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The blue and red lights flashed. Polished cowboy boots stepped out of the looming SUV. Each step stirred pale dust into the dry air. She didn't need to look at his face to know who had pulled her over. Ever since her return to Clear Water, Texas, she had done her best to avoid this state trooper.
Jake Torres made it too easy to doubt her resolve to be independent. After a disastrous marriage with one hometown boy, she couldn't contemplate a relationship with another, even if he had been her best friend once upon a time.
Now her ex-friend was going to give her a ticket on Valentine's Day. Great. Another memento to add to this wonderful day.
Turning away from the rearview mirror, she glanced at the box of pink penguin cupcakes. They had taken her twice as long to decorate as she'd planned.
"Mom! We're going to be late!" Ashley, her seven-year-old daughter, cried from the backseat.
She closed her eyes for a moment to control the burning acid in her stomach.
More money gone. She didn't even have enough to buy her daughter the lollipop Valentine cards she wanted. With a quick check in the mirror, she noticed Ashley going through the handmade cards. A weak smile eased some of the tension as she thought of the fun they'd had while cutting and gluing scrap pieces of construction paper. Even Seth, her preteen son, had made a couple of glittery masterpieces.
An unwanted memory surfaced. The sparkly red heart she had created as an eleven-year-old. She could see Jake's fingers take the Valentine card made just for him. She'd held her breath watching him read the question she had so carefully printed. Looking up at her, he had smiled and laughed at her. "Vickie, you're crazy."
"Vickie?" A baritone voice of the grown version of her childhood crush brought her back to the present. He now stood in his state trooper uniform and looked at her as if he still doubted her sanity.
"Officer Torres." She replied in her most professional voice.
He leaned in a bit and looked past her. "Hi, Ashley. You're looking pretty today."
"Thank you. We're going to the horse club's Valentine's party."
He smiled and nodded before looking back at her. Well, she assumed he looked at her. With the dark aviators, all she saw was her own reflection. Not pretty.
"License and insurance?"
She handed him the documents. He always looked so good in cowboy hats. She made sure not to gaze at him. Instead, she focused on the empty country road stretched out in front of her. The outline of the hills surrounding them hid any sign of civilization.
A silver truck sped by and honked. Vickie scooted farther down in her seat and looked to her right. The Black Angus heifers went on with their eating. Her father's cattle couldn't care less about her problems.
"How is Seth doing?" Jake pulled her attention back to him.
Her knuckles went white around her worn and cracked steering wheel. Just two months ago, her son snuck out, making plans to run away and ended up in the shallow river in the dark. Her heart still stopped whenever she thought how close she came to losing her son. The image of his still form loaded into the ambulance burned forever in her mind.
"Last week the doctor released him for all regular activities. He's a hundred percent recovered, physically anyway." She took a breath and looked up. "Thank you for being there, for searching for him and helping me hold it together." It had been the worst night of her life, and Jake had stayed by her side until they found Seth. He drove her to the ambulance and helped her stay calm when it felt as if she was going to fall to pieces.
He paused and brought his face back to her. "I'm glad I was there. Vickie, you know if you ever need anything you can call me."
Yeah, that was Jake, everyone's hero. Giving her a speeding ticket, probably for her own good. "You wouldn't consider just giving me a warning, would you?" She tried to smile, but visions of her measly savings dwindling even further made it difficult.
"The sun's almost down. It's hard to see deer, and in your small car that can be dangerous. Just the other day " His voice dropped off as he looked back to his new handheld scanner. "Um Vickie?"
That didn't sound good. "Yes?"
"Are you aware you have a warrant out for your arrest?"
"What?" Her voice squeaked as it caught in her throat. "Oh, no! I had a ticket somewhere in East Texas. I didn't oh, then Tommy and Seth " She covered her face with her cold, clammy hands. You will not cry, Victoria Maria Lawson. You will not cry.
"Vickie, take a breath. It's okay. You have a way to pay it, right? You can ask your father." He took the dark shades off. "As soon as you pay it in full they'll remove the warrant."
"I'm not asking Daddy. I just forgot about it." Did she have enough in her savings? Was she ever going to get to the point where she put more in than she withdrew? She looked in the rearview mirror. Ashley's big eyes were even wider. "It's okay, sweetheart." She glanced up at Jake. "I have Ash."
"Vickie. I don't want to arrest you, but you have to pay it. Call your dad. He'll help you."
