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The strike of the judge's gavel reverberated through the room, announcing to the entire town of Burrow, Ohio, that she, Callie Easton, had committed a crime. She could almost see the stern glares of the city's forefathers.
Who knew that lost parking tickets could cause such a problem?
Heather Rinker, Callie's good friend and attorney, leaned toward her. "You okay?"
"I've just been ordered to do community service, Heather. Would you be okay?"
"No, but then I don't lose things." She gathered her copious papers into tidy little stacks and placed them in her folder.
"It's the handbag. I wouldn't be in this mess if not for the handbag." Callie hiccupped. Her usual reaction to life's crises.
Heather turned to her. "What?"
"It was on sale. I love the smell of leatherdid I ever tell you that?and this leather bag looked so cute. It was the right price, and"
Heather sighed and tucked her file carefully into her portfolio. "Callie"
"it has a million pockets, Heather. Pockets, where things are stored, never to be found again." Callie slumped further into her chair, trying to swallow past the shame that had settled rock solid in her throat. "What am I going to do? Aunt Bonnie needs me."
"Do you think if I told the judge that spring is one of the busiest seasons of the year for our salon that he would pick another time? I mean, since I'm not a big-city crime boss and all." She bit her lower lip. "This is an awful time to desert Aunt Bonnie." Callie rubbed her aching temples. "Why don't they just fine me or something?"
"This is how it's done in Burrow, Callie." A flicker of sympathy lit Heather's eyes. A rare occurrence, indeed.
"Any chance you could ask him to reconsider?" Callie asked.
"You're kidding, right?" Heather picked up her leather briefcase and started to briskly walk toward the door. To others, her five-foot-two frame may have looked dainty in her smart beige suit and fashionable heels, but Callie knew that inside that petite body lurked the strength of a five-hundred-pound prison matron. She was sheer grit and discipline, that one. How the two of them could be such great friends was a mystery to everyone who knew and loved them.
A new set of witnesses and onlookers shuffled inside the court, tingeing the air with the scent of stale tobacco and sweet perfumes.
Putting all self-respect behind her, Callie slung her handbag over her shoulder, hauled her five-foot-seven self after Heather, practically jogging to keep up, and saidbetween great heaving breaths"No, I'm not kidding."
Heather stopped dead center in front of Callie and point-blank stared her in the face. Her friend's eyes turned positively beady.
"It's the price you pay for losing your parking tickets."
Heather turned and headed into the hallway. Callie continued her jog to keep up. "That was harsh, Heather. Even for you." Three gum wrappers slipped from an outside pocket of Callie's handbag and drifted to the floor. She picked them up, stuffed them into the nearest hole in her bag and shifted the strap on her shoulder.
"It's what I've been telling you, Cal. You have to get organized. You can't afford to lose important documents."
Pockets. She had to stay away from pockets and nasty little corners where important papers could hide. She'd better dump out her handbag when she got home and take a look. Who knew what else lurked there.
"Aunt Bonnie, Heather. You know she needs me especially during prom season. You know how you love her peach scones? She'd make you some if"
Heather stopped, horror on her face. "Are you trying to bribe me?"
"Well, no, I don't think so. I just thought"
"Well, don't think. Just do your duty as a good citizen"
"Please don't make me do this over a couple of old parking tickets." Callie suddenly realized she had been reduced to groveling. Could life get any worse?
"Seven old parking tickets."
"There it is. The ugly truth in all its glory." Callie sighed.
Heather placed a hand on Callie's shoulder. "Look, I know this is tough for you and you're worried about the salon, but it will be over soon and you can get back to business. Hopefully, you'll learn how to get a bit more organized in the process."
"So, I really have to build a house?"
Heather chuckled. "Well, not single-handedly."
Callie could practically smell the sawdust, and for a moment, she was ten years old, staring up at her dad. He took off his tool belt and hard hat and laid them on the kitchen table. Pulling her into his arms, he said, "I'll always love you, Beanie." He brushed away a tear from his face, gave her one last squeeze and walked out the door. Callie flung herself at him, crying, grabbing at the door to get to him while her aunt and uncle held her back, embracing her until she'd shed every last tear.
"Hey, you all right?"
