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Julia Morgan lit the final match, determined to destroy the letter clenched in her fingers. She was well aware of the mistakes she'd made in her life, but seeing them typed on fancy letterhead was more than she could take at the moment. She drew the flickering flame toward the paper but another gust of damp wind blew it out.
The mountains surrounding her hometown of Brevia, North Carolina, were notoriously wet in late winter. Even though it hadn't rained for several days, moisture clung to the frigid March air this afternoon, producing a cold she felt right to her bones.
With a frustrated groan, she crumpled the letter into a tiny ball. Add the inability to burn a single piece of paper to her colossal list of failures. Sinking to her knees on the soggy ground, she dropped the used matchstick into a trash bag with all the others.
She ignored the wail of a siren from the highway above her. She'd pulled off the road minutes earlier and climbed down the steep embankment, needing a moment to stop the panic welling inside her.
For a few seconds she focused her attention on the canopy of pine trees below the ridge where she stood, her heartbeat settling to a normal rhythm.
Since she'd returned to her hometown almost two years ago, this love of the forest had surprised her. She'd never been a nature girl, her gypsy existence taking her from one big city to another. Thanks to her beautiful son, Julia was now rooted in Brevia, and the dense woods that enveloped the town gave her the sense of peace she hadn't known she'd missed for years.
The makeshift fire hadn't been much of a plan, but flying by the seat of her pants was nothing new for Julia. With a deep breath, she smoothed the wrinkled letter against the grass. She'd read it compulsively over the past week until the urge to destroy it had overtaken her. She knew the words by heart but needed the satisfaction of watching them go up in flames.
Unfit mother. Seeking custody. Better options.
Tears pricked the backs of her eyes. Burning the letter wouldn't change the potential it had to ruin her life. She'd tried to dismiss the contents as lies and conjecture. In a corner of her heart, she worried they were true and she wouldn't be able to defend herself against them.
Suddenly she was hauled to her feet. "Are you hurt? What happened?" A pair of large hands ran along her bare arms, then down her waist toward
Whoa, there. "Back off, Andy Griffith," Julia sputtered as parts of her body she thought were in permanent hibernation sprang to life.
As if realizing how tightly he held her, Sam Callahan, Brevia's police chief, pushed away. He stalked several yards up the hill toward the road, then turned and came at her again. Muscles bunched under the shoulders of his police uniform.
She had to work hard to ignore the quick pull of awareness that pulsed through her. Darn good thing Julia had sworn off men. Even better that big, strong alpha men were so not her type.
Julia gave herself a mental headshake. "What do you want, Sam? I'm sort of busy here."
She could have sworn his eye twitched under his aviator sunglasses. He jabbed one arm toward the top of the hill. "What I want is to know what the hell you're doing off the side of the road. Again."
Right. She'd forgotten that the last time Sam had found her, she'd been eight months pregnant and had wrapped her ancient Honda around a tree trunk. He'd taken her to the hospital where her son, Charlie, had been born.
That day a year and a half ago had been the start of a new life for her. One she'd protect at any cost.
Sam had been new to Brevia and the role of police chief then. He'd also been a whole lot nicer. At least, to Julia. He'd made the rounds of the single ladies in town, but ever since Charlie's birth Sam had avoided her as though he thought he might be the first man in history to catch a pregnancy. Which was fine, especially given some of the details she'd heard about his history with women.
At the sound of her name, she focused on his words. "There are skid marks where your car pulled off."
"I was in a hurry," she said and swiped at her still-moist cheeks.
His hands bunched at his sides as he eyed her bag. "Do I smell smoke?"
"I lit a match. Lots of them." Her chin hitched. "Wanna call Smokey Bear for backup?"
He muttered something under his breath at the same time a semi roared by on the road above.
"I didn't quite catch that."
Sam removed his sunglasses and tucked them into the front pocket of his shirt. He was almost too good-looking, his blond hair short but a little messy, as if he needed a trim. The effect softened his classically handsome features and a square jaw that fell just short of comic-book chiseled. His gaze slammed into hers, and Julia knew if ice could turn molten, it would be the exact color of Sam's blue eyes.
