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Betsy Anderson rested her chin on her knees as she studied the placement of each and every stone, her heart keenly aware of a budding feeling she'd nearly forgotten. A feeling she'd once thrived on, yet had learned to function without.
But even as she sat there in the grass, staring at the ornate yet simplistic structure and marveling at the emotions it evoked inside her, she knew how ridiculous her journey seemed. There were pedestrian bridges in New York City far more picturesque than the one in front of her. Still, something about this bridge had propelled her to toss what was left of her life into a suitcase and drive twelve hundred miles from home.
Just so she could see it.
It was ludicrous, really. Maybe even teetering on the edge of certifiable. But Paxton Bridge had stirred something inside her from the moment she saw its snowcapped image on the page of a bookstore calendar in midtown Manhattan. Its instantaneous grasp on her mind and heart had been completely unexpected, a sensation she'd been unable to explain to anyone, including herself.
At least that's what she'd told her neighbor as she was packing her laptop and suitcase into the car, maps clutched in her free hand. She hadn't been intentionally evasive, she really hadn't. It was just something she couldn't put into words no matter how hard she tried.
Now it was crystal clear. At least in her eyes. And probably to anyone who knew what it was like to lose sight of hope.
She exhaled a wisp of soft brown hair from her eyes and grinned as it fell back against her skin undaunted. It may have taken a while, a very long while for that mat ter, but for the first time in a year she finally felt as if things might get better. How, she didn't know quite yet. When, she wasn't exactly sure of, either. But deep down inside she finally knew it would.
And she owed it all to a stone bridge in the middle of a quaint little park in Cedar Creek, Illinois.
A low whistle cut through the silence of the warm April day and forced her gaze off the bridge for the first time in over an hour. The tune was familiar yet elusive, launching her into a visual game of hide-and-seek with a pair of navy blue legs she could see beneath the branches of an unending line of oak trees. Judging by their size and shape, they belonged to a male, his feet clad in black shoes, his gait one of confidence.
Curious, she leaned forward, watched as the accompanying hand reached down to retrieve a soda can off the ground and toss it into a nearby garbage can.
Her eyes tracked the legs as they continued on, their pace an interesting mixture of leisure and purpose. After several minutes they stopped once again, this time allowing the whistler to reach down and pat the head of a toddler riding by in a stroller with a tiny brown puppy in tow.
When the child grew bored, the legs moved on, prompting her gaze to follow suit. They reached a fork in the path and headed left, the color of the pants and the squeak of the shoes finally registering in some dusty corner of her mind.
She closed her lips in an attempt to stifle the moan she felt building in her throat, a sound spurred on by the unexpected tingle that coursed through her body as the whistler stepped into the path of the sun. Her gaze slid down from his face, taking note of everything from the chiseled jaw and kissable mouth to his uniformed broad shoulders and narrow waist. The effect his presence had on her was like nothing she'd ever felt before—startling, curious, undeniable.
And more than a little stupid. On so many levels.
First and foremost, she wasn't a hormone-crazed teenager. Not even close. She was a thirty-two-year-old widow with no interest in a relationship of any kind.
Second, there was no way the tingle in her body could be from him. She'd just laid eyes on him.
Third, and most important, he was a police officer—a fact that should have her running for the hills, not sitting there staring like a love-struck idiot….
Hadn't she learned anything? Hadn't one late-night knock at the door been enough?
"For a lifetime," she mumbled, her eyes widening as the words left her mouth.
But it was too late. The whistler paused midstride, his startlingly blue eyes now trained directly on her face.
Instantly, the tingle-that-couldn't-have-been returned with a vengeance, this time with a slight moistening in her hands to boot.
"I, uh…" She looked around for something that would provide a graceful escape from the uncomfortable place she'd landed. "It's really quite beautiful," she said, gesturing toward the bridge out of desperation. "And more than a little inspiring."
