Most people complained or picked on gas station coffee. It was even a running gag that only hospital food being horrible beat it. But still, thousands of people across the country got it every day because it was easy, cheap, and already where they need to stop.
I wasn’t most people. It was a treat for me because it had real sugar. Those goofy-flavored cappuccino machines were the highlight of needing gas for me. No, I never claimed to be remotely normal.
And to make things worse, I filled the last quarter of the cup with ice—because I didn’t like hot coffee. Lukewarm or iced. That was what tickled my fancy. That was a lot of detail for one drink, but that was what you focused on when the scariest thing ever happened to you—the details sear into your brain.
That day I’d gone with a caramel white chocolate large one, glancing at the donuts and reminding myself they’d probably been sitting there for hours and were so not worth the calories.
Then people screamed.
I knocked the cup, spilling scalding liquid all over my hand as I turned to the door and saw the man with gun. Faster than I would have thought I was able to move, I darted behind the condiments counter, the gunman a blur. Part of me wanted to chew myself out for not getting a better view of the guy, the police would need that later. The sane part of me patted myself on the back for thinking so quickly.
“Money. I want the money,” someone demanded and I didn’t need three guesses who was speaking. “And the expensive booze back there. The good stuff.”
“Yeah, sure. Take whatever you want,” a woman whimpered. Tears burned in my eyes at the fear in her voice. It wasn’t like I would have traded places with her, but I did wish there was some way I could help her without getting shot. Then again, sometimes people tried to be heroes and made the situation worse. I made a mental note to remind myself of that later.
“Faster!” the same man snarled.
I won’t judge if she pees herself. I might have. I rolled my eyes. What a random thought. My parents would be very disappointed with the lack of manners I was mentally having as I crouched there looking out the windows and praying the police somehow showed up.
At least that was a better use of the time.
Something brushed my shoulder as it moved past me. Then I heard someone hiss behind me and I realized why when I glanced at what it had been.
I wasn’t thinking—and that was what I’d say later—when I jumped up from my spot and grabbed the little girl’s arm. I quickly shoved her back to where I saw her parents hiding, cursing how stupid they were to not have held on to her better.
And debating calling Child and Family Services that they hadn’t gone after her.
“What are you doing over there?” the man bellowed. My heart stopped as I realized he was talking to me. I slowly turned towards him with my hands up, thinking that I might throw up instead of pee my pants when I focused on the barrel of the gun pointed in my direction. “I asked what you’re doing!”
“I tripped,” I lied, swallowing loudly. “I was hiding and I tripped. I’m sorry.”
“Keep filling the bag,” he snapped at the poor attendant before taking a step towards me. “I could shoot you!” I saw his eyes darting around wildly and my heart sunk in my stomach. He was high. I mean high as a mother fucking kite kinda high.
“My name is Lily Slone,” I blurted, remembering somewhere that if you personalized yourself that a gunman was less likely to shoot you. “I’m thirty years old. I live here in Bellevue. I grew up in Chicago. I have an older brother and a younger sister. I’m an author—”
“I hate authors. They took my spot with publishers,” he seethed, taking another step closer.
“I’m not with a publisher. I self-publish.” Yeah, not my finest moment, and not completely true but I didn’t think the drug-influenced gunman holding up the gas station was going to Google me at the moment.
“And you made it that way? Why you? Why not me?”
“I’m not Danielle Steele,” I squeaked. “No one’s ever heard of me. I just do the best I can.”
“I could write what you do. I could become you.”
Right because no one would ever tell anyone that he’d killed me and the crazy man could just pick up in my series without there being any continuity issues. Sure he could.
He cocked the gun and my brain froze. There was nothing left to say that could help me when talking had made things worse. Plus he was bat shit crazy.
A cammies-covered figure plowed into the gunman, and on instinct, I dropped to the ground. The shot echoed in the store and I begged whoever was listening that no one got hit when he’d been aiming for me. I heard some grunting and looked up in time to see the solider punch the guy twice in the face. Then he picked up the gun and tucked it into the back of his pants before glancing at me. He gave me a nod that everything was okay and I was staring into the prettiest green eyes I’d ever seen.
And not just because he’d saved my life. No, they were a bright green with flecks of blue in them, but not hazel.
Focus. Stop acting like a loony toon.
I slowly got to my feet, my legs shaking and my knees sore from dropping to the hard tile so fast. That was going to bruise later—a bruise I’d love because I was still alive.
