongue,” a male voice said.

“Oh, hi. Um, is there a man there who is looking for his daughter?”

“Charlie! It’s for you!”

At the man’s shout, Starla jerked the phone away from her ear, then returned it tentatively. “Hello?”

“Hello!” a man said into the phone. “This is Charlie McGraw.”

“I don’t quite know how to say this,” she began. “I have your daughter with me—”

“Oh God,” he said. “What do you want? Is she all right?”

“She’s fine, she’s just fine. I…I don’t want anything.”

“Please don’t hurt her. Let me talk to her!”

Starla held out the phone. “Meredith, tell your father that you’re all right.”

Meredith sank back against the seat and shook her head, her chin lowered to her chest.

“Just say you’re okay, so he knows. He’s worried about you.”

Meredith shook her head, and her lower lip protruded enough to park a truck on it.

“She’s afraid,” Starla began to explain, talking into the receiver.

“What’s wrong? What have you done with her? Where are you?”

“I haven’t done anything! She thinks you’re mad at her. We’re on I-80, almost to Rock Island. I just discovered her in my sleeper about fifteen minutes ago.”

“Discovered her? What do you mean?”

“Well, she’s a…a stowaway.”

“You’re telling me she got into your truck all by herself?”

“Apparently. She keeps calling me the angel lady and asking me to sprinkle you with miracle dust.”

An audible groan came from the other end of the line.

“I’ve tried to explain that I don’t have any special powers, but she’s convinced I can do something she wants me to do.”

“Put the phone to her ear, will you, please?”

Starla reached out and placed the phone to the little girl’s ear. “You’ve got her.”

Meredith’s wide blue eyes accused Starla for a moment, then she turned her gaze away while she listened. She gave a half nod, caught her lower lip between her teeth. A tear formed at the corner of her eye. “I love you with my whole heart, too, Daddy,” she said finally. “I will. Okay. I will.”

She looked at Meredith. “He wants to talk to you.”

“I’m really sorry about this,” the man said to her. “And I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’ve been out of my head with worry.”

“I can imagine.”

“Look, I can come get her.”

Starla glanced at the clock on the dash. “No, I’ll bring her back. I’d rather do that than sit here and wait. We’ll be there in an hour and a half or so.”

“The weather’s getting worse,” he said. “Take your time.”

“I’ll drive carefully. I have to find a place to turn around.” It was easy for him to tell her to take her time. She was the one losing precious hours needed to deliver her load on schedule. They exchanged cell phone numbers and he told her to let Meredith call him if she wanted and he’d pay for the charges.

Starla buckled in, pulled out onto the pavement and watched for an Exit sign.

“Can we listen to your music some more?” Meredith asked.

Starla flipped on the CD player, and music filled the cab.

“Is this angel music?”

“Nope. It’s a soundtrack.”

“Oh. Some angels don’t have wings that show, isn’t that right?”

The windshield wipers cleared two arcs and Starla peered into the driving snow and spotted the green sign indicating an exit. “I wouldn’t really know about that.”

Within minutes they were headed back the other direction.

“Do you know my mommy?”

Starla kept her attention on the white blur of road and sky. “I don’t think so. I don’t know anyone in Elmwood.”

“No, my mommy’s in heaven. She’s a angel, too.”

She absorbed that information with equal measures of understanding and sympathy. “Meredith, I’m not an angel. I’m just a person. I was a baby once and I went to school, just like you.”

The child straightened in her seat, settled the book squarely on her lap and opened it. “This is the mommy and daddy,” she explained, pointing to an artist’s rendition of a couple in a house with a roaring fireplace. “The daddy has lots of work to do, and he goes to his job with his beefcase.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“He comes home too late at night and the mommy and the little kids are sad, ’cause they miss him.” She turned a page. “See they make cookies, but the daddy isn’t there. And they decorate the tree, but the daddy isn’t there.”

Starla was listening, but her concentration was on her driving.

“Then, the beautiful angel on the top of the Christmas tree hears how sad they are and she comes to life. See, she looks just like you.”

Starla glanced over at the white-robed apparition. Pale blond hair would be a comparison, she supposed.

“She sprinkles miracle dust on the mommy and daddy. The daddy comes home and kisses the mommy under the mistletoe, and then he stays home and opens presents with the kids. Isn’t that a nice story?”

“Very nice. What do you like the most about the story?”

“That there’s a mommy and a daddy. Two of them.”

The yearning in the child’s voice was plain. “Sometimes a daddy is enough,” Starla said. “Especially if he loves you as much as a mommy and daddy put together. That’s how much my dad loves me.”

