Excerpt: Engaged to the Single Mom

Excerpt: Engaged to the Single Mom

Rescue River Series

You can let me off here.” Angelica Camden practically shouted the words over the roar of her grandfather's mufflerless truck. The hot July air, blowing in through the pickup's open windows, did nothing to dispel the sweat that dampened her neck and face.

She rubbed her hands down the legs of the full-length jeans she preferred to wear despite the heat, took a deep breath and blew it out yoga-style between pursed lips. She could do this. Had to do it.

Gramps raised bushy white eyebrows as he braked at the top of a long driveway. “I'm taking you right up to that arrogant somethingor-other's door. You're a lady and should be treated as one.”

No chance of that. Angelica's stomach churned at the thought of the man she was about to face. She'd fight lions for her kid, had done the equivalent plenty of times, but this particular lion terrified her, brought back feelings of longing and shame and sadness that made her feel about two inches tall.

This particular lion had every right to eat her alive. Her heart fluttered hard against her ribs, and when she took a deep breath, trying to calm herself, the truck's exhaust fumes made her feel light-headed.

I can't do this, Lord.

Immediately the verse from this morning's devotional, read hastily while she'd stirred oatmeal on Gramps's old gas stove, swam before her eyes: I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.

She believed it. She'd recited it to herself many times in the past couple of difficult years. She could do all things through Christ.

But this, Lord? Are you sure?

She knew Gramps would gladly go on the warpath for her, but using an eighty-year-old man to fight her battles wasn't an option. The problem was hers. She'd brought it on herself, mostly, and she was the one who had to solve it. “I'd rather do it my own way, Gramps. Please.”

Ignoring her—of course—he started to turn into the driveway.

She yanked the handle, shoved the truck door open and put a booted foot on the running board, ready to jump.

“Hey, careful!” Gramps screeched to a stop just in front of a wooden sign: A Dog's Last Chance: No-Cage Canine Rescue. Troy Hinton, DVM, Proprietor. “DVM, eh? Well, he's still a—”

“Shhh.” She swung back around to face him, hands braced on the door guards, and nodded sideways toward the focus of her entire life.

Gramps grunted and, thankfully, lapsed into silence.

“Mama, can I go in with you?” Xavier shot her a pleading look—one he'd perfected and used at will, the rascal—from the truck's backseat. “I want to see the dogs.”

If she played this right, he'd be able to do more than just see the dogs during a short visit. He'd fulfill a dream, and right now Angelica's life pretty much revolved around helping Xavier fulfill his dreams.

“It's a job interview, honey. You go for a little drive with Gramps.” At his disappointed expression, she reached back to pat his too-skinny leg. “Maybe you can see the dogs later, if I get the job.”

“You'll get it, Mama.”

His brilliant smile and total confidence warmed her heart at the same time that tension attacked her stomach. She shot a glance at Gramps and clung harder to the truck, which suddenly felt like security in a storm.

He must have read her expression, because his gnarled hands gripped the steering wheel hard. “You don't have to do this. We can try to get by for another couple of weeks at the Towers.”

Seeing the concern in his eyes took Angelica out of herself and her fears. Gramps wasn't as healthy as he used to be, and he didn't need any extra stress on account of her. Two weeks at the Senior Towers was the maximum visit from relatives with kids, and even though she'd tried to keep Xavier quiet and neat, he'd bumped into a resident who used a walker, spilled red punch in the hallway and generally made too much noise. In other words, he was a kid. And the Senior Towers was no place to raise a kid.

They'd already outstayed their welcome, and she knew Gramps was concerned about it. She leaned back in to rub his shoulder. “I know what I'm doing. I'll be fine.”

“You're sure?”

She nodded. “Don't worry about me.”

But once the truck pulled away, bearing with it the only two males in North America she trusted, Angelica's strength failed her. She put a hand on one of the wooden fence posts and closed her eyes, shooting up a desperate prayer for courage.

As the truck sounds faded, the Ohio farmland came to life around her. A tiny creek rippled its way along the driveway. Two fence posts down, a red-winged blackbird landed, trilling the oka-oka-LEE she hadn't heard in years. She inhaled the pungent scent of new-mown hay.

This was where she'd come from. Surely the Lord had a reason for bringing her home.

