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RISSA MATHEWS glanced into the rearview mirror and groaned when she spotted red and blue flashing lights. "Oh, great. Oh, this is just great!"
She took her foot off the gas pedal and rolled to a stop off the road, the police cruiser following closely behind. Swearing under her breath, she reached beside her for her purse.
It wasn't there.
Mouth open in panic, she leaned over to feel beneath the empty seat beside her. Had it slid in between the passenger seat and the door? "No, no, no, you've got to be kidding me."
"Put your hands where I can see them," a deep baritone ordered from her left. "Slowly."
Raising her head, she found herself staring into a pair of thickly lashed green eyes set amidst a sun-browned face and sharp, angular features. A broad-rimmed Stetson covered the officer's head and a khaki uniform shirt stretched across his wide chest, but it was the sun's reflection off the man's badge that had her imagining it was laughing at her.
She'd been pulled over by North Star's very own sheriff. What were the odds on him letting her go?
Rissa straightened--slowly--and immediately noticed from her higher position in the truck that his hand rested on the butt of his gun.
"Ma'am, do you know how fast you were going?"
"Not exactly." Who had time to pay attention to the speed limit when summoned by an irate principal?
"You were driving seventy-nine in a fifty-five. License and registration, please."
"Is there a problem, ma'am?"
Rissa looked at the empty seat beside her, her hands fisted in frustration. Why today of all days?
"I don't have it," sheadmitted, her voice low.
"M-my license. I mean, I do have a license, but it's--I don't have it with me." Her embarrassment heightened when one of the sheriff's eyebrows rose in response to her words.
"I see.... Your name?"
"And where were you going in such a hurry in the Rowlands' new truck, Ms. Mathews?"
The casually posed question didn't disguise the underlying query, and Rissa realized if she didn't talk fast, she'd not only wind up with a ticket she couldn't afford, but also a free trip to jail until he could determine whether the truck was stolen. Then where would her daughter be?
Probably right beside her. "Do you know the Rowlands?" she asked, hopeful. "I'm Maura's cousin--I'm staying at the Second Chance and helping Seth and Grace. You can call and confirm I have permission to drive the truck."
The sheriff stared at her, his gaze assessing. Maybe loosening up a little? She and Maura resembled each other, had the same hair and build passed on from their mothers.
"I just might do that," he drawled with a bit of a western twang, "but first tell me why you were speeding. Are you on an errand for the ranch?"
She wanted to say yes, but she would be lying and she was a horrible liar. The Second Chance was a fully operating year-round ranch and vacation resort, one for physically impaired guests and their families. Guests could ride horses, fish, snowmobile and ski with full thought and consideration given to any special needs. Maura had made two trips to town this week to obtain something for a guest so trips into the small town weren't unusual.
"No, but...I'm late. I ran out of gas and had to walk back to the ranch and borrow the truck. Now my daughter's waiting for me to pick her up at school, I'm late for appointments I can't miss, and--" She clamped her mouth shut. If he were going to give her a ticket there was nothing she could do about it. Rambling certainly wouldn't help, and doing so only reinforced the typical first impression most assumed when they spotted her blond hair and curvy frame.
But pride or no pride, she couldn't afford a ticket. Smothering a moan, she rubbed her aching temple. "Look, Sheriff, I know you've probably heard every excuse under the sun when it comes to people trying to get out of tickets, but I had my purse in my car when I left the house. Really. I must've left it behind when I switched vehicles. And I know I was speeding," she reluctantly added, "but I had the truck under control, no one else was on the road--"
"I was on the road."
"And most highway speed limits are seventy now so I wasn't driving that much over the norm." She tried to appeal to his sense of fairness. "Surely you've been late at least once and driven faster than you were supposed to?"
Her direct question earned a slight lifting of his lips at the corners, and Rissa chose to take the gesture as a sign the lawman was softening. Hope soared, and she gave him a rusty smile. Why not? Her appearance was often a hindrance to her goals, and it was definitely a hindrance when it came to her job. A female pilot in a male-dominated world, she'd often downplayed her looks. Maybe this once they would help?