"You were on your knees," he said slowly.
Julia swallowed. "I lost a contact."
"You don't wear contacts."
"How do you.? Never mind." She bent to retrieve the bag of worthless matches.
His finger brushed the back of her arm. "What are you doing out here, Jules?"
Something about the sound of her name soft as a whisper broke through her defenses. She straightened and waved the letter at him. "I have a meeting in town and needed some fresh air to collect my thoughts."
"At the salon?"
She shook her head. "No. Hair dye doesn't require much mental fortitude. I have a real meeting, with an attorney."
He didn't ask for details but continued to watch her.
"It's about Charlie," she offered after a minute. "About my custody." To add to her humiliation, she choked on the last word.
"You're his mother. Of course you have custody."
"I know." She lifted the letter. "But Jeff and his parents think-"
"My ex-boyfriend." She sighed. "Charlie's father." Sam's eyes narrowed. "The one who's never set eyes on him?"
"He's a college professor and travels the world doing research. His dad runs an investment firm in Columbus, Ohio, and his mom is a retired cardiologist. They're rich, powerful and very intellectual. The whole family is off-the-charts smart. I guess they have concerns. For Charlie's future and my ability to provide the right environment. Jeff wants a new custody arrangement."
"Have Jeff's parents met Charlie?"
"No. They called a couple of times after he was born. They didn't approve of me when I was with Jeff, and since he didn't want anything to do with the baby " She paused then added, "I let my mom deal with them."
That made him smile. "In my opinion, Vera is also off-the-charts smart."
Julia ignored the shiver in her legs at his slow grin. Her mother, Vera Morgan, was a pit bull. But also keenly intelligent. Everyone in her family was smart. Everyone but her.
"Jeff's mother is here with their family attorney to meet me. To make sure everything's okay-that Charlie is in good hands."
"Of course he's in good hands." Sam's voice gentled as he repeated, "You're his mother."
"I've done a lot of stupid things in my life, made a lot of mistakes. Jeff knows the sordid details and I'm sure his parents do, too." Emotion clogged her throat.
Sam was not the man she wanted to have see her like this. She made a show of checking her watch. "What I could use is some damage control for my reputation. White picket fence, doting husband, pillar of the community stuff. It's a little late for me to join the Junior League." She shook her head. "Anyway, thanks for your concern today, but as you can see, I'm peachy keen."
"You shouldn't talk to anyone until you get an attorney of your own."
"Frank Davis said he would help me, but I hope it won't come to that. I'm sure the Johnsons want what's best for Charlie. I should at least hear them out. That boy deserves everything this world has to offer." She gave a humorless laugh and started back toward the road. "What he's got is me."
As she moved past Sam, his hand reached out, but she jerked away. If he touched her right now she'd be a goner, and she needed to keep it together. For Charlie.
"You're more than enough," he called after her.
"From your lips to God's ears, Chief," she whispered and climbed up to her car.
"Who are you and what have you done with my father?"
Sam shifted in his chair at Carl's, Brevia's most popular restaurant, still reeling from his unbelievable afternoon. From the bizarre encounter with Julia he'd been called to a domestic disturbance that ended up being a chicken loose in Bobby Royall's kitchen. It had made him almost thirty minutes late to dinner with his dad. Now he wished the bird hadn't been so easy to catch.
Joe Callahan adjusted his Patriots baseball cap and chuckled. "It's me, son. Only better."
His father had been a police officer in Boston for almost forty years, most of which had been spent working homicide. Joe Callahan had dedicated his life to his career, and his family had suffered from the on-the-job stress and risks he took daily. Although it wasn't intentional, Sam had modeled his own life after his father's. Sam had put his job before everything and everyone in his life-just like Joe.
Recently, though, Joe had begun conducting programs for police departments on emotional awareness. Sam had resisted his father's repeated attempts to help him "get in touch" with his feelings. But now Joe was here and impossible to ignore.