Callie's eyes refocused on Heather's concerned expression. Now was not the time to revisit her father's leaving after her mom diedshe had to get out of this situation. "Will I have to wear a tool belt? Please say no. I just couldn't live with myself."
Heather stared at her a little too long and finally said, "You make me crazy, you know that? I gotta go." Her heels clacked across the shiny tiled floor as she went to the courthouse doors.
"What if I toss the handbag?" It was a last-ditch effort that Heather ignored as she disappeared through the door, but Callie figured it couldn't hurt to try.
She hated letting her aunt down this way. Thirty years old and still irresponsible. And building a house was exactly what she didn't need. Old memories were better left buried.
"It's your fault," she growled at the handbag. Shrugging it into place on her shoulder, Callie shoved through the courthouse doors and swept down the steps toward her car. She could think of better ways to start the weekend.
"This car belong to you?" Another man in a blue uniform. Were they stalking her or what?
Callie stopped in front of her car, and with one glance at the empty meter, considered telling a fib. Her upbringing wouldn't allow it. "Yes."
He ripped a ticket from his thick, neat little pad. "Looks like this belongs to you, too." He smiled, tipped his hat and walked away.
If she could put her parking tickets in an organized pad like that, she wouldn't even be at the courthouse. Grumbling, she climbed inside her car, then crammed her ticket deep into her handbag. She'd deal with that later.
"I can't believe you're doing this to me again." Brad Sharp walked off the concrete foundation, away from listening ears. He growled into the phone, "Listen, Ryan, you remember what a disaster the last community servant was for the Make a Home project? She went through every nail in the county before we could finish the framing. And then there was the other one. She was a honey. Decided to hijack the Bobcat and splintered our framing wood into a thousand pieces." His voice rose with anger. "I can't afford your community servants, bro."
Ryan wasn't ruffled in the least. "So we've had a few clunkers. It's a worthy cause. And you're into worthy causes, after all."
Brad could hear the teasing in Ryan's voice and it irritated him. "Isn't this called abusing your position of power?" His work boots stomped over mounds of clumped dirt on the job site. Nails jostled in his tool belt. Behind him men unloaded lumber from the truck to prepare for framing. Workers called out to one another. Saws whirred, spitting flakes of dust into the spring air. He had a job to do and didn't have time for this.
"I don't see it that way. Callie Easton needs to serve the community, and you are heading up a community project, building a brand new house for a Burrow family." Pages turned. No doubt Ryan was scanning his next case while talking. "Besides, this is a win-win situation."
"Oh, sure. Dump a perp on me and you can strike your gavel without another thought. What did she do, anyway?"
"She didn't pay her parking tickets."
Brad stopped in his tracks. "You're kidding."
"Would I kid about the law?"
"And I'll bet she's single and in her early thirties, am I right?"
Brad groaned. "Come on, Ryan. This isn't about justice. This is about you wanting me to settle down. Why is it you married men aren't happy unless you take all your single buddies down with you?"
"Hey, marriage is a great institution. Don't knock it till you've tried it."
"Look, I'm glad for you and Brianna, but it's not for me. You know that. I don't need a wife to tie me down."
"Au contraire, little brother. I think that's exactly what you need. Find a good woman, settle down in Burrow."
"Don't start, Ryan. I'm not like you. I don't want to stay here forever. A woman won't change that."
It was true that Ryan was a big-name judge and Brad was merely a carpenter, but that didn't give Ryan the right to plan out Brad's life for him. The last thing he would ever do was get involved with a woman his brother had chosen for him.
"Why are you always so closed to everything I say?"
"You never hear me. I've told you a million times I want to keep working abroad, not stay holed up in Burrow, Ohio. I'm only here until I get my next assignment in South America."
"I can think of worse things." Ryan's voice had an edge to it this time.
"I'm not saying it's a bad thing. It's just a bad thing for me. I'm wired differently than you. Why can't you accept that?"
Ryan sighed. "I'm sorry I upset you, Brad. We'll talk later. Callie starts Monday."
The line went dead and Brad snapped his cell phone shut. "Great, that's just great."
He knew his brother meant well, but Brad wished that just once Ryan would let him run his own life.