Meredith picked up on that right away. “Is your mommy a angel, too?”

“She died when I was twelve. I was older than you, but I still had only a dad for a lot of years. He taught me to drive a truck.”

“He did? What else?”

“He taught me how to load and fire a weapon. He made me go to a martial arts school.”

“What’s that?”

“That’s where they teach you to protect yourself.”

“Oh. Can you flip guys and stuff, like the Power Puff Girls?”

“Nothing that fancy,” she replied.

“But you’re a angel, can’t you just zap bad people?”

“Meredith, I’m not an angel. How am I going to convince you?”

Meredith shrugged.

The questions continued until Starla asked Meredith to read the book to her again. The child tired and fell asleep for about half an hour, then woke groggy. “Where are we?”

“We’re almost there.”

“Can I call my daddy?”

Starla punched the numbers and handed her the phone. “Tell him we’re on the highway, not far away now.”

“Hi, Daddy…he wants to talk to you.”

“Hello,” Starla said into the phone.

“They’re closing the highway and the interstate,” he told her.

Her heart sank. She would be trapped. “Great.”

Ice was pelting the windshield and freezing now. She had slowed to a crawl and could barely see. The sun had set long ago, and the darkness was lit by the snow and her two beams of headlights that were growing dimmer by the minute. “Sleet must be freezing to my headlights. I can barely see in front of the hood.”

“Can you make out any landmarks?”

“Not really. Wait, there’s a sign up ahead. It’s covered with snow, I can’t tell. I think it’s the Elmwood sign.”

“You’re only a quarter mile from my place if it is,” he told her.

“Okay, I’m watching. It’s slow going.”

“That’s okay. You’ll see a grove of trees on your left.”

“I’m passing them now.”

“Look up ahead to the right now. Go slow around the curve.”

“I’m going slow.”

“I’m in a Cherokee at the end of my drive with my headlights on. Can you see anything?”

She couldn’t. “No…no…wait, we’re sliding!” Starla dropped the phone to grab the wheel with both hands and guide the rig around the curve. She felt the trailer slide, jackknifing toward her. Momentum and treacherous ice jerked the wheel out of her control, sending the cab toward the ditch.

Grabbing Meredith’s pink coat, she flung it over the child’s head and held it there to protect her as the truck slid sideways. An enormous jerk knocked her against the door, and pain wracked the side of her head. Starla’s vision faded to blackness.




Chapter Three


Through the falling snow and the darkness, Charlie made out the headlights as they veered abruptly. He held the phone to his ear and shouted: “Hello! Hello!”

His daughter’s crying could be heard, a sound that terrified and assured him at the same time. “Meredith?”

He threw the Jeep into low gear and guided it slowly and carefully onto what he hoped was the pavement. The four-wheel drive pulled the vehicle through the buildup of snow, but would do precious little if he hit a patch of ice like that truck had, so he crept forward slowly. He couldn’t see where the road was supposed to be, and the phone poles on the other side of the ditch gave him pathetic guidance. As long as he didn’t get too close to those, he should stay on the road.

“Daddy?”

“Meredith, are you all right?”

“Da-addy!”

Her sobs tore at his already overworked heart.

“Meredith, talk to Daddy. Are you all right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And the lady? Is she all right?”

“She covered my head with my coat, so I couldn’t see nothing. I’m scared!”

“I’m on my way, baby. I’m almost there.”

“Hurry, Daddy!”

“It’s okay, sweetie. Can you see the lady?”

“Uh-huh.”

Charlie was afraid to ask anything more. How would Meredith know if the woman was alive or dead, and what difference could she make in either case?

“She gots blood on her head,” she volunteered finally, then whimpered.

Oh, Lord. “Okay, I’m almost there.”

He could see the headlights clearly now. The semi had slid from the road and was in the shallow ditch, right side up, thank goodness. Charlie parked on what he hoped was the side of the road and got out, plunging into snow halfway up his calves to make his way down the bank to the cab. The truck engine thrummed, loud in the snow-silent night.

He got to the door and found it locked. He pounded on the metal. “Meredith! You have to unlock the door!”

A moment later a sound indicated she’d found a power lock. He yanked open the door to hear her terrified cries. Unfastening the seat belt, and pulling himself up, he scooped her into his embrace and comforted her, running his hands over her head and limbs. She seemed perfectly unharmed.

The driver, however—the beautiful young woman with the silver mane of hair, sat slumped toward them, her seat belt fastened across her breasts, a crimson rivulet streaming from a gash on her forehead, down her temple, a stain spreading on the shoulder of her pink sweater.

