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Carolyn Duff had made one major mistake in her lifea whopping cliché of a mistake in a Vegas wedding chapelwhich hadn't, unlike the commercials said, stayed in Vegas.
It had followed her back hereand was working in an office just a few blocks down the street. All six-foot-two of him.
Most days she forgot about Nicholas Gilbert and concentrated on her job. As an assistant city prosecutor she barely had time to notice when the sun went down, because her days tended to pass in a blur of phone calls, legal precedents, Indiana case law and urgent e-mails. Her calendar might have said Friday, her clock already ticking past five, but still Carolyn stayed behind her desk, finishing up yet another flurry of work, even though tomorrow was the start of the Fourth of July weekend and the courts would be closed until Tuesday.
For Carolyn it didn't matter. An internal time bomb kept ticking away, pushing her to keep going, to pursue one more criminal case, to see the prison bars slam shut once more.
To know she'd done her part again.
And yet it wasn't enough. Not nearly enough.
Carolyn rubbed at her temples, trying to beat back the start of another headache before it got too intense. Then she set to work, working on a negotiation for a plea bargain with a local defense attorney who thought his clienta petty thief merited merely a ninety-day jail stint and a small fine. Carolyn, who could see the future handwriting on the wall, one that upped the ante to a felony chargeB&E with a deadly weapon wanted years behind bars. The presiding judge, however, wanted a fast resolution that would clear his docket of one more hassle. He'dgiven the two attorneys the weekend to find a middle ground.
Mary Hudson popped her head in the door. Her chestnut pageboy swung around her chin, framing wide brown eyes and a friendly smile. "Everyone's gone home," said the paralegal. "Tell me you're taking the holiday weekend off, too."
Mary sighed. "Carolyn, it's a holiday. Time to party, not work. Come on, go out for drinks with me. I'm meeting some of the girls from the other attorneys' offices over at T.J.'s Pub."
"Sorry, Mary. Too much work to do."
"You know what you need?" Mary crossed to the coffeepot on the credenza, adding some water from a waiting pitcher, then loading in a couple of scoops of coffee from a decorative canister, intuitively reading Carolyn's late-afternoon need for another caffeine fix. "A killer sundress and a sexy manone always attracts the other."
When it came to fixing Carolyn up, Mary was like a persistent five-year-old wanting candy before dinnershe'd try every tactic known to man and wasn't above shameless begging. To Mary a woman without a man was akin to a possum without a taila creature to be pitied and helped.
"I don't need a man, Mary." Though the last time Carolyn had gone on a date
Okay, so she couldn't think of the last time she'd gone on a date.
Speaking of dates and menthe image of Nick sprang to mind, and a surge of something thick and hot Carolyn refused to call desire rose in her chest. What was it with that man? He'd been a blip in her life story, and yet he'd always lingered in the back of her mind like he was the one chapter in her life she wished she'd never written but couldn't forget reading. Well, she certainly didn't intend to check that book out of the library again. She already knew the ending.
One crazy weekend. One reckless decision. Four days later it was over.
Mary leaned against the mahogany credenza, arms akimbo, waiting for acquiescence. "Okay, so I can't get you to leave early, but you will be at the fund-raiser for the Care-and-Connect-with-Children program, won't you? These kids are all so needy, Carolyn. I've seen their files. Foster kids, kids living below the poverty levelthey run the gamut. And don't worry about having to get too involved or hands-on. We have a lot of activities planned to keep the kids busy all day, partly to give the foster parents a break, too. It's pretty overwhelming, taking in strangers."
And overwhelming for the children, living with strangers, but Carolyn didn't say that. She kept her past to herself. When she'd left Boston three and a half years ago, she'd also left those memories behind. "I promise, I'll be at the picnic on Saturday. But I don't need a new dress. I can wear the one I wore to the office summer party last year. No one remembers what anyone wears at these things, and I can go stag because I am perfectly capable"
"Of taking care of yourself," Mary finished on a sigh. "Yeah, I know. So are hermit crabs, but you don't see them smiling, now, do you?"
"They're crustaceans, Mary. I don't think they have smiles."
"Exactly." Mary nodded, as if that validated her point.
In the two years Mary had worked in the office, Carolyn had yet to figure out what stratosphere Mary's mind was working on. Luckily, Mary typed at an ungodly speed and filed with an almost zenlike ability. As for the rest
Well, Carolyn was twenty-eight and didn't need anyone to tell her how to live her life. Or to tell her she needed a man to take care of her. Not when there were more important things on her desk, like a thief.
She opened the thick manila folder before her and began reviewing the facts in the case again. If she got distracted for one second, she could miss something. A guilty man, for instance. This time it was Liam Pendant, a career criminal with an unregistered firearm in the glove compartment of his truck. His lawyer wanted her to go easy on him, but Carolyn disagreed. What if Liam had taken his crime a step further? Entered the house instead of just stolen the lawnmower out of the open garage? What if he'd taken the gun along? Used it on the homeowner who had caught him running down the driveway?
Instead of a simple burglary charge, she could be looking at another senseless tragedy, the result of a bad temper mixed with a gun.