"I have the money. I'm not asking Daddy to save me. I completely forgot How could I ?" She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. How did she let this happen? With Seth's near-death excursion and Tommy getting remarried she just.
"Mommy, are we still going to the horse club meeting?"
Oh, Ashley. "I don."
"Vickie, take her to the party." He lowered his chin and stared at her a moment before speaking again. "I'll follow. Ashley can go into the exhibit hall and you can take care of the ticket over the phone."
His thoughts were hidden behind the depth of his dark eyes. The intense gaze made her want to hide.
"Take it slow. Being late is not the worst thing that can happen." He glanced down. "You need new tires. These are bald, and your inspection sticker needs to be renewed." He took a step back.
She managed to nod. "Thank you. I can pay it. I just forgot." He didn't get it. She grew up relying on her parents then Tommy. She refused to ask them for help. She had to do this on her own.
She turned the key. Click Click. No! She tried again. Nothing. Come on. Please start.
One more try. The engine started. Yes! So much for a grand exit. It didn't purr, not like the Mercedes she drove just two years ago. She reminded herself to be grateful for a car she bought with her own money. Pulling back onto the country road, she headed to the arena on the edge of town.
Back in the SUV, Jake turned off the flashing light. With a heavy sigh, he started the engine.
He spent years ignored by Vickie. He should be used to it by now. Nevertheless, seeing her so battered by life hurt him in a way he suspected he'd never get over.
After checking the empty road for traffic, he pulled out to follow her. He'd pay the ticket himself if it would keep him from having to arrest her. He imagined she'd never forgive him for putting her in jail in front of her daughter.
Vickie would never forgive him for helping her, either. Describing her as stubborn was like calling the Texas sun in August a little warm.
Just a couple of months ago her son had been airlifted to San Antonio after almost drowning. He thought they had connected that night and she would be more open to reviving their old friendship.
Going by the Mercantile where she worked, he tried talking to her, but she managed to be in the back of the store whenever he stopped by.
Vickie made it clear that he had no place in her life.
He finally got to see her face-to-face, only to have to threaten to arrest her. Not the impression he wanted to make.
Easing into the parking spot next to Vickie's small vehicle, Jake put the Explorer in park in front of the sixty-year-old county building. The windows of the wood exhibit hall shimmered with pink and red metallic ribbons.
A couple of faces appeared through the streamers followed quickly by three girls rushing outside. "Ashley! Where have you been? You volunteered to decorate."
The oldest one, Rachel Levi, the pastor's daughter, stopped at the edge of the concrete slab and looked at Vickie instead of the younger girls. "Mrs. Lawson, is Seth with you?"
"No, sweetheart, he's with his grandfather." Vickie reached over and pulled the cupcakes out.
Ashley stood with her box of cards. "He's grounded. But he made a card for you."
"Really?" A smile lit up her face. The preteen turned to Vickie. "He's still grounded because we snuck out?"
"No, Rachel, he has a whole new set of reasons."
Her lips drawn, the girl looked uncomfortable. She had been with Seth the night he ran away and had pulled his unconscious body out of the river.
"Is your father here tonight?" Vickie asked.
Rachel nodded. "Daddy still doesn't allow me anywhere without him."
Jake looked at his watch. If Vickie was going to get her fines paid today, she needed to make those calls before the office closed.
He moved forward to take the cupcakes from her. "Come on, girls, let's get these inside. Ms. Lawson has some calls to make before the party starts."
Ashley and Celeste, Rachel's little sister, skipped to his side, holding hands. "Celeste, my mom made penguin cupcakes," Ashley said.
Rachel went in, shoulders slumped, but the other girls hopped around him.
"Oh, Ashley, these are the cutest cupcakes ever." Mia De La Cruz, one of Ashley's friends, held the door open for them.
At the far end of the room, women were setting the tables with food and drinks. He knew everyone. To his left Pastor John and Adrian De La Cruz kicked balloons out of their way as they walked toward him.
Adrian, a carpenter and roper Jake hung out with, slapped him on the back. "So you giving Ms. Lawson and her cupcakes a police escort?"
He smiled. "Looks that way, doesn't it? So where do these guys go?"
"I'll take them, Officer Torres." Rachel took the box from him and headed across the open floor.
Tables covered in more pink and red lined the walls. They left the center open for games and dancing. He spent many nights in his youth at the 4-H meetings and parties with Adrian and Vickie. "So now you're one of the 4-H parents?"
Adrian laughed. "That's me, dad of the Valentine's party. Happens a lot faster than you realize. Are you staying to help?"
