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Tessa Howard glanced around the courtroom, crowded with whispering people of all walks of life: elderly, teenagers and young professionals like herself. The knot of tension in her stomach eased. He wasn't going to show up. I'm almost free.
Maybe taking the time to fight her ticket in traffic court hadn't been wasted. If the officer who'd given her the ticket failed to show up, the speeding charge would be dropped. She glanced at her watch, the knot of tension tightening again as she thought of the appointments she was missing. While she couldn't afford the time waiting in court was taking, she could afford another ticket even less.
"Tessa Howard," the bailiff called her to the bench.
Tessa stood, refastened the button on her suit jacket, and tugged down the skirt that had ridden up her thighs. She swung her straight blond hair over her shoulder. The hair flip, as usual, attracted male attention. From her career in telecommunication salesand her maternal grandmotherTessa had learned that a smart woman used her brains and her femininity to get what she wanted. Of course, neither of them had gotten her out of her ticket. Yet.
She drew in a deep breath. After crawling over the other people in her row, she stepped into the aisle and, heels clicking on the tile floor, approached the bench.
"You're in my court again, Ms. Howard," the judge commented as she approached. "Speeding?"
"No, sir, I wasn't speeding. The officer must have confused my car with someone else's," she insisted. What was it that Nana Howard had always claimed? A lie well told and stuck to is just as good as the truth.
Her grandmother had freely imparted her sometimesunconventional bits of wisdoms. Nana-isms had probably prepared Tessa more for her career than the marketing classes at Lakewood Community College had.
A smile tugged up the corner of the judge's mouth, softening the older man's austere face. "Is that true, Lieutenant Michalski?"
Tessa's heart skipped a beat. She'd thought she was home free, that the uptight lieutenant had been too busy to make her little court date
Her pulse quickened as she realized he stood right beside her, his long, muscular body clad in the black uniform of the Lakewood, Michigan Police Department. She tilted her head to see his face.
He'd lost the sunglasses he'd worn the day he had pulled her over, but still she couldn't see his eyes. He stared straight ahead, as completely uninterested in her as he had been when he'd given her the ticket. She hadn't been able to flirt her way out of this violation, as she had some others.
"Lieutenant Michalski?" the judge prodded him.
"Ms. Howard's SUV was the only vehicle within radar range. She was definitely the one speeding."
"I wasn't going as fast as you said," she persisted.
"Eleven miles over the speed limit," he stated unequivocallyand correctly.
"But eleven miles " Wasn't that many over the limitit certainly wasn't as reckless as he had claimed it was. She would never drive recklessly. Too many people depended on her.
"Eleven miles over is still speeding, Ms. Howard. The ticket stands," the judge ruled. "Pay your fine."
"Your Honor, please," she beseeched him. "I had a good reason for speeding." Which she had tried to tell Lieutenant Michalski, but he hadn't cared.
"So now you were speeding, Ms. Howard? A minute ago you assured me you weren't," the judge reminded her.
"But " She bit her lip and refrained from explaining that her mother's car had broken down. As the lieutenant had said when she'd offered him the excuse, her mother should have called the Auto Club instead of Tessa.
But Tessa actually had been on the way to pick up her younger brother, Kevin, not her mother. Recognizing an unsympathetic listener, she hadn't bothered explaining about her teenage brother and that if someone didn't pick him up from high school, he would disappear for the night, getting into only God knew what trouble.
She doubted the court would be any more sympathetic than the police officer. And she doubted it was a good idea to mention her brother to the authorities at all, especially now. So far he had avoided getting into trouble with the law, and dealt just with school and her for tardiness and skipping classes.
"Yes, Ms. Howard?" the judge prodded her.
She released her lip and admitted, "If I get any more tickets on my record, the Secretary of State will pull my license."
"Considering her driving record, losing her license would probably be a good thing," the lieutenant commented, staring straight ahead.
"But if I lose my license, I'll lose my job," she said, as panic shortened her breath. "I can't afford to lose my job " For so many reasons. Hers wasn't the only head over which she had to keep a roof.
"You should have considered that before you started speeding, Ms. Howard," the judge remarked with no sympathy.
"May I make a suggestion, Your Honor?" the police officer asked.
The judge's eyes narrowed warily, but then he nodded. "Of course you may, Lieutenant Michalski."
"Maybe the citation, and the subsequent loss of her license, isn't the most fitting punishment for Ms. Howard's violation."
"You gave me the ticket," she whispered, sending him a glare, which she doubted he would see. But he had finally turned toward her, his gaze intent on her face. His eyes were green, with flecks of gold. With his black hair, she had figured they'd be brown or blue. She shook her head, disgusted that she had spent so much timetime she didn't have to sparethinking about his eyes.
"You have a more suitable punishment?" the judge asked him.
"More education than punishment," the lieutenant alluded, "I think Ms. Howard could learn a lot about obeying speed limits and the law in general if she were to enroll in Lakewood Police Department's Citizens' Police Academy."
The judge leaned back, a grin spreading across his face. "Interesting "
"Whathow?" she stammered, lifting her palms up. "I don't even know what the Citizens' Police Academy is. I don't want to be a police officer."