“Meredith, I’m going to take you to the Jeep and come back for her.” Hurriedly, he shoved the child’s arms into her pink coat, carried her up the incline and deposited her in the back seat. “Put your seat belt on. I’ll be right back.”

Wide-eyed and hiccuping from her recent near-hysterical crying, the child nodded her acquiescence.

Charlie opened the rear of the Jeep, took out an old plaid blanket, and plowed his way back down the bank. He paused to scoop a gloveful of snow, then, once inside the cab, he turned off the engine and dabbed the snow on the woman’s forehead. She had a cut about an inch long that looked fairly deep. He stuffed the keys in his pocket and unbuckled her. After wrapping the blanket around her, he slid her out of the cab as gently as he could and struggled up the bank with her held in his arms. He slipped to his knees twice, but retained his hold on her.

He was sweating by the time he got her into the back of the Jeep, covered her wound with a fresh blob of snow, tied it with his wool scarf and closed up the back.

Fearful of backing off the edge of the road if he tried to turn around, he carefully backed the Jeep along on the highway until he was certain the access area he reached was wide enough to back into and head out going forward. Perspiration cooled his forehead as he got the vehicle turned around and drove toward home. He would never make it to the town’s clinic in this weather without another accident. He couldn’t see the road. Meredith was uncharacteristically silent, a blessing, because the hazardous trip took all his concentration.

He had no idea how badly the woman was hurt, or if he’d done her more damage by moving her, but he didn’t think so. She’d been wearing her seat belt; her head had probably hit the steering wheel or the side window.

Grabbing his phone, he called the sheriff’s office. Sharon, the dispatcher answered. “I have Meredith,” he said. “She seems fine. But the truck the woman was driving slid off the road and the driver’s unconscious. She has a pretty bad cut on her forehead. I have her with me, but I can’t make it to town.”

“Where are you?”

“I’ll be at my place in a few minutes.”

“Okay. I’ll let Bryce know and I’ll call Dr. Kline. He can use Sheigh Addison’s snowmobile and come out to your place.”

“I’m almost there.” Charlie hung up and focused on getting the Jeep onto his property. Once he hit his drive, there were no more drainage ditches to fear. He found the path and drove along the length of gravel, clear to the front of his garage where he used the remote to open the door. He pulled into the safe dry garage and breathed a sigh of relief.

After getting Meredith out of the back seat and placing her inside the house, Charlie went back for the young woman. He carried her through the mudroom, across the kitchen and into the great room where he laid her on the leather sofa. After hurriedly running back and hitting the button to close the garage door, he turned on indoor lights and checked her head.

The snow had helped to slow the flow of blood from the wound. He grabbed clean kitchen towels and applied pressure to the cut. Meredith stood nearby, her eyes wide with fright, her dark hair curling wildly around her stricken face.

Charlie reached for her with one arm, and she flung herself against him. He sat on the floor beside the sofa to hold his baby and keep pressure on the woman’s cut.

He’d never been so frightened in his entire life. Almost losing this child had been a gruesome experience. He hugged her warm little body close, felt her trembling and inhaled the wonderful child scent he so loved. His heart couldn’t contain his gratitude at having her safe in his embrace. His eyes stung.

“Are you so, so mad, Daddy?” she asked in a tiny voice.

“We’ll talk about that later. Not right now.” He kissed her hair, her soft cheeks. Closed his eyes and thanked God with his whole being.

They were still sitting like that when he saw a headlight flicker across the lawn and heard the rumble of the snowmobile’s engine cut. “Why don’t you go to your room and rest on your bed for a little while?” he said to his daughter.

Obediently she got up and headed for the hallway.

Charlie let Garreth Kline in. “She’s right here.” He led the young doctor to the sofa.

“What’s her name?” the tall dark-haired man asked.

Charlie realized he didn’t know and told him so.

Garreth took a penlight and raised one of the woman’s eyelids at a time. “Her pupils are equal and reactive.” He removed the cloth to examine the cut. “This needs a couple of stitches. Miss? Can you hear me? Miss?”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Knocked out, I’d say. Took a good whack on the head there.”

“Are those medical terms?”

Garreth ignored him and rubbed his knuckles against her sternum. “Can you wake up and look at me?”

Her eyelids fluttered open.

“Hi. I’m a doctor. Do you know your name?”

She frowned, but she said softly, “Starla.”

“Good. Starla, you have a cut on your head. I’m going to numb the area first, and then I’ll suture it.”

She nodded and closed her eyes.