Taking another deep breath, she straightened her spine. She was of farm stock. She could do this. She reached into her pocket, clutched the key chain holding a cross and a photo of her son in better days, and headed toward the faint sound of barking dogs. Toward the home of the man who had every reason to hate her.

As the sound of the pickup faded, Troy Hinton used his arms to lift himself halfway out of the porch rocker. In front of him, his cast-clad leg rested on a wicker table, stiff and useless.

“A real man plays ball, even if he's hurt. Get back up and into the game, son.” His dad's words echoed in his head, even though his logical side knew he couldn't risk worsening his compound fracture just so he could stride down the porch steps and impress the raven-haired beauty slowly approaching his home.

Not that he had any chance of impressing Angelica Camden. Nor any interest in doing so. She was one mistake he wouldn't make again.

His dog, Bull, scrabbled against the floorboards beside him, trying to stand despite his arthritic hips. Troy sank back down and put a hand on the dog's back. “It's okay, boy. Relax.”

He watched Angelica's slow, reluctant walk toward his house. Why she'd applied to be his assistant, he didn't know. And why he'd agreed to talk to her was an even bigger puzzle.

She'd avoided him for the past seven years, ever since she'd jilted him with a handwritten letter and disappeared not only from his life, but from the state. A surge of the old bitterness rose in him, and he clenched his fists. Humiliation. Embarrassment. And worse, a broken heart and shattered faith that had never fully recovered.

She'd arrived in her grandfather's truck, but the old man had no use for him or any of his family, so why had he brought her out here for her interview? And why wasn't he standing guard with a shotgun? In fact, given the old man's reputation for thrift, he'd probably use the very same shotgun with which he'd ordered Troy off his hardscrabble farm seven years ago.

Troy had come looking for explanations about why Angelica had left town. Where she was. What her letter had meant. How she was surviving; whether she was okay.

The old man had raved at him, gone back into the past feud between their families over the miserable acre of land he called a farm. That acre had rapidly gone to seed, as had Angelica's grandfather, and a short while later he'd moved into the Senior Towers.

In a way, the old man had been abandoned, too, by the granddaughter he'd helped to raise. Fair warning. No matter how sweet she seemed, no matter what promises she made, she was a runner. Disloyal. Not to be counted on.

As Angelica approached, Troy studied her. She was way thinner than the curvy little thing she'd been at twenty-one. Her black hair, once shiny and flowing down her back in waves, was now captured in a careless bun. She wore baggy jeans and a loose, dusty-red T-shirt.

But with her full lips and almond-shaped eyes and coppery bronze skin, she still glowed like an exotic flower in the middle of a plain midwestern cornfield. And doggone it if his heart didn't leap out of his chest to see her.

“Down, boy,” Troy ordered Bull—or maybe himself—as he pushed up into a standing position and hopped over to get his crutches.

His movements must have caught the attention of Lou Ann Miller, and now she hobbled out the front screen door.

She pointed a spatula at him. “You get back in that chair.”

“You get back in that kitchen.” He narrowed his eyes at the woman who'd practically raised him. “This is something I have to do alone. And standing up.”

“If you fall down those steps, you'll have to hire yet another helper, and you've barely got the charm to keep me.” She put her hands on bony hips. “I expect you to treat that girl decent. What I hear, she's been through a lot.”

Curiosity tugged at him. People in town were too kind to tell him the latest gossip about Angelica. They danced around the subject, sparing his ego and his feelings.

What had Angelica been through? How had it affected her?

The idea that she'd suffered or been hurt plucked at the chords of his heart, remnants of a time he'd have moved mountains to protect her and care for her. She'd had such a hard time growing up, and it had made him feel ten feet tall that she'd chosen him to help her escape her rough past.

Women weren't the only ones who liked stories of knights in shining armor. Lots of men wanted to be heroes as well, and Angelica was the kind of woman who could bring out the heroic side of a guy.

At least for a while. He swallowed down his questions and the bad taste in his mouth and forced a lightness he didn't feel into his tone. “Who says I won't treat her well? She's the only person who's applied for the job. I'd better.” Looking at his cast, he could only shake his head. What an idiot he'd been to try to fix the barn roof by himself, all because he didn't want to ask anyone for help.