"The boys down at the precinct loved my seminar. At least four of 'em were in tears by the end. I got thank-you notes from a half-dozen wives."
"That's great, Dad." Sam took a long drink of iced tea, wishing he wasn't on duty. A cold one would be mighty helpful tonight. "I don't see what that has to do with me or your unexpected visit to Brevia."
His father pulled a flyer out of the briefcase at his feet and pushed it across the table. "While I'm down here, I thought we could organize a workshop."
Sam glanced at the pamphlet. His stomach gave a hearty gurgle. Law with Love, Presented by Retired Police Captain Joseph Callahan. A picture of Joe hugging a group of uniformed officers filled the front page. Sam couldn't remember ever being hugged by his craggy, hard-nosed father. Holy mother of.
"I don't know. It's only me and one deputy on the force."
Joe tapped the sheet of paper. "It's for firefighters and paramedics, too. We could bring in neighboring towns- make it a regional event. Plus civil servants, city council. You're looking at a long-term reappointment, right? This could make quite an impression as far as your potential."
At the mention of his possible future in Brevia, Sam lost the battle with his temper. "My potential as what? I'm the chief of police, not the hug-it-out type."
His father's sharp intake of breath made Sam regret his outburst. "Sorry. You know what a small town this is and-"
Joe held up a hand. "Don't apologize." He removed his bifocals and dabbed at his eyes with a napkin.
"You aren't going to cry," Sam muttered, disbelieving. "You don't cry."
"Yes. I am going to cry. To take a moment and feel my pain."
Great. This was the second time today he'd brought someone to tears.
After a loud nose blow, Joe's watery gaze met his. "I feel my pain, and I feel yours."
"I'm not in pain." Sam let his eyes drift shut. "Other than a raging headache."
Joe ignored him and continued, "I did this to you, Sammy."
Sammy? His father hadn't called him Sammy since-
"When your mother died my whole world collapsed. I didn't think I could live without her. I didn't want to. It broke me a little more every day to see you and your brother that sad. I did the only thing I could to survive. I shut off my heart, and I made you do the same. I was wrong. I'm here to make it right again."
Sam saw customers from the surrounding tables begin to stare. "It's okay. Let's go outside for a minute."
Joe followed Sam's gaze and shook his head. "I'm not embarrassed to show my feelings. Not anymore." He took another breath, this one steadier. "Ever since the incident with my ole ticker." He thumped his sweatshirt. "They say facing death can make you reevaluate your whole life."
"It was indigestion, Dad. Not a real heart attack. Remember?"
"Doesn't matter. The change to my heart was real. The effect on my life was real." He readjusted his glasses. "I want the same change for you. I want you to be happy."
"I'm fine." Sam gulped a mouthful of ice and crunched. "Happy as a clam."
"Are you seeing anyone?"
Alarm bells went off in Sam's head. "I sure am actually. She's great." He looked away from his father's expectant face, unable to lie to him directly. He glanced around the crowded restaurant and his gaze landed on Julia at a booth in the back. He hadn't noticed her when he'd first walked in, but now he couldn't pull his eyes away.
This must be the meeting with her ex-boyfriend's family she'd told him about. The faces of the two women seated across from her were blocked, but Julia's cheeks flamed pink. Her palm smacked the table as if she was about to lose control.
Easy there, sweetheart, he counseled silently.
As if she'd heard him, her eyes met his and held for several moments. His pulse hammered against his throat. Then she squared her shoulders and folded her hands in her lap.
He turned back to his father. "You'd like her. She's a real spitfire."
Joe smiled. "Like your mother."
Sam forced himself not to look at Julia again. "I was ten when she died. I don't remember that much."
"This one's different than your other girls?"
Sam caught the waitress's attention and signaled for the check.
"Because I think you need a new perspective. After what happened with "
"I don't want to rehash my relationship history."
Joe reached across the table and clasped Sam's hand in his. "I know you want to find love and settle down."