He's going to prove to Valentina he's not like her loser exes, and he's going to give her a Valentine's Day to remember.More info →
Valentina Cupid tried to ease the tension in her neck. Her children, Max and Katy, were asleep in the backseat. It had only been a few days since Gage had walked out of their lives, or more like run. Valentina had come home to find his things packed and gone, and an eviction notice tacked to the door. She’d quietly packed their belongings, put the kids in the car, and just drove until her vision blurred. After travelling for three days, she was down to their last hundred dollars and knew they couldn’t run any further. Blossom Creek, Texas would have to do until she could find a job and earn some more money.
Her hand smoothed over her still flat stomach. At least she wasn’t showing yet. A new start in a new town was just what her little family needed, but she knew once people learned her kids all had different fathers, they’d sneer at her just like the last town had done. She had a thing for bad boys who knocked her up and took off, and never seemed to learn her lesson. If she ever dated again, she’d have to pick a nice, nerdy guy who sat at a desk every day. Tattoos and muscles were overrated.
“Momma, I’m hungry,” Max said from the backseat.
The box of peanut butter crackers lay empty on the passenger seat. She’d bought it yesterday in hopes of spreading their cash a little further, but her kids really needed a hot meal. A diner on the right caught her attention and she pulled into a space out front. Scrubbing her hands up and down her face a few times, she unbuckled her seatbelt and got the kids out of their car seats. They’d been travelling for three days, only stopping at truck stops and rest areas long enough for Valentina to close her eyes for an hour here and there.
She gripped their hands as they entered the diner and waited to be seated. It seemed almost as if every eye in the place turned their way. Valentina’s cheeks flushed and she tried to avoid their gazes. An older woman wearing an apron came over, flashing them a smile.
“You want a table or a booth?” the waitress asked.
Max tugged on her hand. “Can we have a booth, Momma?”
The waitress nodded. “I know just the spot.”
She grabbed a menu and three rolls of silverware before leading the way to a booth in the window. Max and Katy both needed booster seats, but once they were settled, Valentina slid into the other side. She was so damn tired the words on the menu ran together and turned into black fuzzy blotches, but she fought to focus and remain upright. Her kids needed her.
She read off the menu choices they could afford and let Max pick his meal. Katy hardly ever ate anything but mashed potatoes and mac ‘n cheese. As much as Valentina wanted to order the biggest burger with the largest order of fries on the menu, she settled for a cup of soup and some crackers. After she placed their order, the waitress returned with some paper and crayons for the kids.
“Thought they might want something to do while you wait for your food,” the woman said. “I’m Barb. Just holler if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” Valentina said with a tired smile.
When their food was delivered, Barb set down a large salad with chunks of grilled chicken and a side of ranch. Valentina opened her mouth to protest that she hadn’t ordered it when the woman held up a hand.
“You need more than soup,” Barb said. “Won’t do your kids any good if you pass out from hunger.”
Valentina’s cheeks flushed.
“You sticking around town or passing through?” Barb asked.
“I thought we’d stay for a while.”
“Diner’s closing in an hour. Why don’t you wait until the customers are gone, and if you’d like, you can help me close up. I’ll pay you cash.”
Valentina’s face burned with embarrassment as she nodded in agreement. Was it noticeable that they were on their last leg? She hated accepting charity, but if Barb would let her work for the salad and a few extra dollars to get them by a little longer, she couldn’t say no. They ate their food and the kids colored a little more while they waited for the diner to empty. When the last customer had walked out, Barb locked the door and flipped the sign to Closed.
“You ever worked in a diner before?” Barb asked.
Barb snorted. “None of that ma’am nonsense. Just call me Barb. I’m going to let you refill the napkins and condiments at each table. Then you can sweep and mop the floor. I’ll be in the kitchen helping Hank prep for tomorrow. Come on. I’ll show you where everything is.”
It took almost two hours for Valentina to get everything done, and her kids had fallen asleep at the table by the time she was finished. Barb insisted on paying her twenty dollars in addition to the salad she’d already provided, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Valentina pocketed the money and carried her kids to the car one at a time, fastening them back into their car seats. She had no idea where they’d go for the night, but fatigue pulled at her.
Valentina drove until she found a darkened parking lot by a large building marked Gleason Auto. It seemed to be closed for the night, and she hoped to blend in with the other cars in the lot waiting for repairs. She turned off her headlights and shut off the engine. She’d have to wake in an hour and run it again to warm the car back up, but she didn’t have enough gas to leave it running all night.