“I'll leave you alone, but I'll know if you raise your voice,” Lou Ann warned, pointing the spatula at him again.

He hopped to the door and held it for her. Partly to urge her inside, and partly to catch her if she stumbled. She was seventy-five if she was a day, and despite her high energy and general bossiness, he felt protective.

Not that he'd be much help if she fell, with this broken leg.

She rolled her eyes and walked inside, shaking her head.

When he turned back, Angelica was about ten feet away from the front porch. She'd stopped and was watching him. Eyes huge, wide, wary. From here, he could see the dark circles under them.

Unwanted concern nudged at him. She looked as though she hadn't slept, hadn't been eating right. Her clothes were worn, suggesting poverty. And the flirty sparkle in her eyes, the one that had kept all the farm boys buying gallons of lemonade from her concession stand at the county fair…that was completely gone.

She looked defeated. At the end of her rope.

What had happened to her?

Their mutual sizing-up stare-fest lasted way too long, and then he beckoned her forward. “Come on up. I'm afraid I can't greet you properly with this bum leg.”

She trotted up the stairs, belying his impression that she was beaten down. “Was that Lou Ann Miller?”

“It was.” He felt an illogical urge to step closer to her, which he ascribed to the fact that he didn't get out much and didn't meet many women. “She runs my life.”

“Miss Lou Ann!” Angelica called through the screen door, seemingly determined to ignore Troy. “Haven't seen you in ages!”

Lou Ann, who must have been directly inside, hurried back out.

Angelica's face broke into a smile as she pulled the older woman into a gentle hug. “It's so nice to see you!

How's Caleb?”

Troy drummed his fingers on the handle of his crutch. Caleb was Lou Ann's grandson, who'd been in Angelica's grade in school, and whom Angelica had dated before the two of them had gotten together. He was just one of the many members of Angelica's fan club back then, and Troy, with his young-guy pride and testosterone, had been crazy jealous of all of them.

Maybe with good reason.

“He's fine, fine. Got two young boys.” Lou Ann held Angelica's shoulders and studied her. “You're way too thin. I'll bring out some cookies.” She glared at Troy. “They're not for you, so don't you go eating all of them.”

And then she was gone and it was just the two of them.

* * *

Angelica studied the man she'd been so madly in love with seven years ago.

He was as handsome as ever, despite the cast on his leg and the two-day ragged beard on his chin. His shoulders were still impossibly broad, but now there were tiny wrinkles beside his eyes, and his short haircut didn't conceal the fact that his hairline was a little higher than it used to be. The hand he held out to her was huge.

Angelica's stomach knotted, but she forced herself to reach out and put her hand into his.

The hard-calloused palm engulfed hers and she yanked her hand back, feeling trapped. She squatted down to pet the grizzled bulldog at Troy's side. “Who's this?”

“That's Bull.”

She blinked. Was he calling her on her skittishness?

That impression increased as he cocked his head to one side. “You're not afraid of me, are you?”

“No!” She gulped air. “I'm not afraid of you. Like I said when we texted, I'm here to apply for the job you advertised in the Tribune.”

He gestured toward one of the rockers. “Have a seat. Let's talk about that. I'm curious about why you're interested.”

Of course he was. And she'd spent much of last night sleepless, wondering how much she'd have to tell him to get the job she desperately needed, the job that would make things as good as they could be, at least for a while.

Once she sat down, he made his way back to his own rocker and sat, grimacing as he propped his leg on the low table in front of him.

She didn't like the rush of sympathy she felt. “What happened?”

“Fell off a roof. My own stupid fault.”

That was new in him, the willingness to admit his own culpability. She wondered how far it went.

“That's why I need an assistant with the dogs,” he explained. “Lou Ann helps me around the house, but she's not strong enough to take care of the kennels. I can't get everything done, and we've got a lot of dogs right now, so this is kind of urgent.”

His words were perfectly cordial, but questions and undercurrents rustled beneath them.

Angelica forced herself to stay in the present, in sales mode. “You saw my résumé online, right? I worked as a vet assistant back in Boston. And I've done hospital, um, volunteer work, and you know I grew up in the country. I'm strong, a lot stronger than I look.”

He nodded. “I've no doubt you could do the work if you wanted to,” he said, “but why would you want to?”

“Let's just say I need a job.”

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