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The Marley Brothers Band was loud, but not so loud their music covered the sickening sound of squealing tires, spitting gravel and—here was the bad part—crunching metal.
Carolina Sweetwater whirled around and gasped. The left rear fender of her brand-new PT Cruiser was crushed beneath the front end of a giant, jet-black Hummer.
That wasn't all.
"Briana, are you all right?" she hollered, and hurried toward the two vehicles, mindless of her three-inch spike heels and the yards of taffeta swirling around her ankles.
The Hummer lurched, hissed and then backed slowly away from her car. She reached the Cruiser's driver's-side door at the same moment her niece stepped out.
"Aunt Carolina, I'm so sorry."
"It's all right." Weak with relief, she hugged the shaking teenager and glanced over her shoulder. The occupants of the Hummer were also climbing out and, like her niece, appeared to be unharmed.
"I looked both ways, but I swear I didn't see them."
"What matters most is no one was hurt." Now that Carolina had a chance to catch her breath and assess the situation, she realized the only serious casualty of the minor parking lot collision was her car. The SUV had suffered nothing more than a small scratch or two.
"Are you okay, young lady?" The driver of the SUV, Major Linc Harrison of the U.S. Army, and his wife, whose name momentarily escaped Carolina, approached. He wore a scowl. Her expression was considerably kinder.
"I'm fine," Briana sniffed.
"How about you?" Carolina asked. "Are either of you injured?"
"In that?" The major's wife rolled her eyes at the Hummer. "Hardly."
The major took out his cell phone and punched in a number. "I'm calling nine-one-one."
"Is that necessary?" Carolina tried not to let his precision-cut steel-gray hair and crisp dress uniform, the left side of which was completely covered with medals and ribbons and little colored bars, intimidate her. "Can't we just exchange insurance information and phone numbers? My niece and I would really like to get back to the wedding."
His reply was to lift the phone to his ear and glower at her.
"Dad's going to be really mad, isn't he?"
"He won't be happy." Carolina put an arm around her niece and drew her several feet away to the edge of the parking lot. "This is your second accident since you started driving."
Technically, Briana wasn't Carolina's niece. Her father and Carolina were cousins, which made her and Briana third cousins or cousins once removed or…Calling each other aunt and niece was just a whole lot simpler.
"I'm dead," Briana whimpered.
"You're not dead. Grounded for sure. And you can forget about driving for a while. Like until college."
The teenager burst into fresh tears.
"Come on. I was joking," Carolina said, rubbing Briana's back. "Don't worry. I'll handle your dad. This is partly my fault anyway. I'm the one who let you drive my car." The beautiful, shiny, cobalt-blue convertible she'd bought last month to celebrate her thirty-third birthday.
"Because I asked you if I could."
"And I said yes. Hence, shared responsibility."
In hindsight, Carolina should have driven the five minutes to her cabin and gotten those spare camera batteries herself. Instead, she'd caved when Briana had pleaded with her to run the errand.
The Marley Brothers Band finished their number. After a round of applause, they turned the microphone over to Carolina's older sister Vi. Like the music, every word Vi spoke carried clearly from the lawn in front of the dining hall, over the roof of the main lodge and across the parking lot to where Carolina, her niece, the major and his wife stood. Thanks to the rolling hills, sprawling oaks and towering pines surrounding the main buildings, acoustics at Bear Creek Ranch were great.
"Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family," Vi announced, "please clear the dance floor for the bride and her father."
Carolina cringed. She was going to miss the entire dance—her sister Corrine's glowing face, her father's beaming smile and the besotted expression the groom would be wearing when he cut in to sweep his new wife away from his father-in-law.
Damn! Her throat closed and, for the hundredth time that week, she willed herself to keep it together.
Something about her little sister's wedding had her walking an emotional tightrope. If she didn't know better, she'd think she was envious. Not because of Corrine's new husband, but because of her obvious bliss at being married.
Now, wasn't that a surprise? Who would have guessed avoid-commitment-at-all-costs Carolina Sweetwater harbored a secret longing to find that one right guy she could spend the rest of her life with?
What had triggered the recent change in her thinking? The wedding? Her birthday? Her bid for better, meatier assignments at work being shot down? The five-year anniversary of her broken engagement? Definitely the last one. For too long she'd mourned a man who wasn't worth it.
Carolina needed to get serious if she wanted the kind of contentment two of her sisters had found. A contentment that included a wonderful man, a satisfying career and one day maybe children.