She reclined her seat a little and closed her eyes, after making sure the doors were all locked and the windows all the way up. Her body felt like lead weights were pulling her down and her eyes burned from exhaustion. She knew pushing herself so hard wasn’t good for the baby, but she had little choice right now. Barb hadn’t mentioned a permanent position tonight, which meant Valentina would have to spend some of her money on a local paper and see if any jobs were posted. It was that or walk up and down the main strip checking with every store along the way. Not that she had any idea what she’d do with her kids while she worked. She couldn’t afford daycare without a job, but she couldn’t work without someone to watch the kids.
Valentina let sleep pull her down, sleeping harder than she had in days. A slight chill in the air woke her a while later. Valentina looked into the backseat, and her heart lurched when she saw how flushed Katy looked. Her daughter had kicked off her blanket at some point and shivered in her car seat. Max still dozed, but looked fine. Valentina got out of the car and opened the back door. Katy was burning with fever, but Max felt cool to the touch. Her heart ached as she realized her heavy sleeping had likely gotten her child sick, since she hadn’t been awake to turn the heat back on, all because she couldn’t afford a motel room.
Booted steps came toward her and she spun to face the person, her hand at her throat as her heart raced. A man, who didn’t look much older than her twenty-two years had a scowl on his face as he approached. Despite the cold February air, his short sleeve shirt displayed the tattoos on his arms. The man drew nearer and brushed his long hair out of his face.
“This is private property,” he said, his deep voice sending shivers down her spine.
Not another bad boy, Valentina. Get a grip. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we were trespassing.”
“We?” he asked as he came to a stop in front of her. The man peered around her shoulder and his eyes widened a little when he saw her kids in the backseat. “Holy shit. Did you sleep in your car last night?”
Valentina’s cheeks burned. “Yes.”
“Bring the kids inside and warm them up,” he said, turning to head toward Gleason Auto. “I have some hot chocolate they can drink.”
She bit her lip. “Is there a free clinic in town?”
He paused and turned to face her again. “A free clinic?”
“My daughter. I think she’s sick.”
The man came closer again, peering into the backseat. “Blossom Creek doesn’t have a free clinic. Do you not have insurance?”
“No, we don’t.”
“Old Doc Johnson owes me a favor. Bring your kids inside and I’ll have him stop by on his way to his office this morning. The three of you can get warm while you wait.”
“I don’t even know you. Why are you helping us?” Valentina asked.
“Let’s just say I have a soft spot for kids. Why isn’t your husband here helping you?”
“I’m not married,” she said softly.
“And their dad?”
“Max’s dad left two years ago. Katy’s dad took off right after I told him I was pregnant.”
“Two different dads?” he asked, his eyebrows lifted.
Valentina placed a hand on her stomach. “Three.”
He studied her a moment and seemed to come to some sort of decision. “You need help getting the kids inside?”
“You’re still going to help us?”
“Figure someone should. Sounds like you’re the type to attract assholes.”
Valentina bit her lip. He wasn’t wrong.
“My name’s Jesse Jameson, almost like the outlaw, and I promise you and the kids are safe with me.”
“Valentina Cupid, and my kids are Max and Katy.”
Jesse motioned to the car. “Want some help?”
She nodded hesitantly and unbuckled Max first. Her gaze never left Jesse as he carefully lifted her son out of the car seat, then she unbuckled Katy and pulled her out too. Grabbing her keys from the ignition, she locked the car and followed Jesse into the auto place. He led her into the back where there was a large break room that held a couch, TV, and a small table with four chairs, along with a kitchenette.
Max rubbed his eyes as Jesse set him down on the couch and her son looked around in curiosity. Valentina eased Katy down next to her brother before facing Jesse again.
“Hot chocolate for the kids? Are they too young?” he asked.
“Max has had it before, at room temperature, but Katy is still too small. She’s only eighteen months old. If you could watch them just long enough for me to grab their bag from the car, they both have sippy cups. If you have some juice or milk, I could give them that.”
He nodded. “Go ahead. I’ll see what’s in the fridge.”
Valentina rushed outside and grabbed the kids’ bag from the passenger seat of her car, then hurried back inside. She didn’t know why she’d trusted him with her kids, but there was something about Jesse that made her feel safe. When she got back to the break room, Jesse had pulled out a half gallon of milk and a carton of orange juice.
“Both of these are still good,” he said.
Valentina rinsed out the sippy cups and filled both with milk, even though she worried about giving her daughter milk if she was sick. She didn’t have any Pedialyte, but she knew she’d need to pick some up soon. Except it was supposed to be refrigerated once it was opened, and she didn’t exactly keep a fridge in her car.