The solider walked out the door, and I blinked after him, shocked that was how he was reacting. Then again, he just dove at an armed man. He could sing a happy tune and he’d still be my favorite person for a long, long time.
I followed him, reaching the doors just as the police pulled up. I sighed, relief swarming me… Until they hopped out and pointed their guns at my savior. And being the bright, bright woman I was, I jumped in front of him.
“It wasn’t him!” I shouted when they bellowed for me to get out of the way. “He just saved my life. Ask the people inside. The robber is unconscious on the ground because this guy stopped him.” I felt a heavy hand on my back and that was just enough distraction for one of the policeman to grab my arm and yank me out of the way. “Don’t! He’s not the criminal!”
“Ma’am, calm down,” he bitched as I pulled against him. Two other officers went to the solider and roughly took the gun tucked in the back of his pants and shoved the guy against the closed doors, his head turned to the side and facing me. I winced as I saw the pain in his expression.
“So help me god, I will tell every news outlet and anyone who will listen that you’re assaulting the fucking hero here if you touch him again!”
“She’s right,” the attendant shouted as she came out the open door. “He just saved us. The bastard who pointed a gun at me is waking up.” She stepped aside and let the two policemen—one who had been holding me—rush past her.
The other policeman let up on my savior, and when I glanced at the solider, his eyes were focused directly at me.
“It’s going to be okay,” I swore to him. As the police settled the confusion, I finally had a moment to notice more than his eyes. His cammies were tattered and dirty, his hair longer than regulation, and I wasn’t sure the military allowed that much facial hair.
He definitely wasn’t active duty.
“Sorry for the confusion, sir,” the first policeman said to my savior as he came out the door with the gunman, dragging him along in handcuffs. They let the solider go and I immediately shoved past the cop to the man.
“Are you okay? Did they hurt you? Do you need an ambulance?” I rambled, reaching out to touch the bruise on his cheek. He flinched away and I saw the fear in his eyes. “Hey, it’s okay. You just saved me and probably others. I won’t let them take you away.”
He gave the barest of nods but still didn’t say anything.
“Ma’am, do you know this guy?”
“No,” I snapped, shooting the cop an annoyed look. “If I did, I’d be using his name.”
“I’m just trying to do my job here, ma’am.”
“Then do it and don’t be stupid about it.” I saw anger flash in the man’s eyes and realized it might be time to tone back my annoyance.
“What’s your name, sir?” the policeman asked my hero. The guy glanced at me and then slowly pulled out his wallet, offering it to me. “Sir, are you injured?”
“Jasper Hutson,” I answered for him once I quickly got the wallet open. Then I handed it back to the man and watched him tuck it in his back pocket. “Jasper, are you hurt?”
He shook his head.
The cop walked over to his cruiser and I got the feeling he was running Jasper’s name instead of that being our signal we could leave.
“And then that woman brutally shoved our child and hurt her,” someone rambled inside.
“Oh hell no,” I drawled as I stepped back into the gas station. “Ask why I would have pushed their kid? Maybe because they weren’t watching her in the middle of an armed robbery and the girl was running towards the gunman.” I narrowed my eyes at the bitch. “Nice you went after your own kid. You just sat there and let her draw attention to herself. What kind of parents are you?”
“We would have,” the man argued. “You just got to her first. You didn’t have to hurt her.”
I shook my head and pointed to the back security camera. “Everything that happened will be on there. I didn’t assault a kid.” The cop who’d been taking their statement nodded. By now there were police everywhere. I glanced outside and saw there was an ambulance. I walked the ten feet to it and waved one of the EMTs to me. He gave me a funny look—something I was getting used to that day—and hurried over.
“Are you injured, ma’am?” he asked as he studied me closely.
“No, but in my attempt to keep this little girl out of harm’s way, I apparently savagely injured her when I shoved her back to safety. Can you check her out while I’m here, with witnesses, that she’s fine, please?”
He nodded and knelt by the girl, much to the annoyance and complaining of the parents. The young policeman who’d been taking their statement was having trouble keeping his face plain.
“Nice call. They just look like they’re trying to cash in because nothing happened to them,” a policewoman muttered to me as she walked by. “You probably just saved yourself a frivolous lawsuit by thinking ahead.”
“They heard me say I was an author. Some people are ignorant and think that automatically makes me a millionaire or some shit. I’ve learned to cover my ass real fast.”
She shook her head and jotted down some notes. “I hear ya. You wouldn’t believe the things people try to say we do or accuse us of to get a quick handout from the city to make it all go away.”