Monday morning came much too soon. Callie was thankful at least that Jessica Moore had agreed to work full-time at the salon until Callie was through "serving time." Jessica was the other stylist at the salon. As a rule, Jessica worked part-time so she could take some classes and care for her mom, who had been through a major surgery. But her mom was getting better and her classes were coming to an end, so Jessica offered to help Callie out.
Thunder boomed across the morning sky, causing Callie's red VW to tremble slightly. She peered through her rain-pelted car window. "Oh, this is just perfect."
With a grunt she reached for her red-and-white polka-dotted umbrella, slammed the door of her car and ran into the Peaches & Cream Bakery.
Though she was running late, of course, she wasn't about to give up her coffee and peach scone. It had nothing to do with her aunt and uncle owning the place. The bakery was known across the county for its delicious peach pastrieshence, the name. It could be a bit confusing to touriststhey owned the Peaches & Cream Bakery, the Peaches & Cream Salon and the Peaches & Cream Ice Cream Parlor.
Stopping for coffee and a peach scone was a breakfast routine that Callie couldn't do without. Closing her umbrella, she shook off the excess droplets and headed for the counter. Where had she gone wrong this morning? When the alarm had gone off, she had gotten up right awaywell, she'd only hit Snooze twice.
The tune of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" came from her cell phone. She rifled through her bag. If only she could remember to stick her phone in that special compartment in her handbag, the one specifically for cell phones. After she removed the straw papers and gum wrappers, of course.
"My pretrial hearing got cancelled, so if you want to meet for lunch today, I can do it," Heather said.
Shifting her keys to her phone hand, Callie's free fingers searched her jacket pocket for money. "I'm a community servant today, remember? I'll probably get bologna and water."
Heather laughed. "Oh, that's right. I forgot."
"Great. I'm serving time and my attorney forgot. Maybe if my attorney had been a little more"
"I wouldn't go there if I were you. It's never a good idea to make your attorney mad."
Speaking of making her attorney mad, Callie hadn't told Heather about the new parking ticket. No point in starting her week off on the wrong foot. Besides, she'd pay this ticket on time. It was right in her handbag. Somewhere.
"Point taken. Listen, I've got to go or I'll be late. Call you tonight." While Callie stuffed her cell phone back into her handbag, her keys slipped from her fingers and crashed against the tile floor. Just as she reached down to pick them up, her hand fell upon another, much larger, stronger hand.
"Oh," she said in surprise. Straightening, she looked up, up, up, until she stared into eyes so inviting that she wanted to RSVP on the spot. "I'm so clumsy."
Tall, Dark and Handsome leaned closer, and she caught a whiff of citrus and peppermint.
"It happens to me all the time." He smiled, shifted on his leg and tucked his thumb into a belt loop on his jeans.
Something about the way this man's dark hair was combed told her nary a stray would be tolerated. He was precise. She liked that in a man.
Just beyond him she could see the rain had quieted to a soft pattering against the windowpanes. The thunder murmured a romantic chant. Her insides whirled like a gentle breeze. If he lifted her on a white horse, she was so going with him.
"You're sure you're all right?"
The sincerity in his face and the compassion in his eyes caused her to hiccup. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she mumbled an apology.
A quirky smile lit up his face, giving him an impish look. "You'd better get some peanut butter for that."
She nodded and whipped around. Hiccupping was a family curse from her mother's side. Staccato hiccups punctuated almost every embarrassing moment. And nothingnot peanut butter or sugar or holding her breathcured them.
He tapped her shoulder and she turned back around. "You might want these." The keys dangled between his fingers.
The brush of his hand caused her pulse to stumble. Her mind drifted to a summer's day in a park. She was wearing flowers in her hair and a long, flowing dress. He was pushing her on a swing. They were laughing together
"What can I get you today?"
The nasally voice of the barista shook her loose from her dreaming. She wanted to thwack him. "I'll take a mocha latte and a" she started to order her usual peach scone but quickly changed her mind "fat-free blueberry muffin, please."
Boring, no-taste muffin in hand, Callie edged over to wait on her coffee, feeling quite proud of her self-control. Hopefully, Tall, Dark and Handsome had noticed. Unfortunately, when she turned around, her knight in shining armor was gone.
Maybe she'd exchange her muffin.