She was grateful when his unreadable expression finally left her face and focused on the stone structure just over his right shoulder. It gave her a moment to breathe and regroup.
"The Paxton? Yeah, it's a gem. It took a lot of men a lot of blood, sweat and tears to build that bridge." He pulled his hat from his head and tucked it under his arm, his free hand gliding through his short dark brown hair with ease.
What would it feel like to run her hands through that hair?
"Ma'am, are you okay?"
Startled, she shook her head against the crazy images floating through her mind and forced herself to concentrate on the topic at hand.
"Do you know how long it took?"
"What? To make the bridge?" he asked.
"Almost twelve months to the day. My grandfather helped cart some of its stones back when he was a teenager. I think my mom still has a picture. She found it among his stuff after he died a few years ago."
She inhaled sharply, his words touching a place she knew all too well. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to stir up any bad memories."
The man shrugged, the buttons of his uniform rising up a hairbreadth before dipping back down. "Memories of my grandfather make me happy. And as for his death…well, he lived a good life, an honorable life. Can't ask for much more than that."
"Do you find yourself ever having any regrets when you think about him? Wait… You know what? Don't answer that. I'm just in a pensive mood, I guess." Pointing at the bridge, she quickly steered the conversation back on track. "It's about seventy-three years old, right?"
He looked at her, his lips closed together in a surprised smile. "Seventy-four, actually. But, I'm impressed. Seems most people around here don't think about it unless it's an anniversary year and the town throws a celebration bash." His gaze left her face long enough to study her immediate surroundings before reengaging eye contact. "We won't be having another one of those until late next year."
"A bash you'll undoubtedly miss on account of having to do crowd control, yes?"
He shrugged once again, his hands dropping to his hips as he widened his stance. "It's my job. Though the first two I worked were…hmm…fairly uneventful."
She laughed at the hesitation in his voice. "Fairly? Sounds like there's a story there."
"Several, actually." He pulled his hat from underneath his arm and fiddled with it between his hands, a telltale sparkle lighting his eyes. "You wouldn't believe what people do at those things…the trouble they can get themselves into without even trying."
"Try me." Stretching her jean-clad legs outward, Betsy winced at the soreness that came from sitting in the same position for entirely too long.
"You don't have work to do? " he asked as he gestured his head toward the notepad and pen she'd tossed onto her computer bag when she arrived.
She waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Oh, I've got work to do, all right. Over three hundred pages of work to do. Only I'm waiting until the elephant leaves the room."
"Elephant?" His eyes narrowed in intensity as he studied her once again. "I'm sorry, I'm not following."
"Right. How could you?" She swallowed back the wave of embarrassment that threatened to engulf her. "Sorry about that. Let's just chalk it up to the horrors of being another year older."
Seemed reasonable enough to her. And, come to think of it, maybe it even explained the recurring tingle in a roundabout sort of way. She said as much to the police officer. "Maybe instead of an overindulgence of sugar as is the norm on this day, maybe I'm babbling because I've not had enough."
"This day? I'm sorry but I'm still not follow—wait! It's your birthday?"
She nodded, her eyes meeting his as yet another tingle shot its way through her body.
"Well then, happy birthday. I hope it's a great day and an even better year."
"It can't get much worse." The second the words were out she regretted them, squirming at the bitterness in her voice. She really had become a wet blanket. A waterlogged wet blanket.
Leaping to her feet, she tugged the bottom of her baby-pink V-neck shirt down around her waist and forced a smile. "You know what? I'd like to scratch that comment from the record if we can. Birthdays are for fresh starts and new beginnings. And today's mine."
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, cocking her head slightly to the left as she took in the officer's perplexed—and more than a little amused—expression. "So, if it's all right, I'd like to respond to your statement once again."
Folding his arms across his chest, he flashed a smile that made her knees weak. "Okay…"
She felt her cheeks warm under his visual inspection as she shifted from foot to foot, waiting. "Please. Say it again. So I can respond more appropriately."