“Most people suck.” We both let out a snort, old enough to know that really was true. But then I glanced at Jasper, his eyes studying me. I very graciously blurted out whatever came to my mind next, his staring making me feel unnerved somehow. “Not you. You’re awesome and a hero. I like you.”
I couldn’t tell with all that facial hair, but it almost looked like a half smile crossed his lips for a second.
But just a second. Man, he really, really had to be having a rough time to be in this state.
A few moments later, the EMT cleared the girl as being completely fine and healthy—and like a proper understanding gentleman, he even gave that to me in writing.
“By the way, you’re welcome,” I said to the parents, disgust in my tone. “I could have been shot trying to save your child. And all you can do is sit here and bitch she’s got a bruised knee. So do I and I wouldn’t have had it if you’d held onto her. Go take a parenting class and stop pointing the finger at everyone else because you suck.”
“Let’s take a walk,” the nice policewoman suggested as she led me back outside. “I’d really hate to have to lock you up for the pounding you were looking like you were going to give them. Even if they deserved it.”
“No, fighting is wrong,” I snickered, completely tired of all of this and wanting to go home.
“He’s homeless. He’s got some citations for loitering, sleeping in parks, basics like that,” the policeman who’d gone to check up on Jasper admitted, frowning. “Do you want us to take you to a shelter in Omaha?”
Jasper’s eyes bugged out and he looked like he was ready to bolt.
“Hey, you don’t have to,” I quickly told him, holding my hands out in between us. He nodded slightly and seemed to settle down then.
We spent the next twenty minutes being questioned and the whole time Jasper wouldn’t leave my side.
“Sir, we need a number to reach you at,” the policeman sighed as if realizing that was a pointless statement if Jasper was homeless. “A way to get in contact with you if we need more information or for you to testify.”
“You have security footage for that,” I argued, overwhelmingly protective of my rescuer. “You really think he’s able to testify in court?”
Jasper shot me a hurt look and then hung his head. I still don’t know what came over me in that moment—insanity maybe? Psychotic empathy? I might have said instant trust, but I didn’t believe in such a thing.
“Jasper will be at the same number as me,” I told the police officer as I stood up. Jasper’s head shot up and he blinked at me. “Do you want to come stay with me?”
He nodded and slowly got to his feet as if worried I might change my mind if he startled me.
“Okay, well do you have a bag or anything? We can swing by a shelter or whatever you need.”
He shook his head before going back inside the gas station. Which part was he saying no to?
“Are you insane?” the cop hissed at me. “You don’t know this man. He’s clearly got issues and—”
“And we all do,” I drawled, rolling my eyes so he could see it. “The guy just saved my life. I seriously don’t think hurting me is on his agenda.”
The police office muttered some unkind words about me under his breath, but I ignored him as I waited for Jasper.
“I could use some help around my house,” I told Jasper when he rejoined me, military bag over his shoulder. “If you stay with me, you have to pitch in, okay?”
He nodded and followed after me as I headed to my 2008 G6. I unlocked it with the key, cursing the stupid, broken fob. Once I got in, I hit the locks and cleaned as much of my crap off the passenger seat of as I could. He stowed his bag in the backseat, and before he could get in, I hopped back out.
“Go ahead and get in,” I told him when he looked at me funny. “I forgot I dropped my wallet inside with all the confusion.” I jogged back in, grateful it was behind the condiment rack, and hurried outside again before Jasper bolted. Then I got in my car and started it up. “Are you hungry? I could eat. Maybe not a lot after all of this, but yeah, it’s lunchtime.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t hungry at all, but I figured he had to be starving if he was homeless and hadn’t been staying at a shelter. I waited until he nodded and started the car. There was a strip mall with a bunch of options a few blocks away and I figured that was the best bet.
“How about Taco Bell? Nothing says tacos like a robbery,” I joked, wanting to smack myself. “Sorry, I ramble when I’m nervous.” He nodded and I pulled into the drive-thru. “How about just a variety pack of tacos? Is that okay?” Again, he nodded. I had a feeling communicating with him wasn’t going to be the easiest thing, but for some strange reason, I was more patient with him than I was most people.
I wasn’t really known for my patience though.
Deciding to order two family packs just in case, I added a large Baja Blast Mountain Dew. Hey, I never did get my coffee and that was like the best Mountain Dew ever. “You want one?”
He gave me the barest of smiles when he nodded this time. I wasn’t sure why, but at least it wasn’t a frown. I added one to the order for him and pulled up, paying before accepting the food and passing it to him. I figured since his hands were full, I’d put the straws in the drinks.