The doctor tugged on latex gloves and prepared a syringe. Charlie washed his hands in case Garreth needed his help, but then just stood by as Garreth neatly closed the wound, tied a knot and clipped the thread. “She’s going to have a whopping headache,” the doc said, removing the gloves and placing supplies back in his bag. “Do you have any Tylenol?”

Charlie found a bottle.

“She should rest, in case she has a concussion. If she falls asleep and isn’t responsive, or if she vomits, call me.”

“What am I going to do with her?” Charlie asked.

“Just keep her comfortable. And don’t let her drive.”

Charlie shook his head. “Funny.”

Garreth shrugged. “Seriously. Looks like you’ve got yourself a house guest for the duration of the storm.”

Charlie studied the woman on his sofa, then looked at Garreth, whose eyes held a twinkle.

“The situation doesn’t look all that bad, Charlie.”

“I just had one of the worst scares of my life. I need some time to recover.”

“Meredith’s okay? Should I have a look at her?”

“I’d appreciate that, thanks.” He led the way to his daughter’s room. “Look, honey, Dr. Kline is here.”

Meredith sat up on her bed, a worn blue bunny hugged to her chest. “Is the angel lady okay?”

“She’s fine,” Garreth told her. “She just got a bump on the head and a cut. How about you? Did you bump your head?”

Meredith said no. “The angel lady covered my head up with my coat. I was scared.”

“She was protecting you, you know that, right?”

Meredith nodded. “That’s what angels do. That’s what Aunt Edna’s angel did. Protected her from a car crash.”

Charlie exchanged a look with the young doctor. Janet Carter’s aunt would tell the story of the angel in the car to anyone who would listen, and anyone who’d ever met her had heard the tale. What that old lady’s story and his daughter’s experience today had in common, he couldn’t imagine, but Meredith had found a comparison. Confirmation of her theory, apparently.

With his penlight, Garreth checked Meredith’s pupils. He felt her arms and legs and pushed lightly on her chest and her stomach. She seemed to have no pain anywhere. “Looks like you came through without a scratch,” he said to her.

She nodded gravely. “But my daddy’s mad.”

“I’m sure he’s more glad to see you safe than he is mad.”

She gave her father the resigned look of a condemned prisoner. “We’re gonna talk ’bout it later.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to that,” Garreth said, straightening and heading into the other room.

Charlie followed him. “Thanks for coming.”

“Your lady vet’s snowmobile has come in handy more than once.”

“I had dinner with her once, she’s hardly my lady vet.”

Garreth only shrugged. He made his way back to the patient. “I’m leaving now, Starla. Charlie is going to watch out for you. You’re in good hands. If you need anything, he’ll call me.”

She opened her eyes and nodded.

Garreth pulled on his coat and gloves. “Call if you need me.”

Charlie closed the door behind him. Slowly he made his way back to the exquisite woman on his sofa. She was here because of his daughter. Had been injured returning his precious Meredith. “I’m really sorry about this,” he said.

Her lids raised and she focused those unusual blue eyes on him. Something in his chest fluttered. “That’s okay.”

“Do you have a headache?” he asked.

She licked her lips. “Either that or there’s a little guy with a jackhammer inside my skull.”

“The doc said you could have some Tylenol. I’ll get it for you.”

“Thanks.”

He went for water, shook a couple of capsules out of the bottle and secured the childproof lid.

“How’s Meredith?” she asked.

“She’s just fine.”

“She didn’t get any bumps?”

“No.”

“What about the truck?” Her eyes held grave concern.

“In the ditch. Snow up to the wheel wells. It’s not going anywhere.”

“I was afraid of that. Was it still running?”

“Yes, I shut it off and took the keys?”

“Did you lock it?”

“I don’t think so. It’s not going anywhere, and the roads are closed. Nobody’s going to be on that highway.”

She tried to sit up. “Oh, boy, I’m dizzy.”

Charlie knelt beside her and reached an arm behind her back to help her sit. He had to help her hold the glass, too, because her hand was shaky. She smelled like a blend of powder and spice, exotic and feminine, and her fingers beneath his were slender and soft. He experienced the same trouble breathing that he had in the restaurant when he’d first seen her.

He lowered her back to a lying position. “I’ll get you some pillows and covers,” he told her. When he returned, he went to the end of the sofa. “Can I take your boots off?”

She raised one foot.

He reached inside her pant leg and unzipped, then tugged and the black leather boot came off, revealing a slender foot in an ordinary white sock. The sight gave him a hard-on so quickly, he almost turned away. Instead he unzipped and removed the other boot, opened the blanket and covered up the sight of her feet and her legs and her hips in those low-cut jeans and…

The shoulder of her pink sweater was soaked with blood. “I’m going to get you a clean shirt. I’ll bring a pan of water and a cloth. You can clean up and change. Can you do that?”