Understanding dawned in his sunlit eyes, a hearty laugh on its heels. "Oh. Right. My mistake." He cleared his throat and gestured in her direction. "I could make it sound even better if I knew your name."
"Betsy. Betsy Anderson."
His gaze roamed across her body as he nodded at the information, the naked appreciation in his eyes deepening the flush to her face. "Happy birthday, Betsy Anderson. I hope you have a great year."
Satisfied, she extended her hand in his direction, the feel of his skin imprinting on her memory. "Thank you, I hope so, too."
There was something about Betsy Anderson that seemed to root his feet to the asphalt path and his gaze to her thickly lashed brown eyes. What exactly it was, though, he wasn't sure.
If it was even her at all.
Perhaps it was nothing more than the quiet day and the absence of activity in the park leaving him with little else to do. Perhaps it was the welcomed feel of the sun on his face after a long, miserable winter. Perhaps it was a stall tactic—a way to avoid headquarters and the chief's foul mood.
Or maybe it was the simple fact he hadn't been with a woman in more months than he could count and she brought the word pretty to a whole new level.
"You realize you know my name but I don't know yours, right? "
He was one of those guys who believed every woman had a feature that made her pretty—long legs, shapely curves, intriguing eyes, a cute nose… But Betsy Anderson had an abundance of pretty features, not the least of which was a smile that made him catch his breath every time it swept across her face….
"Okay, I'll guess. I'm a master at names. Jake? Robert? Steve?"
A smile he'd love to see as his hands glided around her back and pulled her against his—
"Joe? Sam? Oooh, I know—Thor?"
He gave his head a good shake in an attempt to dislodge the parade of erotic images marching in front of his eyes. She was talking to him and he was standing there like a lust-struck idiot. "I'm sorry, I didn't—"
"You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?" she asked, her mouth curving into yet another smile that made his chest tighten. "I could kind of tell you were lost in thought."
If she only knew….
Then again, if she knew, she'd probably slap him. Hard.
Lowering his head, he simply nodded. "Guilty as charged."
"Is that your plea?" she teased, her smile touching off a sparkle in her eyes that rivaled the morning sun.
"Okay…I'll let you off. This time." Her laughter, sweet and pure, filled the air around them, his body reacting to the sound in ways he hoped she didn't notice. "But next time you ask for someone's name you really should supply your own, as well."
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry about that." He swung his hat upward, adjusting it to sit squarely on his head. "I'm Officer Brennan. Kyle Brennan."
"Kyle," she repeated. "Kyle. That's not one I've used before. I like it."
"I'm a wr—"
The crackle of his radio interrupted her words. "Post fifteen. Comm desk."
"Excuse me, I need to get this." His gaze flickered across Betsy's face, noted the way her lips pursed and her brows furrowed at the unwelcome distraction as he lifted the radio to his mouth and responded. "Post fifteen."
He didn't know why he should be surprised by the re action. He'd seen it before. It was one of the main reas ons he'd avoided anything resembling a relationship since Lila. Well, that and the thought of getting his heart ripped out for a second time….
"Post fifteen, we've got a ten twenty-seven Romeo at Linton Bank and Trust. Two suspects. Both armed."
"Roger. Post fifteen responding." Kyle slipped the radio back into his belt as the call for backup continued, his heart pounding at the sudden change in his morning. For years Cedar Creek had been a quiet town—the kind of place where people went to bed at night with their front doors unlocked. But lately, things had changed. Robberies were springing up around town. First the hardware store, then the local mom-and-pop market. And now, the bank… It had to stop. "I gotta go. Have a great birthday."
And with that he was off, his feet pounding against the asphalt as he ran toward the park's border with Linton Street. When he reached the far side of Paxton Bridge, he glanced back over his shoulder for one last look at Betsy Anderson, a woman who'd managed to stir something inside him he'd thought was long gone.
Something that needed to stay gone…
For his sake. And for Callie's.