Problem was, the selection of available bachelors between her family's guest resort in the Matazal Mountains of northern Arizona and the nearby small town of Payson was pretty slim. Carolina had already dated most of them in an attempt to convince herself her ex-fiancé hadn't permanently broken her heart.
"We're really screwed, aren't we?"
Carolina didn't reprimand her niece. In certain circumstances, the term was appropriate, and this definitely counted as one of them. "We'll be fine. I have ample insurance."
"I think the major's mean," Briana said.
"Not so much mean as by the book."
Bear Creek Ranch had never hosted a U.S. Army major before. He was her sister Corrine's former commanding officer and had traveled all the way from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to attend the wedding.
"His wife seems nice," Carolina observed.
As if sensing they were being talked about, the couple strode over. "How much longer do you think this will take?" the major groused, checking his watch. A Rolex. "It's almost six, and we should have been on the road by now."
"Hard to say." Carolina was proud of her well-modulated voice. She had her part-time job as morning traffic director at KPKD to thank for that. "The ranch is outside Payson's town limits. Which means we have to wait for the county sheriff or one of his deputies. A nonemergency like this could take hours."
The major grunted.
"How about we let my niece go back to the wedding. There's no reason she has to miss out on everything."
He vetoed Carolina's suggestion with an ogre-ish "No. Your niece is in serious trouble, Ms. Sweetwater."
Well, Briana came by it honestly.
Carolina's own free spirit had landed her in hot water on a regular basis since preschool, when she dumped an entire container of fish food into the classroom aquarium and then lied about it. Sometime in grade school she stopped lying, but not landing in hot water. Take today, for example. If there was any way her cousin Jake could manage it, he'd ground her along with his daughter.
At the distant rumble of an approaching vehicle, everyone turned in unison. A marked patrol car traveled the long dirt road leading into the ranch and then swung into the parking lot. Carolina craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the driver. Old Sheriff Herberger had a soft spot when it came to her family, who donated regularly to the department's various outreach programs.
Luck, unfortunately, wasn't on her side. It was the much younger, not so kindly Deputy Sheriff Neil Lovitt who stepped from the parked car.
"My, my," the major's wife said, an appreciative hitch in her voice.
Carolina silently seconded the sentiment.
The major's uniform might have sharper pleats and more medals pinned to it, but Deputy Sheriff Lovitt did his own khaki shirt and slacks pretty darn proud. Adjusting his straw cowboy hat and sunglasses, he made his way toward them, his gait casual yet confident, a small notebook in his hand.
"Good afternoon, folks," he said upon reaching them.
Almost two years in this neck of the woods hadn't softened his New York accent one iota.
"Hi." Carolina was the only one who smiled.
Why she bothered, she had no clue. He'd never responded to any of her attempts at friendliness. That included the double date they'd once gone on—ironically, not with each other. Carolina's date worked with Deputy Sheriff Lovitt, which was how they'd wound up going to the community fair together. She'd been far more interested in the deputy than…Mark, was it? Or Alfonso. She wasn't sure. Her attention had been riveted on the department's newest addition.
He hadn't reciprocated her interest, and as far as she could tell, nothing had changed in the time since that disastrous double date.
His loss, Carolina decided.
It was a shame, though. Of all the available prospects in the area, he was the most attractive.
"So, what happened here?" he inquired, his gaze encompassing everyone present.
Briana and the major launched into simultaneous explanations, raising their voices to be heard over each other.
"Enough." Deputy Sheriff Lovitt held up a hand. "You first." He pointed at Briana and put pen to paper, readying to take notes.
The major harrumphed his displeasure.
"I was backing out and…and he…" Briana's nerve seemed to desert her.
"Go on," the deputy sheriff said, his tone encouraging.
"I…he…" She fidgeted.
The major began tapping a very polished boot, staring hard at the cluster of trees on the other side of the parking lot.
"I was being real careful, I swear." Once she started, she couldn't stop. "I checked the rearview mirror and the side mirrors. I didn't even have my foot on the gas pedal. Next thing I knew, this gigantic SUV came from out of nowhere."
"You hit me, young lady," the major boomed.
"That's not true. It was the other way around."
"I was heading toward the exit and you backed out right in front of me." His loud bark caused Briana to wilt.
Carolina fought the urge to step in front of her niece and shield her.
"I had the right-of-way, Officer." The major's already broad chest seemed to swell.
"Of course," he grumbled. "Excuse me."