She glanced down at her sweater. “Sure. I didn’t get blood on your furniture or carpet or anything, did I?”

“No. You may have some inside the cab of your truck, though. I don’t really remember. I was in a hurry to get you both out.”

He found the smallest sweatshirt he owned, which happened to be a faded gray and emblazoned with Iowa Hawkeyes, filled a pan with warm water and suds and handed her a washcloth. “I’ll be in the other room. Call if you need me.”

He helped her sit up and left.

Meredith would be getting hungry. He should think about finding something to eat. He opened a cupboard and listened to the sound of water splashing behind him.

“I don’t know if this stain will come out,” she called. “Would you mind soaking it?”

“I’ll give it a shot. Looks like a nice sweater.”

“My dad gave it to me. He likes me in pink.”

He doubted there was a color of the rainbow she didn’t look good wearing. She was probably even more appealing in nothing at all.

Closing the cupboard, he opened the refrigerator and stared inside. Why had he thought that? He was going to be cooped up with her for the time being; he’d better control his thoughts—and his hormones.

“Your name’s Charlie?” she called.

“Yeah.”

“Charlie, I’m finished.”

He went to get the sweater, warm from her body, and the pan of sudsy water. She swam in his gray sweatshirt, and had pushed the sleeves up to reveal slender forearms.

Back in the kitchen, Charlie used the same pan to fill with cold water and soak her sweater. First he rinsed the soft fabric under the faucet until the water stopped running pink, then he plunged it down in the water.

“Add a little salt,” she called.

“Salt?”

“It’s supposed to help take out blood stains. I read that somewhere.”

“Okay.” He poured a teaspoon in and swished it around. Martha Stewart, he wasn’t.

Meredith appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Can I talk to the angel lady now?”

“Her name is Starla. Can you call her that, please? And while you’re at it, maybe you should tell her you’re sorry for making her come back here in a snowstorm.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

He dried his hands and stepped to the doorway. Meredith crossed the living room and paused beside the sofa.

Starla’s blond head moved as she turned to look at the little girl. “Hi,” Starla said. “How are you?”

“I’m okay. Did the doctor do that to you?” Meredith pointed to Starla’s forehead.

“Yes. Does it look pretty bad?”

Meredith nodded. “Does it hurt?”

“No, he gave me a shot of novocaine before he stitched it. Do you think I’ll be able to play the violin after they take out the stitches?”

Meredith eyes widened. “I don’t know. Daddy?”

Charlie chuckled and joined them, sitting on a chair. “It’s an old joke, honey. I’ll bet Starla didn’t play the violin before she hit her head.”

“Were you tricking me?” Meredith asked.

“Yes, I was.” Starla turned her attention to Charlie. “You didn’t happen to grab my phone, did you?”

He shook his head.

“I need to call my dad. He’s expecting to hear from me, and he’ll be worried, especially if he calls and my phone just rings and rings.”

“No problem.” Charlie grabbed the cordless phone from the counter between the kitchen and living room and handed it to her. “Use mine.”

“It’s long distance,” she warned.

“And you’re here because of me,” he replied in the same tone.

She took the phone and punched in numbers.

“Come on, Meredith, I’ll fix a snack.”

“But I didn’t getta say it yet.”

“Say it after she makes her call.”

She followed him to the kitchen.

For once when he would have welcomed Meredith’s chatter to cover the conversation in the other room, the child remained silent. Bits of Starla’s side of the conversation floated to them as she explained what happened. “I swear, I’m all right… I know…well, I don’t know…how long it will be before they can get here to pull it up… The highway’s closed, anyway… I’m so sorry…make it up some other way. Maybe if I call… I know what this meant to you… Yes, I’m perfectly fine…yes, it’s just a truck…some other way… Daddy….”

Charlie got the impression that something more than a few days’ travel was at stake. Was she in some kind of trouble?

He put together grilled cheese sandwiches and mugs of hot tomato soup, and carried a tray into the other room.

Starla sat up, but she only took a few bites. She sipped the cup of tea he brought her, then nestled back down into the covers.

“Starla?” Meredith said timidly.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry I got in your truck and made you get in a accident.”

“The accident wasn’t your fault, honey. They call them accidents because they’re nobody’s fault.”

Meredith didn’t seem reassured by those words, but Charlie stayed out of the dialogue.

“It’s okay,” Starla said, somehow understanding the child needed forgiveness. “I’m not mad at you.”

Meredith nodded. “Okay.”

