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Will O'Malley stomped the snow from his boots before entering the courthouse in Spruce Lake, Colorado.
His brother Matt collared him as he stepped inside. "Where the hell have you been?"
Will grinned at his arresting officer, unfazed by his angry demand. "Delivering flowers for Mrs. C."
Matt could be such a stuffed shirt sometimes—so could his other three brothers—but Matt was the one who worried most about what people thought of the O'Malleys. To make amends, he caught Matt in a bear hug. "Thanks for coming along to support me, buddy."
Matt shrugged him off, saying through clenched teeth, "I'm not here to support you. I'm here to make sure you don't get in any more trouble." He led the way into the courtroom, then spun around. "You're aware that I might run for county sheriff, aren't you? Your antics last night won't help my chances."
Will doubted the residents of Peaks County thought any less of Matt or the rest of the O'Malleys after last night, considering most of the courtroom audience—Will noted with pleasure—were with him at the time. "Sure. In fact, I'll be your campaign manager."
"Over my dead body," Matt growled as Will stepped up to the podium and turned toward the bench.
Wow! was his first reaction as he studied the judge. Her dark red hair was pulled back in a severe style that went with her suit and gavel. A few tendrils had worked themselves loose, softening her face and contrasting with her otherwise flawless presentation. She looked serious in a strangely attractive way and would probably send him to the slammer, if she could guess his thoughts. Shelooked up, trained her green eyes on Will and he felt something hit him deep in his gut.
Every year at their wedding anniversary party, Mac O'Malley told the story of how he vowed he'd marry their mother, Sarah, the moment he laid eyes on her. Until now, Will had believed that was just Irish blarney.
Convinced he was gazing at the woman he'd marry and needing to share his feelings with Matt, he murmured, "I'm going to marry that woman someday."
Judge Rebecca McBride had finished her previous case concerning a pig called Louella who'd run amok in a dress boutique. Feeling as though she was caught up in reruns of Green Acres, she wondered yet again, Why on earth did I take this job?
Steeling herself, she glanced up, ready to face the next bizarre case. Her eyes locked with the defendant's and her heart rate kicked up several notches.
Who knew this town of four ski mountains, three sets of traffic lights, 2,597 residents and one extremely naughty pig had some attractions, after all?
"Shut up!" Deputy O'Malley hissed.
Becky peered over the top of her glasses. "Were you speaking to me?"
"No, Judge. I was speaking to my—" he glared at the defendant "—brother."
That would explain the striking similarity. However, Deputy O'Malley was, as always, dressed immaculately, while his brother wore faded blue jeans, tan cowboy boots and a chambray shirt that stretched across broad shoulders. His neatly pressed shirt was at odds with his too-long black hair.
"The defendant is my younger brother, Judge. Any resemblance ends with our appearance," the deputy said.
She clasped her hands in front of her, steepled her thumbs and gave the defendant her most intimidating stare. "Mr. O'Malley, you've been charged with damaging demolition equipment belonging to the Mountain Resorts Development Company. How do you plead?"
"Guilty, Your Honor."
His admission surprised her. So did her own response to his deep-dimpled smile. It went clear up to his dark brown eyes and did inexplicable things to her insides.
She took a deep, calming breath before saying, "Why did you vandalize the vehicles?"
"The company has bought an entire block at the north end of Main Street. They want to demolish the existing buildings in order to erect an eight-story condominium complex and shopping mall," he explained.
"Those buildings are derelict. I should think a shopping mall and housing—given the town's shortage—would rejuvenate the area," Becky pointed out.
"Granted. But they're fine examples of Colorado Victorian architecture. Although many haven't been occupied since the gold mines closed back in '49, with sensitive renovation they could be restored to their former glory."
Becky admired his passion, if not his grasp on reality. In her opinion, some of the buildings would blow over in a good breeze. "As they aren't part of the protected Victorian district, the owners can do what they like with them."
"If you'll pardon the expression, Your Honor, certain aspects of the town's planning stink. There's been no public input into this development. The mayor's on the board of the development company and there's something very wrong with that picture. If we don't take a stand now, Spruce Lake could wind up full of concrete condos and shopping malls. Once those buildings are demolished, we won't be able to get them back. Our town's unique heritage should be preserved and I'm prepared to do anything to ensure that."