Once her children were situated, Jesse pulled her aside. “I want you to be honest with me,” Jesse said. “Just how much trouble are you in?”
Valentina wasn’t sure how much she should tell him. Even though he was helping them, he was still a stranger. Her gaze strayed to her children. She would do anything for them. Even put her trust in the man standing in front of her. She only hoped it wasn’t the wrong choice.
* * *
Jesse waited patiently for the woman to respond. It was obvious she wasn’t doing so well, if she was sleeping in parking lots with her kids. She didn’t look old enough to be a mom three times over, much less have all three dads run out on her. He tried not to judge people, and figured there was a good reason she was in her current predicament. He’d been judged his entire life and wasn’t about to start throwing stones.
“I have just under a hundred dollars left in my purse. Gage wiped out the checking account before he skipped out on us. The only money I had access to were my tips that I’d hidden and had been saving since Christmas.” She shrugged. “I’d thought he was different, but then they never are. I guess I have a type.”
“Deadbeat assholes?” Jesse asked.
Valentina gave a humorless laugh. “Yeah, that about sums it up. I’ve always had a thing for bad boys, and I guess it just hasn’t really worked out so well for me.”
Jesse grinned a little. He’d been called a bad boy often enough, but these days he was a law-abiding citizen. He wondered how many hearts he’d broken getting to this point though. As far as he knew, he’d never fathered a child, and if he had, that was definitely something he’d want to know. Having grown up in the system, he couldn’t think of anything worse than abandoning your kid.
He could help Valentina, and her kids, if she’d let him. But they were strangers, and after she’d been burned three times by guys like him, how likely was she to accept his help? She had come into the shop with him, and they were waiting for Doc Johnson, but once her daughter was treated how fast would she run out of here? And where would she go? “Do you have a plan?” he asked.
“I’d thought I’d get a paper today and check the employment section, see if I could find a job.”
“And what are you doing with them while you work?” he asked, nodding his head toward the kids, who had fallen back asleep on the couch.
“I don’t know. Maybe I could find a job where they could go with me. Delivering papers or something?”
“Newspaper’s owned by the Richmond family and they only hire family.” Jesse folded his arms across his chest. “What kind of work experience do you have?”
“Mostly waitressing. I answered phones for a short time at a dental office, but my kids kept getting sick and they let me go when I called in one too many times.”
“Any good with computers? Like entering client data?” Jesse asked.
“I could probably do that if someone showed me how to use the program. I was pretty good with computers in high school, but I haven’t had access to one since then unless I use one at the library.”
Would she see his offer as charity? His shop had been turning a nice profit the last two years, and since he slept in the apartment upstairs and owned the building outright, he didn’t have a lot of expenses. He could easily afford to hire someone to help out.
“Do you know of something?” she asked. “I promise I’m a hard worker. I just need someone to give me a chance.”
“I need someone to handle the front desk here. I haven’t put an ad in the paper yet, but if you accept the position you’ll save me the trouble of advertising. It’s mostly answering phones and greeting clients. You’ll need to keep the coffee pot full in the waiting room and keep everything clean. There will be some data entry and you’ll accept payments.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re offering me a job?”
Jesse shrugged. “I need someone and you’re looking, so why not?”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you need help, and I’m willing to give it to you. The question is whether or not you’ll accept it. The pay isn’t great, but I can offer you eight dollars an hour. Full-time employees are eligible for the health plan too. My mechanics get five vacation days and a week of sick time every year. No reason you can’t have the same.”
“You’re offering a stranger a full-time job, with benefits, and higher than minimum wage?” she asked, looking skeptical.
“There’s room behind the front counter for you to set up a play area for the kids. You could bring them with you, at least until we see how it goes. If they’re too disruptive, maybe by that point you’ll have enough money set aside to put them in daycare.”
Valentina looked from him to her kids then back again. There was indecision in her eyes, but he knew she needed this opportunity, and she’d likely accept for her kids’ sake if nothing else. She chewed on her bottom lip and he waited for her to make a decision. He didn’t see what choice she had but to accept his offer. He knew the jobs around town were scarce, and none would let her keep her kids with her, even temporarily.
Before she could respond, Doc Johnson appeared in the doorway, an old-fashioned black bag clutched in his hand. He gave Jesse a warm smile before looking at Valentina in curiosity. “I hear I have a new patient,” Doc said.
“It’s my daughter, Katy,” Valentina said. “She’s eighteen months old and I think she has a fever.”
Doc ambled over to the couch and began pulling things out of his bag. While the little girl slept, he checked her heart and lungs, took her temperature, and attempted to look at her throat. He didn’t say much as he studied his patient and Jesse hoped it wasn’t anything serious. Doc got the child’s full name and date of birth, then scribbled something on a prescription pad and handed it to Valentina.