Meredith picked at her food and Starla drifted into sleep. After cleaning up their dishes, Charlie held his daughter on his lap.

“It’s time to talk now,” he told her.

She nodded gravely and raised innocent wide eyes that immediately filled with tears. “I did a naughty thing, huh, Daddy?”

“Yes, you did. It was a dangerous thing. There are rules about strangers and about going anywhere by yourself, and the rules are to keep you safe. Do you understand?”

She nodded. To her credit, she didn’t use an excuse. “I’m very, very sorry.”

“What do you think is a fair punishment?”

They’d had similar conversations in the past, so she understood the concept. “I shouldn’t get to play with something I really like for a whole year.”

Time was a concept she had a problem with, however. “I think a week will do. What should that favorite thing be?”

She glanced aside, then up at him. “My angel book.”

She loved that book, so not having it for a week would be stern punishment. “I think that’s fair.”

“I must have left it in the angel lady’s truck.”

“We’ll get it tomorrow.” She nestled her head against his chest and he rocked her. “I love you with my whole heart.”

“I love you with my whole heart, too, Daddy.”

He picked up a book and read it to her, then just held her until she fell asleep. Eventually he carried her to her bed and tucked her in, pausing to touch his face to her cheek and smooth her dark hair.

He wouldn’t have been able to go on living if anything had happened to his Meredith.

Back in the living room, the woman still slept. Charlie added a log to the fire and sat across from her. She had a few dark streaks on her cheek and in her hairline. He got a wet cloth and dabbed it on her face.

She opened her eyes. That incredible blue gaze wreaked havoc with his senses every time she turned it on him.

“There was still some blood,” he explained.

Her eyes drifted shut.

He removed the dried blood gently, smoothing her hair back from her temple with the cloth. Her hair was so pale and fine; it darkened visibly when it got wet. The skin of her temples seemed almost translucent, and her brows were fair and shaped like wings. Her golden lashes lay against her cheeks in soft curls.

He’d never seen anyone so exquisite—there was just no other word for her—beautiful didn’t cut it, couldn’t describe those striking cheekbones and hair that begged to be touched. His fingers itched to learn just how silken and soft it would be.

Charlie wiped his palm against the thigh of his jeans.

In the firelight, her hair shimmered like gossamer threads of silver and gold. He touched it then, just to move it from under her cheek and make her more comfortable. It was cool and satiny in his fingers. He drew a breath that came from his toes and curled a hitch in his chest.

Her eyes opened.

His breathing stopped.

“Charlie,” she whispered sleepily.

It was the sexiest word in the history of language. “What?”

“Is it still snowing?”

He roused himself from his visual trance to go peer out the window into the night. The moon revealed swirling flakes still falling to blanket the countryside. “Yes,” he answered.

“Charlie,” she said again.

If he didn’t guard his reactions to every sigh and word and each flutter of her lash, he was going to lose all self-respect. “Yes?”

“Do you suppose I could have a bath?”

Ohmygod.

“I’m kind of achy.” She brought her open hand to her chest. “Probably from the seat belt, but I’m thinking a warm soak would feel good.”

“You’re in luck, then. I just happen to have a whirlpool in my master bath.”

“Oh, that would be heaven.”

Damn near. “Let me help you. Are you dizzy?”

She sat up and brought a hand to her temple. “A little.”

“Wait while I go fill the tub.” He hurried to run hot water and turn on the jets, add Meredith’s bubble bath, then returned for Starla. He slid one arm around her waist, and she wrapped hers around him and steadied herself. They walked that way, hip to hip to the hallway, and then he guided her ahead of him with both hands on her shoulders.

“Here are towels and a robe.” All he had to lend was his own. He helped her sit on the corner of the enormous tub. “Tell you what. You just sleep in my room tonight. While you’re in here, I’ll change the sheets. Then I’ll take the sofa.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Her hair draped over her shoulder in a silken wave. He opened a drawer and pulled out an elastic band. “Here. It’s Meredith’s.”

“Thank you.” She smiled up at him. “You’re a sweet guy, you know that?”

She captured her hair in a loose knot on her head, then, bending to remove one sock, she swayed.

“Whoa.” Charlie caught her by the shoulders and balanced her. “Here.” He knelt in front of her. “Bending over probably isn’t a good idea.” He picked up her foot and peeled the sock away. Her feet had turned him on with socks, he didn’t dare look now. He looked straight ahead at the Hawkeyes emblem on his sweatshirt.

She steadied herself with a hand on his shoulder.

After pulling off the other sock, he purposely stared at the mounting bubbles in the tub. “Can you get your jeans?”