And Carolyn knew all too well where that could lead. How a family could be destroyed in the blink of an eye. No, she decided, reviewing Liam's extensive rap sheet again, then closing the folder.
There would be no deal.
Mary took a seat on the edge of Carolyn's desk, depositing a mug of coffee before her. Carolyn thanked her and went on working. Mary laid a palm on the papers, blocking Carolyn's view. "Hon, an earthworm has more of a life than you do."
"Mary, aren't you paid to"
"Assist, not direct you?" she finished.
Carolyn laughed and stretched in her chair. "I guess I've said that often enough."
"And I've ignored you often enough. But after two years together, I consider us friends. And as your friend, I have to say you're working too hard." She rose, crossed the room and opened the closed blinds, revealing the brightly lit city outside. "In case you haven't noticed, it's summer. People are out there enjoying the sun. Not staying inside like vampires."
For a second, Carolyn paused to turn around and admire the view. The burst of fire the afternoon sun cast over the downtown square, the busy stream of traffic leaving the city as people returned to their families or headed out of Lawford for the tranquility of the lakes that dotted the Indiana landscape.
"It's a perfect day," Mary said. "And it's going to be a perfect weekend for the program for the kids. They're going to love all the gifts and the"
"Oh the gifts! Damn!" Carolyn rubbed at her temples. "I haven't bought a single present yet. I promised to sponsor one of those children and I totally forgot to get to the store. I'm sorry, Mary. These last few cases have been eating up every spare moment."
"There's always going to be another case," Mary said gently. "Will you please get out and enjoy the sunshine, Carolyn? I swear, all this climate-controlled air is frying your brain."
Carolyn rose and crossed to the window. For a second, she felt the warmth of the day, felt the special magic that seemed to come with summer days wrap around her heart. Her mind spiraled back to her childhood, to those first days out of school, running to greet her father when he got home from work, the endless bike rides they'd take, the times he'd push her on the backyard swingjust one more time, Dad, please, one more timethe games of catch that went long into the twilight hours. Once in a while they'd stay up late, watching for shooting stars or playing catch-and-release with fireflies.
Her throat caught, a lump so thick in the space below her chin, she couldn't swallow. Oh, Dad.
How she missed him, the ache hitting deep and sharp, from time to time.
Every summer with her father had been in-credible. It had been just the two of them, after her mother had been killed in a car accident shortly after Carolyn was born. Because of that, Carolyn and her father had shared a bond. A bond she missed, missed so very much there were days when she swore she could touch the pain.
After her father died when she was nine, she'd lost that feeling of joy, that anticipation of warm days, of long, lazy evenings. She'd started staying indoors, avoiding summer because everything had lost its magic. Trying to forget the very season she had enjoyed so much.
Then Nick had come along a few years ago and reminded her of the fun she used to have. Reminded her that magic still existed.
For a while Carolyn had let loose and done something completely crazyso crazy that it had led her to a disaster of a marriage. For five minutes she'd let go of the tight hold she'd had over her life, and when she had, the ball of control went rolling over the hill way too fast.
Thankfully, she'd fixed that mistake almost immediately, and everything was on the right path now. She was successful at her job. Sure, it had come at the cost of what other people hada home, kids, the trappings of traditionbut for a woman like Carolyn, who had about as much experience with the traditional life as a swimsuit model did with dog sledding, it was just as well. Besides, neither she nor Nick had taken the marriage seriously, not really.
And when that face from her past appeared on the TV screen in the diner, blasting Carolyn's history on national airwaves, she'd made her choice and walked away from Nick for good.
Carolyn pushed away the memories then returned to her desk, swallowed two aspirin with the black coffee, and went back to work. "I'll leave earlyer. I promise, Mary."
Mary sighed. "Okay. See you tomorrow, then. You will be at the picnic, right? Not chained to this desk?"
Carolyn smiled. "I'll be there. I promise."
"I'm holding you to it. And if you don't show up," Mary said, with a warning wag of her index finger, "you know I'll come right down here and drag you out of this office."
Mary said goodbye, then headed out of the office, already exchanging her pumps for a pair of flip-flops in her purse. Clearly, the paralegal was ready to start her holiday weekend.
Carolyn thought of the last time she'd done something that carefree. That spontaneous. And she couldn't remember. Somewhere along the road, it had simply become easier to spend weekends, holidays, Friday nights at her desk. Easier to ignore the invitations to dinners that were clearly fix-ups, the dates with men who didn't interest her, the lonely evenings at home by herself.
Mary was right. Carolyn could almost feel her father looking down on her from heaven, tsktsking at all the sunshine she had missed, the sunsets that had passed behind Carolyn's back as she'd worked.
Well, she did have shopping to do for the picnic tomorrow. What better excuse to leave early? She finished up the last few tasks on her desk, including leaving a voice mail for Liam's attorney telling him no deal, then shut down her computer. Her gaze caught on the bright blue-and-yellow envelope for the Care-and-Connect-with-Children program. She tugged it out, stuck it in her briefcase, then headed out the door.
As she headed down in the elevator, she opened the envelope and pulled out the photo of the child inside. A paper clip held a four-by-six-inch picture of a five-year-old boy to the corner of a sheet of paper.