Without comment the sheriff's gaze shifted from her eyes and face to where her arm rested along the window, his expression carefully neutral. "Give me your social security number and spell your name."
She did and watched while he wrote them down. "Keys?"
He lifted his hand, palm open, the calluses on his skin rough against hers when they brushed together during the exchange. A tingling sensation shot up her arm.
Rissa watched him in the rearview mirror, unwillingly noting the masculine grace in his long-legged stride.
A couple cars passed, and she wanted to sink down and hide when the occupants rubbernecked to get a look. Ignoring them the best she could, Rissa leaned her head back against the seat and stared out the window up at the cloudless sky.
She pushed aside the upset she felt at herself for making such a stupid, costly mistake, and thought about the long list of things she needed to be doing instead of sitting by the side of the road with her fate in the sheriff's hands, awaiting what would probably be a huge fine.
Minutes passed, and with them her impatience grew until she spotted a bird flying high overhead in the vast sea of blue and focused on it instead. Dipping and soaring, gliding, the sight brought a smile. Some women took hot baths to relax, she liked to skim the treetops. But since 9/11, pilots had become a dime a dozen in the flailing market, her wings clipped, and that left Jake's brand-new Dodge Ram pickup taking the honor of being the fastest thing she'd piloted after selling her BMW Z4.
She started at the sheriff's return, but if he noticed her reaction, he didn't let on. Instead he studied his notepad, the broad-rimmed hat shading his face until all she could see was his mouth and chin.
"It seems speeding isn't new to you, and you received a ticket a little over a year ago for the same problem. Were you running late then, too?"
Rissa straightened the hem of her light pink T-shirt. "Actually it was a family emergency. My...my husband and daughter had been in a car accident and--" she pictured Skylar lying in the ER hospital bed, cut and bloody, hysterical, screaming for her dad on the other side of the curtain "--my husband didn't make it. My daughter couldn't be sedated because--The hospital said to hurry so I did." She wasn't about to apologize for it, either.
Silent, the sheriff shifted his weight and tapped the narrow book against his fingers twice. Finally he flipped it closed with a heavy sigh.
Rissa blinked at him, confused, until she took in his expression and realized she wasn't the only one who'd known loss and pain.
"If I let you go..."
"It won't happen again," she promised huskily.
"Make sure it doesn't. You might be running late today, but no one is hurt. Slow down and keep it that way so that your daughter isn't trying to get to the hospital--to see you."
"You're letting me off?" Relief swept through her, and she caught her breath at the wry twist of his lips she received in response to her question. It softened his angled features, made her heart do a little jump, skip and thump she didn't expect.
"Yeah, I'm letting you off--with a warning to slow it down or else pay the price next time."
"Understood. Thank you, um--" she glanced at his name tag "--Sheriff Taggert. Seriously... thank you."
He held out the truck keys. "Drive safely."
"I will." Rissa flashed him a grateful smile and started the engine, waiting for him to step away before she slowly eased back onto the highway. Within moments the sheriff's broad-shouldered image faded in the distance, but she had a hard time making him disappear from her thoughts. What had happened to him to put that look in his eyes? What kind of pain had he endured?
Fifteen minutes later she still contemplated the questions to keep from having to think about her own problems--namely her daughter--when she pulled into North Star Middle School's parking lot.
The office was located on the other side of a vestibule, and she continued through the second set of doors, pausing when a woman heard her and raised her head. A wary, dread-filled expression crossed her face before she quickly masked the look and pasted on a smile. "Mrs. Mathews?"
Rissa's stomach tightened. "Yes, I'm Rissa Mathews."
"Delia Kline, counselor for the middle and high school students. I was away at a meeting the day you registered your daughter."
The woman held out her hand and Rissa shook it. "Sorry, I'm late."
The counselor dropped several files on a nearby desk and waved Rissa deeper into the reception area. "No problem. It gave me some time to clear my desk while Mr. Kline and I waited."