Despite his casual appearance, Becky conceded he was both articulate and public-spirited. "Your passion is admirable if a little misguided, sir. You vandalized private property and you'll have to be punished for it."
"Your Honor? If I could speak in my brother's favor."
Becky inclined her head.
The deputy scowled at his brother. "Will tends to be impetuous. Sometimes his enthusiasm gets in the way of his good intentions."
The court audience murmured their assent.
"In spite of how irresponsibly he acted last night, Will's a fine person… This was his first offence and, ah, he's extremely kind to animals, children and the elderly."
"Deputy O'Malley, that's enough." Becky was losing her patience. She consulted the documents, then returned her attention to Will. "It states here that you entered private property and let the air out of the demolition vehicles' tires."
He grinned, as though enormously pleased with his achievement. "Yes, ma'am."
"Why?" she asked, and reached for a glass of water to cover the hoarseness in her voice. Surely he wasn't trying to flirt with her?
"The development company moved in their equipment, although the contract for sale hasn't closed yet. To prevent them from demolishing anything, a number of concerned citizens formed a human chain around the buildings while I flattened all the tires."
When the audience cheered, Becky surmised most of them were probably part of that "human chain."
She banged her gavel and ordered, "Silence!" Fixing him with her sternest glare, she said, "You also painted unflattering messages on their vehicles."
The audience laughed and several wolf-whistled. "Way to go, boy," Frank Farquar yelled, and Louella gave a snort of agreement.
Becky swore she could see steam rising from Matt O'Malley's ears. "What's that blasted pig still doing here?" she hissed at the bailiff.
"Louella is your next case. She ate the giant pumpkin Frank's cousin Hank was raising for the county fair."
Becky glanced at her list and groaned. She'd skimmed over the wretched pig's name when perusing her caseload and failed to notice that Louella—listed as Ms. L. Farquar—was appearing on another offence. She fought the urge to put her forehead on the bench and bang it. Instead, she made a note to her clerk that pigs were not to be listed as defendants in her court—only their owners! That done, she made another note to check if the county ordinances covered reasons for disposing of pesky pigs. Louella was Public Nuisance Number One. That pig is going to end up bacon if she doesn't start behaving herself, she decided. Louella had the exasperating habit of causing an enormous amount of damage wherever she waddled. Any normal person would leave his pig at home, rather than taking it shopping, but Frank Farquar treated Louella like an overindulged child.
She closed her eyes and uttered a silent oath. If I can put up with this hick town for six months, I'll have a better chance of being posted to a court in Denver—or anywhere that isn't Spruce Lake. Provided I don't end up going crazy first!
She'd rashly accepted her first judicial appointment after having worked in a Denver law firm for several years. When she'd failed to make partner for the third time—the job being given yet again to a male associate—Becky resigned and applied for the vacancy in Peaks County, viewing the six-month posting as a stepping-stone to a position in a metropolitan court. In the four weeks she'd been in Spruce Lake—standing in for Judge Emily Stevens while she took maternity leave—Becky had earned a reputation as a straight talker who meted out justice with a dose of blunt advice on how to stay out of her court in future. Not that any of them seem to take it, she thought, surveying the full courtroom. She couldn't wait to get back to the city—any city—where people weren't permitted to bring their pigs to court.
"May I say something, Your Honor?"
"Do you really think that's wise?"
Will O'Malley smiled again and Becky clenched her fists in an effort to get control of herself—and the court. Failure to do so meant this case could come back to haunt her forever. "What?" she snapped.
"I used a water-based paint, so it shouldn't be too difficult to clean up."
The man was incorrigible. How could he possibly be related to Matt O'Malley? "That's very gratifying to hear because you're going to scrub every one of those vehicles so clean, they'll look like they just came from the showroom."
The deputy coughed politely. "What?" she demanded.
"They did just come from the showroom, Judge."
Becky could feel a monumental headache brewing. Maybe she should adjourn court for the rest of the day. Better still, go on permanent sick leave—preferably until her term in Spruce Lake was up. She took off her glasses and frowned at the defendant. "Don't you have any respect for other people's property?"
He managed to look indignant. "Of course I do. It's the reason I didn't use spray paint. I was trying to make a point and get publicity for our cause."
"Vandalizing expensive equipment does not make for good publicity. There are more effective ways to get your point across without breaking the law. Since you feel so strongly, why not approach the company about buying back the buildings?"