She straightened up in her sitting position, reached under the sweatshirt and unbuttoned and unzipped.

It was obvious that she’d have to bend over, so he took control. He could do this. Not everything was about sex. This was about helping a person his daughter had managed to get into this situation. “Stand up.”

She did. The sweatshirt hung over her hips, thank God.

Charlie reached under it, concentrating on finding the waistband, located it and jimmied the denim down over her hips, his fingers coming in contact with warm skin and satin in the process. This activity would raise any man’s blood pressure, and he’d been without a woman for a long time. She’d said he was sweet. If she only knew. She had to know. “Okay, have a seat again.”

She sat. Concentrating on the task alone, he pinched both denim legs at the hem and pulled the jeans down her legs and off. His peripheral vision didn’t miss the length of slender bare limbs. The most gorgeous woman he’d ever met was getting naked in his bathroom.

“Holler if you need anything.” He backed out of the room and pulled the door shut, then leaned his forehead against the wood for a full minute. When water splashed, he backed away as if the door had jolted him with a high-voltage current. Sheets. He was changing the sheets now. He tucked and smoothed, found an extra clean blanket.

Charlie saw the room as she would view it. A man’s room. Practical. Simple. He imagined her pale hair against the plain navy-blue sheets and pillowcases, her ivory skin touching the cotton… He didn’t even know her. He’d never seen her before today, but her presence was the most disturbing experience he’d had in…forever.

He was obsessed. Enchanted. Horny, he wanted to rationalize, but that word corrupted the beauty of what he really felt when he was around her. No, she didn’t inspire lust. She inspired awe. A purity of admiration he should be laughing at himself for feeling.

“Charlie?”

He would change his name after she’d gone.

Charlie stepped to the door. “Yes?”

“I’m feeling pretty dizzy. From the hot water probably. Would you mind terribly…helping me, I mean?”

He opened the door enough to speak to her. “You want me to come i-in there?” His voice cracked like a seventeen-year-old’s.

“I’m afraid I’ll fall and bump my head or something. I don’t want to be any more trouble.”

Forcing one foot in front of the other, he crossed the room. He was an adult, after all. This was his bathroom, and he could assist a person in need without slobbering all over himself.

Good God in heaven, there was a pale pink bra dangling from the back of the chair he’d placed there for her; her jeans were folded on the seat, his sweatshirt tossed over those and a minuscule scrap of satin that might have been her underwear was on top of the whole pile….

There were bubbles up to her midchest, thank goodness, but her pale shoulders were sleekly wet and slender. With her hair gathered on her head, her neck looked slim and vulnerable…like the rest of her.

What exactly did cardiac arrest feel like?

No, his heart was beating because blood throbbed in the most conspicuous place, and he hoped she wouldn’t notice. He picked up one of the towels he’d left and managed to look at her.

Her cheeks were bright pink with embarrassment. She hadn’t wanted to call on him for help. He was a complete stranger—and a man besides, and she probably felt awkward and vulnerable. Everything slipped into perspective in that second and somehow he was back in control again.

“Can you stand by yourself? I’ll face the other way and hand you back the towel. You just hold on to my shoulder or my arm or wherever you need to keep your balance.”

He turned around then, and behind him water sloshed. She took the towel, and then her hot moist fingers clamped on to his shoulder in a firm hold. “Okay. I’m going to sit here for a minute and dry off.”

She used the chair behind him. Charlie stared straight ahead at the foggy mirror. Here and there a watery streak revealed a glimpse of flesh and white towel. He got light-headed, too.

“I can’t tell you how good that felt,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“But now I’m so tired again.”

“You can go to sleep. The bed’s ready.”

“That sounds wonderful. I didn’t let the water out.”

“I’ll do it. Do you have the robe on?” Please God, let her have the robe on.

“Almost.”

He’d left the door open, and the cool air was drying reflective spaces on the mirror. One of them revealed a length of spine and a swell of hip. Charlie honorably looked the other way. Then back.

The robe fluttered the hot air of the room as she pulled it around her. “Okay. I’m ready. Just let me get my clothes.”

Charlie turned as she was gathering her clothing, discreetly tucking the bra and panties between layers of denim. He offered his arm and she took it, leaning heavily on him for balance as he led her to his bedroom and the king-size bed with the covers turned back.

Starla placed her things on a chair, sat on the edge of the bed and tugged the band from her hair. The platinum mass fell over the shoulders of the robe. “Thanks,” she said.

“You’re welcome. I’ll clean up in there and leave you to your rest.”