That got a reaction. He grabbed one from the cup holder and started slurping it down through the straw.
“I’m an idiot,” I groaned as I pulled around. “Of course you’re thirsty. Sorry. I’m a little out of my depth here. I’ve never befriended someone homeless.”
“Thank you,” he croaked. I almost swerved the car he’d startled me so badly.
I winced and glanced at him at the stoplight. “Jesus, that sounded like it hurt. So you can talk, it’s just it hurts to because you’re dehydrated?”
He nodded as he sighed, almost as if glad we were on the same page. Another thing hit me. I was a total bitch.
“Thank you for saving me,” I whispered, mortified I’d not said it sooner. “Thank you for saving my life. I have more to live and I’m grateful you gave me that.”
I shot him a smile but then the light turned green. We didn’t say anything the twenty minute ride back to my place which was amazing for me, since I normally couldn’t shut my trap when I was nervous. But he didn’t make me nervous, oddly enough. It was figuring out how to help him and worrying I was doing something wrong when we interacted that concerned me.
“So I kind of live out in the middle of nowhere,” I warned him as I turned in the back way to my subdivision. “I mean, it’s not soy farm territory, but you saw the one farm over there and the sod farm on the other side. This is kinda the last civilization before middle of nowhere I guess. But it’s definitely rural, and the golf course runs through the subdivision. I wanted some quiet, maybe find some peace, so it seemed like a smart move. The internet sucks though. That’s the one main thing I hate. I mean, it really sucks.
“And the company doesn’t care that it sucks. It’s the only option out here and they know it, so they’re really big assholes when it goes out and you call to complain. As if they’re doing you a favor by letting us have any internet.” I sighed as I turned onto my street. “And I’m rambling again. Sorry. Just really annoys.”
I pulled into my driveway and put my car in park. We got out and he shook his drink when he saw the garbage cans.
It was empty. Wow, he really had been thirsty.
I lifted the lid, and he tossed it in, giving me a nod. Then I took the food from him and my drink, while he grabbed his bag. Okay, the polite thing to do would have been to offer him my Baja Blast as well… But I really wanted it. And I had tons of drinks inside. I kinda thought tea might be better for a crazy sore voice box or whatever it was called anyways.
And I really wanted my Baja Blast.
We went in through the garage, Jasper glancing around at everything. “It’s nice.”
“Thanks. I live alone so there’s shit pretty much everywhere. I’ve not even finished unpacking yet and furnishing the whole house.”
“You moved recently?”
“Um, no, almost a year ago,” I chuckled, shaking my head as I locked up behind us. “Just a lot going on and a lot to do by myself. I’ve not been feeling well, run-down and exhausted for months. I gained a bunch of weight, and I’m having trouble getting motivated. It just all seems like so much to take on alone, that I end up taking a nap instead. I was at the doctor’s trying to figure out if it’s my thyroid or what when I stopped on the way home for gas.”
“I’m glad you did.” I slowly turned to him with a raised eyebrow. His eyes went wide as he realized how that sounded. “Because we met. Not so you’d get hurt.”
“Right, gotcha,” I accepted, laughing it off. I guess it was understandable from his perspective. If I hadn’t been there and he hadn’t saved me, he’d probably be sleeping on the ground in a park that night. I internally winced. Yeah, I’d be happy to have met me too.
Not that I thought most people ever felt that way.
Jasper set down his bag as I glanced over my kitchen table, covered in my crap. “The counter okay to eat at?”
“Sure,” he chuckled as he helped me push aside even more of my shit, including the dead plants I’d tried so desperately to keep alive.
“Yeah, apparently I don’t have much of an indoor green thumb. But I had a killer vegetable garden at my last place.”
“No, not at all,” I snickered as I set the food down and pushed out a stool for him. “There’s only one spot on the side of the house where I could have one, and it’s downhill, and I’m not climbing all over the place to plant and pull off vegetables. Plus, it’s all crappy clay and it would take way more energy than I have to clear it out and put in real dirt, plants, besides weeds could grow in.”
“I’d help. I love fresh vegetables.”
I shot him a smile as I pulled out a couple of mugs for tea. “Be careful with those offers. I love fresh vegetables too so I’d totally take you up on that.”
“I meant it.”
“Cool. Thanks.” I opened the cabinet with all my teas and knelt down. “Tea would be good for your throat. Is there any kind you like in particular?” I went to glance at him again, and flinched when he squatted down next to me. He looked them over and raised an eyebrow at me. “Yeah, I’m kind of a tea whore. I like a lot a variety and I love trying new things so I always pick up something when I see it and don’t always finish it before I go get something else.”