“Seems to be a common cold, but she does have a fever. You should keep fluids in her and keep her warm. I’d imagine she’ll be back to playing in a few days. If she’s still doing poorly, give me a call and I’ll take another look. Her throat is a little irritated, but not enough for me to think it’s strep,” Doc said.
“Thank you.” Valentina accepted the prescription and looked at it like she didn’t have a clue what to do with it. If she hadn’t been able to afford a doctor, Jesse figured there was no way she could afford to fill that either.
Doc clapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to follow him out.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Jesse told Valentina.
When they got near the front door, far enough away that Valentina couldn’t hear them, Doc sighed heavily. “How much trouble is that young woman in?” he asked.
“She’s told me some of it. Basically, she’s out of money, has nowhere to stay, and I found her sleeping in her car in my parking lot. I think the little girl took sick overnight because of how cold it was. The car wasn’t running when I found them.”
“They can’t sleep in the car again, Jesse. That little girl needs to be kept warm and comfortable. I expect she’ll start coughing later today. That’s a good thing. The cough syrup I prescribed will help clear her chest and keep mucus from settling in her lungs. But only if she takes it.”
“I’ll see that she gets the prescription filled,” Jesse said. “And I’ll try to convince them to stay with me. They can use my spare bedroom. Not like anyone else ever uses it anyway.”
Doc clapped him on the shoulder again and ambled out the door to his waiting car. Jesse ran a hand through his hair as he tried to decide how best to handle the situation with Valentina. She didn’t seem like the type who would accept a handout, but maybe he could convince her it was in the best interest of her children.
When Jesse stepped back inside the break room, Valentina was staring at her children with tears in her eyes. He cleared his throat so she’d know she wasn’t alone anymore and she quickly dashed at her eyes with both hands. He could only imagine the strain she was under, trying to provide for two kids while pregnant, jobless, and homeless. And if he could ease some of her burden, he was going to. Hopefully, she’d accept the job he’d offered her. With a little luck, maybe he could convince her to sleep in his spare room.
“I should wake up the children so we can get out of your way,” she said.
“Leave them,” Jesse said. He held out his hand. “Give me the prescription.”
“No, you’ve done enough already.”
“If you pay for that prescription, how are you going to pay to feed your kids?”
Her shoulders sagged in defeat. “I don’t know.”
“We need to talk, but first, you’re going to give me that prescription and I’m going to drop it by the pharmacy and arrange to have it delivered here when it’s ready. Then we’re going to do something about breakfast for the four of us.”
“You don’t have to feed us too,” she said. “You’ve already arranged for a doctor to see Katy and you’re getting her medicine. I can’t ask you to do more than that. You’ve already done too much.”
“Valentina, I get the feeling you could use a friend about now. Let me help you. Maybe if someone had been around to help my mom when I was a kid, my life would have turned out differently. So let me do this.”
Her gaze turned curious. “You seem to have turned out okay.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, but you’re bound to hear it if you work here. We’ll talk about it later. I want to be completely honest with you about everything, but right now, my priority is taking care of you and those kids.”
She nodded, looking like she wanted to believe him, and yet was too scared to hope that things might be changing for her. Jesse took the prescription, made sure the door to the shop was locked, and he climbed into his truck and drove toward the other end of town. At the pharmacy, old Mr. Worthers stared at the prescription before looking up at Jesse again.
“I don’t recall anyone in town by the name of Katy Cupid.”
“The family is new in town,” Jesse said. “Can you please have that delivered when it’s ready? You can add it to my account. And anything else we might need, like a thermometer, can you throw that in too?”
Mr. Worthers grunted and started scanning the slip into the computer system. Assuming that was all the man needed from him, Jesse stepped away from the counter. Before leaving the pharmacy, he stopped on the toy aisle and picked a pink stuffed bunny for Katy and a brown bear for Max. He also grabbed a few cans of chicken noodle soup from the grocery aisle and some apple juice. He didn’t know if Katy would require special fluids, but he wanted her to have a choice other than orange juice or milk.
After he checked out, Jesse put his purchases in his truck and drove to the nearest fast food place to pick up some breakfast sandwiches. He’d have to think of something more nutritious for lunch, but maybe this would be enough to keep them going until then. As he drove back to the shop, he wondered what he was going to do to convince Valentina to give him a chance, to accept his offer of help, once she found out the truth about him. She thought he had his life together, and he did… now. But it had been a long, hard road to get to this point. And people around town weren’t soon to forget his past transgressions.