After he’d drained the tub and hung the towels, he passed through to find her fast asleep…the robe tossed to the foot of the bed. He’d have to buy a new one because he’d never be able to wear that one without seeing her in it.

After he changed his name, he would buy new sheets, too—and a different bed. He would never be able to fall asleep in this one again. Not after the most beautiful woman in the universe had slept in it…bare-assed naked.




Chapter Four


Charlie was horny. All right? No shame in that. He might as well admit it to himself and move on. About two in the morning, he argued that lack of physical release had never been a problem before. At three-eighteen he acknowledged that, okay, Starla, the trucker from heaven, had never been in his bed—or in his head before.

It was no wonder that when Meredith made her way to where he finally slept on the sofa, it was already almost eight o’clock.

“Daddy, SpongeBob is on and I usually eat breakfast during Rugrats.”

He opened his eyes and blinked. “Already?”

She nodded. “I’m very, very hungry.”

Charlie sat up and rubbed his scratchy jaw. “All right. Give me a minute.”

His daughter moved up to lean against his knee. “Did the angel sleep in your bed?”

A vision of his robe tossed to the foot of the bed flashed in his mind, and he forgot to argue the angel tag. “Uh-huh.”

“And you sleep-ded out here in your sweatpants?”

“Sort of.”

“Can we have panacakes?”

“Sure.” He got up and made a trip to the bathroom, looked out the front windows at the falling snow still piling up, then started preparations for breakfast.

Coffee was brewing and he had mixed pancake batter from a box when Starla came out of the bedroom and approached the bar dividing the rooms. Meredith turned from where she sat perched on a stool and smiled at their visitor.

Starla had dressed in her jeans and his sweatshirt—he’d have to get rid of it after she was gone, or he’d forever picture her slim shoulders and the fullness of her breasts beneath the worn cotton. Her feet were bare and her hair was pulled into a loose knot with Meredith’s band. “Good morning.”

“’Morning,” Charlie and Meredith chorused.

Her aquamarine gaze dropped to his chest.

He hadn’t pulled on his T-shirt. “Did you sleep okay?” he asked.

She averted her attention and took the stool beside Meredith. “I did, but I woke with a headache.”

Immediately, he shook out a couple of capsules and placed them on the counter in front of her, then went to grab a T-shirt and pull it on.

Meredith had the refrigerator door open when he returned. She withdrew a colorful pouch and proceeded to strip away the slim straw and pierce the juice box with it. She set the drink before Starla. “You can have one of my Mickey Mouse coolers. It’s juice and it tastes like strawberry.”

“Why, thank you.” Starla picked up the capsules and swallowed them down with a sip through the straw. After tasting the offering, her gaze caught Charlie’s. The drinks were incredibly sweet and appealed to kids. He discreetly set a glass of orange juice within her reach.

The area around the stitched cut on her forehead was bruised, and even the skin beneath her eye looked tinged with purple.

At his perusal, she raised fingers to her temple self-consciously. “I look a fright, don’t I?”

In his opinion, she could still win the Miss Universe Pageant hands down. He poured batter on the hot griddle. “Does it hurt?”

“It’s tender.”

Charlie tended his pancakes and flipped them at the appropriate time. He stuck several slices of frozen bacon into the microwave and set plates on the counter. “Garreth—the doc—said it was a clean cut and he made tiny stitches. You shouldn’t have a scar.”

“Have you heard the weather report?”

For someone who looked the way she did, she seemed unconcerned about the possibility of scarring. Her attention stayed focused on getting her truck on the road. “I just got up a few minutes before you did.”

Starla watched him efficiently prepare the meal. He’d only been up a short while. That explained the bare chest she’d admired upon entering the kitchen. She smiled at his time-saving methods and no-frills breakfast. But thinking bare reminded her of last night’s bathing process and how he’d assisted her to the bathroom and even out of her jeans and later out of the tub.

So far she knew several things about Charlie McGraw: he loved his daughter desperately; he made a good living—this spacious log home was evidence of that—he was adequate in the kitchen; and he was a gentleman.





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Charlie McGraw never should have bought the angel book for his precocious daughter.Because then Meredith wouldn't be convinced that getting a new mommy was as simple as having an «angel» sprinkle him with her «miracle dust.» And she never would have believed the beautiful blond-haired woman who drove a truck called the «Silver Angel» was some treetop angel come to life.Starla Richards was no angel. But try telling that to a five-year-old who was so starved for a mother's love that she'd stowed away on Starla's rig. Or convincing herself that miracles just didn't happen to ordinary people when Starla found herself snowbound with the handsome, caring widower and his adorable daughter….

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