“Trying new things is good. I’ll trust your judgment. I don’t know what any of this is but I like tea.” He cleared his throat and rubbed his neck. Yeah, that much talking had to hurt.
“Let’s start with Starbuck’s Refresh,” I suggested as I picked out two bags. “I find it helps whatever ails me. Your stomach has to be raw too given you probably haven’t had the most stable diet.”
“No, not even close,” he agreed.
I shrugged as I picked out another one of my favorites, raspberry hibiscus, and stood. “We’ll fix that. Do you have any special dietary needs? Anything you don’t like.”
“I hate beans,” he offered as an answer as he sat down at the counter.
“Me too. I’m allergic to coconut and lemongrass. I’m not sure lemongrass is ever in food, but coconut’s the new fad so it’s everywhere. Please don’t ever bring it in the house. It could kill me.”
I closed the cabinet and grabbed him a bottle of water so he could start eating. He shouldn’t be drinking scalding tea after all. Then I heard some crunching of tacos as I made his tea, my back to him. When I was done and had both mugs with hot water and tea bags soaking, I turned around to see he’d finished off one whole variety pack of twelve tacos.
“Well, I guess you’re a growing boy,” I joked, again wanting to smack myself at how stupid I sounded.
“They were great, thanks.”
“Do you want more?”
He shook his head and pushed the full box towards the empty spot on the counter. “Those are yours.”
“Jasper, I’m not really even hungry. And even at my hungriest, there’s no way I could ever eat more than four tacos. Normally I eat two,” I admitted. He blinked at me and I shrugged. “You had to be hungry. I figured you wouldn’t just let me get food for you, so I said I was too. Eat them all if you want so they don’t go to waste.”
“You’re really sweet.”
“No, I’m not,” I snickered as I sat down. He still didn’t touch the box so I sighed and pulled one out. “Here, I’m eating. Save me one more and the rest are yours.”
“You are sweet.”
“Okay, well don’t tell anyone that and snitch on me,” I drawled, shaking my head. I took a bite of my taco as he finally started in on the other box. I didn’t think living on the streets was the only factor to his appetite. He was a big guy, six-three and about one ninety even malnourished. I would really need to feed him. “You’re not a vegetarian or anything are you? I grill out a lot in the summer and I don’t know how to make any vegetarian meals besides pancakes.”
He chuckled deeply and held up the taco.
“Right, I’m an idiot.”
“Why do you keep asking me about food?” he hedged, studying me in that same way as if he saw too much, more than I’d want anyone to see at least.
“It’s not because I’m fat,” I blurted, hating myself in that moment for being a moron. “I mean, it’s not like I’m addicted to food and that’s all I think of. I do more than eat. Most meals I actually forget. This is the first time I’ve actually sat down and eaten not at my computer in a while.” I nodded to the kitchen table. “That should prove it. I stand eating most of the time because it’s faster, and by the time I remember to eat, I’m starving.”
He smirked at me, his eyes full of amusement. I took a deep breath and pulled my preverbal foot out of my mouth.
“I’ve not lived with anyone since college,” I admitted with a half shrug. “And most of my visitors come from out of town. I guess I just defaulted to what I normally think of before my mom comes to visit. I go to the store and get food I know she’ll eat, her favorite creamer, her kind of milk, that sort of thing. That’s where my mind went. I don’t want to feed you crap you hate.”
“I’m not a picky eater. I prefer meat.”
“Me too.” I smiled at him until his eyes went wide. Oh god. I did not just make a sexual innuendo like a goober. “I’d grill burgers tonight but the gas needs to be replaced on the grill and that thing is heavy. I have to drag it all the way from the garage and through the house—”
“I’ll do it. We can have whatever you want, Lily.”
I nodded and took another bite of my taco, trying not to smile at how he said my name. God, I was hopeless.
We finished eating, and Jasper cleaned up, waving me off when I tried to help. He found the garbage and even folded the boxes up for the recycling. I pointed to under the sink when he glanced at me. He stuffed them in there and then wet the washcloth in the sink before wiping the counter to make sure nothing was left.
“Wow, you have better manners than I have,” I muttered as I stood. He chuckled from behind me as I went over to his bag. When I lifted it onto my shoulder, his hand rubbed against my arm as he was suddenly there and took it from me.
A man that big shouldn’t be that quiet. Maybe he was part cat or something?