Connie Cox

Christmas Eve Delivery


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his great soul inside her.

      She would keep her promise. She’d given her word.

      And right now her word was the only significant thing she had to call her own.

      Jordan paced the hallway, waiting, waiting. X-ray. CT scan. Radiologist report.

      Rusty.

      And the woman he’d left behind. What had he done, hiring her like that? Being impulsive wasn’t like him. Had never been like him.

      While it was true that he hadn’t been himself in a while now, had he completely lost his mind?

      He stopped pacing. Maybe.

      Pain arced through him, starting in his heart and spreading through his veins. The pain of fear.

      Not now. Now was not the time to have a panic attack.

      Through sheer force of will he made himself start walking again. Walk. Breathe. Don’t think.

      Don’t think about the woman waiting at his house, confused. Needing a job. Desperate.

      He’d seen it in her eyes.

      What had she seen in his?

      Deseré’s back screamed in pain from sitting on that hard wooden bench so long and her stomach burned with indigestion that had to rival the pits of hell.

      The old cowboy had brought her a hot dog and a Frito pie, both covered in spicy chili, apologizing that this was all the little makeshift food stand had to offer.

      She’d eaten them, of course. Even if she hadn’t been starving, turning down free food would have been foolish in her financial situation.

      But now, if she could go back in time, she probably would have done the same thing. Heartburn would eventually fade away and she needed the calories and scant nutrients the food provided.

      As for going back in time—if she had that ability, she’d certainly take herself back a lot further than a few hours ago.

      But how far back? Back before their father had died in Hurricane Katrina’s flooding and Celeste had taken on the responsibility of raising her younger sister? Would that be far enough back?

      What part of her history would she be willing to accept as her starting point for life?

      Here and now. That’s all she had. That’s all she’d ever had.

      But Dr. Hart had given her a future. My nurse practitioner, he’d said, giving her his stamp of approval, his acceptance and his protection all in one hasty pronouncement.

      In a small community like this, everything he’d said and done was significant. Even now, she’d bet plenty of folks were dissecting and discussing every nuance.

      Even after she was invited to the announcers’ booth, their flimsy metal chairs weren’t an improvement over the hard wooden benches and the staleness of the booth, the odor of burnt coffee mixed with dust and sweat that had built up over the years made her stomach roil.

      She swatted at a gnat on her neck, one of millions in league with the mosquitoes that flocked to taste any sliver of exposed skin.

      She’d opted to sit outside as the night air brought the heat and humidity down a few degrees. The perspiration soaking her shirt chilled her, making her shiver.

      And she was so tired she was having difficulty deciding if she was awake or asleep. She wrapped her arms around herself, surprised to find a blue jean jacket awkwardly draped around her chair and over her shoulders.

      That answered it. She’d been asleep—asleep enough that she was startled when the older cowboy, the one she recognized from the parking lot, cleared his throat.

      “Ma’am?” Plato’s volume, a touch above a normal speaking voice, firm but still calm and gentle, clued her in that this wasn’t the first time he’d tried to awaken her.

      She blinked, trying to bring his leathered face into focus.

      Pasting on the best smile she could, even though it felt extremely weak to her, she answered in kind, “Sir?”

      Relief showed in his rheumy blue eyes.

      Cataracts? Glaucoma? The medical professional started to evaluate diagnoses.

      But the exhausted woman overruled them, appreciating the concern and sympathy she found in those bloodshot, yellow-tinged eyes.

      “Ready to go home now?” His words made his rough voice sound sweeter than any angel’s song.

      Home. Had she finally found home?

      “Yes.” Awkwardly, she gathered her purse, trying to hold the jacket around her shoulders while she wiggled functionality into her swollen feet.

      He reached out for her.

      As an independent woman, she usually waved away the courtesy.

      But tonight, his hand on her elbow, guiding her, steadying her, gave her more comfort than she would ever have imagined.

      Gratefully and graciously, she accepted the other hand he held out for her as she made the step from the second-row bleacher to the ground.

      “You can follow Sissy, or I can drive your car for you and catch a ride back here for my truck.”

      Her car. All that she owned was in that car. The stark reality was enough to push away the blanket of sleep that weakened her.

      Her brain jump-started and she remembered who Sissy was—Jordan’s sister.

      Jordan. When had he become Jordan in her head instead of Dr. Hart?

      “I’ll follow Sissy.”

      Deseré should have let the old man drive her.

      Bleary-eyed, she slammed on her brakes and slowed enough to just miss the bumper of Sissy’s truck as the vet turned off the two-lane road onto a crumbling black-topped street that had deteriorated on the edges so that it was only the width of a car and a half.

      Carefully, she put distance between her car and the truck in front of her, on alert for sudden brake lights.

      And her caution was validated when Sissy slowed her truck to a crawl and turned into a dirt and gravel drive without bothering to use her blinkers first.

      Trees crowded the driveway—and Deseré used the description of driveway very loosely. How far away from the street was the house?

      And then they turned a steep curve and there it was, a farmhouse that could have come from a movie set, or her dreams.

      Headlights showed a huge, two-storied, white-painted wooden house with gray shingles and a darker gray double door centered under a deep covered wraparound porch. Rocking chairs promised the good life once the grimy cushions were replaced and they were swept clear of cobwebs.

      If Deseré had to pick out the perfect picture of a potential home, this would be it.

      Which meant she immediately put herself on guard.

      Nothing was this easy. This neat. This perfect.

      Where was the catch?

      Ahead of her, Sissy had her arm stuck out her truck’s window as she wildly gestured to an empty carport that branched off from the drive.

      Deseré interpreted that to mean, “Park here.” She could always move it later if she was wrong.

      She pulled into the expansive parking place, taking up most of the room by sloppily not squaring her car with the open space. The lack of order felt off, but not as off as her head, which chose that moment to swim in that dizzy, depleted way that meant she’d gone as far as she could today.

      Sissy inspected her parking job and clearly found it lacking. With a frown, she shrugged and said, “Jordan will just have to deal with it.”

      Deseré knew she should ask for clarification but right now she didn’t really want to know. Knowing might mean exerting more energy than she had to give.

      Grabbing