"No, I just followed Vickie. I'm heading out, still on duty."
"Daddy!" Mia, Adrian's ten-year-old daughter, ran toward them. "Ms. Ortega is looking for the oranges and Hula-Hoops. Did you bring them in?"
"Yeah, I've got 'em." With another slap on Jake's back, Adrian followed his daughter to the group of mothers.
John gave him a quick goodbye and headed to his daughters.
Jake used to wonder what it would be like to have his own family. One part of him loved the thought of being the dad that helped at the 4-H events and rodeos, watching his own kids participate and compete. The other part knew he had no business being anyone's father or husband. The knowledge didn't seem to stop him from dreaming, though.
Vickie peeked around the door, scanning the area until she spotted him. She waved him over then disappeared outside.
For some insane reason, he smiled as he followed her through the door. Tomorrow she'd go back to ignoring him, but for now he had her full attention.
Vickie stood at her backyard fire pit alone, watching the dancing flames, the day finally over. She'd paid her ticket and left the party as soon as she could. Tomorrow would have been her thirteenth wedding anniversary. With the ugly emotions surfacing, it was a good thing Ashley went home with Mia, and Seth had stayed the night at her parents' house.
She had not had a second to herself in two months and tonight she needed some alone time. A fitting end to her worst Valentine's Day ever.
Well, maybe not the worst. Three years ago today, she found out her husband had been involved with his campaign manager, a woman she trusted. A woman that had sat at her dinner table and played with her kids. An anniversary gift she'd never forget.
She had worked so hard at being the good wife to a man that didn't care about being a good husband or father. It was all about image for Tommy.
Dousing the fire pit with diesel, Vickie watched the flames dance high into the Texas night sky. Hands on her hips, she looked up, following the tongues of orange as they curled and danced toward the stars.
For a moment, she focused on the silhouetted hills surrounding her father's ranch. She grew up counting the trees along the riverbank. Their smell always gave her comfort, but not tonight.
Tonight she needed to do something to purge the remaining traces of bitterness and feeling of helplessness. Maybe a good cry. She snorted. Her mother would disapprove.
Crying didn't solve anything, just made a person look weak. Opening the elaborate cover of her wedding album, she looked at the engagement picture. That girl looked like a stranger to her now. She was made up in the image of her mother.
Tommy smiled at the camera, one arm wrapped around her waist. Her hand flat against his shirt, showing off the large diamond. She tossed the grinning groom into the blaze and stared as his face distorted before vanishing into ashes.
She couldn't think of one single day in the last two years she had even missed Tommy and his hypercritical demands. Finding out about the other woman was her breaking point. He blamed her, telling her he couldn't love her.
Being a wife and mother was all she ever wanted. She didn't seem to be winning in that department, either. She rolled her head back and closed her tired eyes.
A grown woman with an eleven-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter to raise and not a marketable skill in sight.
Her mother lectured her for the past twelve years about being the good wife, even after the divorce. People in her family did not get divorced.
Against all evidence, Elizabeth Lawson hung on to the dream that Tommy would come back and beg her forgiveness, becoming the model family man. Vickie knew it was beyond over. She failed at marriage and had messed up the perfect family history. Her mother would have to find a way to deal.
The one thing she would not be, could not be, was a failure at being a mom. Her kids needed her more than ever since Tommy's disappearing act.
She tore out another photo, her mother fussing over the intricate pile of hair the hairdresser had created around the bridal veil. Miles of perfectly preserved white lace and tiny beaded pearls surrounded Vickie along with all her mother's plans and expectations.
Seth needed her to be strong. She knew the divorce and his father's abandonment hurt him beyond words.
Flipping the heavy page, she ripped out another photo. Into the fire the kiss went. Running down the steps of the church gone.
The three-foot wedding cake history.
The breeze blew smoke into her face. Vickie's chest and throat started to burn as tears finally escaped, one after another. Her eyesight blurred as she watched each picture vanish in the multicolored inferno.
Headlights made their way down the long drive. She gritted her teeth. Why couldn't her mother just leave her alone in her misery? Using the bottom of her oversize T-shirt, Vickie wiped her face.
The car door opened and closed.
"Vickie?" A strong, masculine voice surprised her. She hung her head. Much worse than her mother, the ex-best friend that almost arrested her today. Officer Jake Torres.
"I could see the flames from the highway. You know the county is in the middle of a burn ban." He walked straight toward her.