"May I see both of your licenses, registrations and proof of insurance, please?"
Carolina went to her car, mourning the damage once again as she passed the bumper. Fetching the necessary paperwork from the glove compartment, she returned to the group, her three-inch heels catching in the uneven asphalt.
Neil removed his sunglasses, dropped them in his shirt pocket and monitored her every move with unconcealed interest.
When had she started thinking of Deputy Sheriff Lovitt by his first name?
Since he couldn't take his to-die-for chocolate-brown eyes off her.
Carolina experienced a small thrill of awareness when she handed him the paper.
"The Chrysler's yours, Ms. Sweetwater? " He said her name without looking down at the registration, which indicated he remembered her from their double date.
She didn't know whether to be flattered or worried.
"Brand-new, I see."
"Fresh off the lot."
"I hope you have a low deductible on your insurance."
"Not low enough." She was already kicking herself for trying to save a few dollars.
Neil skimmed through the major's documents before turning to Briana. "Where's your license?"
Carolina had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"Miss?" Neil's patience was obviously running low.
"It's a wedding." Briana's shoulders folded in on themselves. "I didn't bring my purse with me."
"Does she need her license?" Carolina jumped to Briana's defense, if only to wipe the satisfied grin off the major's face. "This is private property."
The look Neil shot her could have seared every petal off the wildflowers growing by the road.
Carolina responded by standing taller, which brought his mouth into her direct line of vision. She couldn't help staring at it. After a moment, the corners of his lips, which were really quite nice, started to turn up. Just a little. Hardly noticeable.
The thought had hardly formed in her head when Jake came charging down the fieldstone walkway toward them. He was accompanied by her uncle and Will, her sister Vi's husband.
"Oh, goodie, here comes the cavalry," she mumbled under her breath, and waited for all hell to break loose.
Carolina Sweetwater turned away to face her family. Neil avoided staring at her backside, which was every bit as attractive as her front, a fact that hadn't gone unnoticed when she went to her car to fetch her registration. Her lime-green bridesmaid dress was—well, words couldn't describe it. But Carolina carried the dress off with the poise of a supermodel.
A different time, different circumstances…
"What's going on here?" Jake Tucker, manager of Bear Creek Ranch resort, commanded everyone's attention. "Briana, are you all right?"
"Everyone's fine." Carolina glided to the center of the men, a tropical flower surrounded by penguin suits. Several stray tendrils had escaped the rhinestone clasp holding her hair in place. They lay on her bare neck, the dark brunette color standing out against her lightly tanned skin.
Neil forced his gaze down to his citation book.
"There was a slight fender bender," she said, her voice calm.
He listened to that same voice every morning on KPKD.
"You wrecked your new car?" Jake's voice was anything but calm.
"No." Briana visibly braced herself. "I did."
"Your daughter ran into me." The major stepped forward.
Jake closed his eyes and blew out a long breath.
"Please don't be mad."
He shot his daughter a foreboding look. "At the moment, it's hard not to be."
Neil almost felt sorry for her. Almost. He could see his own five-year-old daughter Zoey as a teenager, trembling from head to toe, waiting for the ax to fall. Unfortunately, Briana had been driving without a license and, from what he could determine, had caused the accident. And while it had occurred on private property, the ranch parking lot was accessible to the public.
The choice of whether or not to issue her a citation was Neil's.
Jake listened to an account of the accident and, despite his obvious anger, did an admirable job of maintaining his cool with both his daughter and Carolina. Not that Neil figured she took any guff from her cousin. Or anyone else, for that matter.
"Can my wife and I leave now?" the major asked when Neil was finished taking statements and collecting contact information.
"You folks drive careful," he warned them. "Traffic can be congested this time of day."
"Thank you again for coming to the wedding." Jake shook the major's hand. "I know Corrine really appreciates it."
"I wish we could have stayed longer," the major's wife gushed. "You have a beautiful place."
Neil agreed. The spectacular scenery and quiet country living were the main reasons he'd picked the Payson area in which to settle down. Other than the occasional drunken brawl and dispute between neighbors, not much happened here in the way of crime. Quite a change from Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he'd spent ten years on the force—the last one in a daze, struggling to cope in the wake of his wife's death.
Four years had dulled the pain but not the guilt.
He shouldn't have listened to her, shouldn't have done his duty. Maybe then, she'd still be alive.
Neil retrieved his sunglasses from his breast pocket and put them back on.