"I've considered that, Judge, but I don't have the financial resources."
Obviously, he wouldn't. The guy might be dazzlingly good-looking, but he was a dreamer. Like so many troublemakers, Will O'Malley was full of high ideals and no real substance to back them up. Pity. Because there was something about this particular troublemaker that troubled her libido. After rubbing the bridge of her nose, she put her glasses back on and said, "You're to clean up the equipment you've vandalized within the next forty-eight hours. I'm also assigning you community service. Do you have a job?"
He shifted his feet and, for the first time since entering her courtroom, his bravado seemed to desert him.
She removed her glasses again. "Mr. O'Malley?"
Will wished she' d put her glasses back on. She was too darned pretty to be a judge and he was having difficulty concentrating.
His former career had been guaranteed to have women the world over flirting outrageously with him. He was sure that the judge, like any warm-blooded woman, would be impressed. But he didn't want to talk about it. Not since the avalanche.
"Ah, I'm between jobs at the moment, Your Honor," he said, ignoring Matt's groan of resignation.
"In that case, what skills do you have that might be of use to the community?" She put her glasses back on and picked up a pen as though ready to take copious notes on his potential skills.
Will had a college degree but no truly useful skills. Until today, that hadn't bothered him. Until today, he hadn't met a woman he wanted to impress as much as the new judge.
"What was your most recent job?" she prompted.
"Tell her!" Matt said under his breath.
There was nothing else for it; he'd have to come clean. "I was a ski-movie actor," he said, squirming with embarrassment. The movies were short on dialogue—long on action and death-defying stunts. Strange how he'd only come to realize that in the past couple of months.
The judge paused in her note-taking and glanced up at him.
"You're a ski-movie actor?" Her tone told him exactly what she thought of that.
"Yes, ma'am. Although it's more stunt work than acting," he said, trying to downplay the glamour image associated with acting. Stunt work sounded as though he had a genuine career. He named some box-office successes. "Perhaps you've heard of Vertical Slide? Extreme Dreams? Aspen Altitude?"
The judge blinked. Guess not. Although it was tremendously lucrative, he wouldn't be going back to the movies. He'd traveled for ten years doing what he loved most—skiing the world's extreme terrain—but an avalanche had nearly claimed his life during shooting in the Andes two months ago. He'd been caught in dozens of avalanches before and, tragically, had friends die in them, but this time he'd come too close to death. Trapped and slowly suffocating while he awaited rescue, he'd reflected on his life and how pointless his career really was. Sure, the viewers enjoyed the action and probably the scenery, too, but the lifestyle was shallow, based on thrill-seeking, looking cool and never putting down roots. What had he really achieved that was worthwhile? What had he given back to his community? What would his epitaph say?
"I've retired from that line of work," he murmured.
"So you have a lot of time on your hands?"
Will winced. He wasn't used to sitting still. "Yes, ma'am."
"Then what are you good at that could be utilized by the local community?" she asked, sounding exasperated.
"Skiing, meeting women and ironing."
Will ignored Matt's glare. It was true—he enjoyed ironing. He'd gotten up to more than his share of mischief as a kid and his mom's punishment of choice was to make him do the ironing for their family of seven. In the process, he'd become an expert. Even Matt was impressed by his skill with an iron. He'd offer Matt several hours of free ironing to make up for the embarrassment he'd caused him over the protest.
"Maybe I could work at the information kiosk on Main Street?" he suggested. "I know a lot about the town."
"Ironing?" Becky said, deliberately ignoring his suggestion regarding the information kiosk. She suspected he thought working there would be an excellent way of meeting women. The notion of a defendant—particularly this one—spending his community service flirting annoyed her. What annoyed her even more was her ridiculous, bordering-on-jealous contemplation of him flirting with other women.
"Ahh… Judge? I don't think that's a good idea—"
"Deputy O'Malley!" she snapped. "Please do not interrupt me." Returning her attention to the defendant, she fixed him with a glare that brooked no argument. "In addition to cleaning the development company's vehicles, you'll complete fifty hours of community service.
"As you apparently enjoy the company of senior citizens and have no real qualifications, you can do the ironing and shovel snow at the Twilight Years Retirement Home. You have one month to complete your assigned service. Is that clear?"