"It's not the police academy," the lieutenant assured her, grinning slightly as if he were amused. "It won't make you a police officer, although some people enroll to see if they might want to pursue a career in law enforcement. It will help you understand police procedurethe how and why."
Like why certain police officers were too rigid to let a driver off with just a warning? She bit her lip again so she wouldn't ask the question. No sense antagonizing him when he seemed to be changing his mind about the ticket.
"It's a great program," the judge enthused. "The Lakewood PD Watch Commander, Lieutenant O'Donnell, has been putting it on for a few years to promote community involvement and relations. The chief and the city council have made certain there's money in the budget for it, so there's no charge for the public to participate. Some officers have been known to donate their time just to make certain it doesn't go over budget."
Did Lieutenant Michalski donate his time? Would he be part of the program?
"It sounds interesting," she belatedly agreed with the judge to humor him. In truth, she didn't have any interest in the program or Lieutenant Michalski.
"Then you'll agree to enroll?"
"I would, but I have a job," she reminded them. At least she did for now. "I can't afford to miss any time from work."
"The CPA meets only one night a week," the lieutenant explained. "Wednesdays from six-thirty to ten for fifteen weeks."
Tessa's breath caught. Fifteen weeks. "I really"
"Don't have a choice if you want to keep your license," the judge pointed out. "The ticket or the class, Ms. Howard?"
"The class," she begrudgingly replied. Then she reminded herself what one more ticket would have cost her. "Thank you, Your Honor."
"Don't thank me," the judge said, "It was the lieutenant's idea."
She turned toward her benefactor. "Thank you."
While his jaw remained taut, his mouth unsmiling, his green eyes brightenedno doubt with more amusement at her expense, over the predicament she was in. "You'll enjoy the class, Ms. Howard."
"I doubt that."
"I won't be participating," he assured her.
She smiled. "Then maybe I will "
"You're going to have to participate," the watch commander, Lieutenant Patrick O'Donnell, told Chad, his back to him as he climbed the steps to his office, the glass walls of which rose above the reception area where interns sat at the front desk, taking nonemergency calls and buzzing in visitors.
Chad followed him, protesting, "Paddy"
"You're the emergency vehicle operation instructor for the police department," the commander pointed out, as he settled into the chair behind his counter-height, U-shaped desk, "as well as for the Lakewood University's Police Academy."
"Yeah, the police academy"
"Now you're the instructor for the citizens' police academy, too," Paddy said. His eyes, nearly the same reddish brown as his hair, crinkled at the corners as he grinned.
While they were both lieutenants, being watch commander gave Paddy more authority. He doled out assignments. Chad couldn't turn one downeven though police participation in the program was supposed to be voluntary.
"Hey, you've been recruiting for the class," Paddy reminded him, "You should help."
Although Chad leaned against the doorjamb, he couldn't relaxhe hadn't been able to since he'd first pulled over a black SUV driven by a certain blue-eyed blonde. "I only recruited one person."
"Tessa Howard." The watch commander never forgot a name. "What's the story with her?"
Chad shrugged tense shoulders. "Nothing. I gave her a ticket for speeding. She tried to fight it in traffic court."
"She would have lost her license " And she probably should have. Before giving her the ticket, he'd run her record and had seen all her speeding warnings and citationsone for going too fast for conditions that had resulted in a minor property damage accident.
"So you talked the judge into enrolling her in the class instead of giving her a ticket?" Paddy whistled with surprise. "I've never known you to let anyone off a ticket."
Chad mentally kicked himself for stepping in with his brilliant suggestion. Now if anything happened to Ms. Howard, it was his fault. His idea made her his responsibility now. He straightened. "I just thought she'd learn a lot from the class and that she might come to understand how reckless speeding is." He was actually counting on it.
"If you teach the traffic/defensive driving session of the class, she will," Paddy said. "You can personally explain to her the consequences of speeding."
Because he'd lived withor actually withoutthe consequences? Chad shook his head. "No. I would never get personal with Tessa Howard."
"Junior" Chad wasn't actually a junior, but because of his reputation as an expert driver, he'd been nicknamed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. "The problem is that you don't get personal with anyone," the commander continued, "not since your wife died."
Chad sucked in a breath. Although it had been four years since Luanne's death, those last three words struck him like a battering ram in the gut. He still missed herwhat they'd had and what they could have hadwhat they should have had.
"It's been a long time, Chad," Paddy said, his deep voice soft with sympathy and understanding.
Chad nodded. "Yeah. Sometimes too long. Sometimes not long enough " For the loss to stop hurting.
Paddy's eyes locked on Chad's. "It's been long enough. Luanne would have wanted you to move on."
She probably would have, but Chad wasn't ready. He doubted he'd ever be ready.
"How long you been divorced, Paddy?" he asked his friend.
The watch commander dropped his gaze to his desk as he shuffled some files. "That's different."
"Yeah." Paddy could see his ex again whereas Luanne was gone forever. If only she hadn't been speeding that day He'd warned her so many times to slow down.
He was kidding himself to think Tessa Howard would learn anything in the academy. If he hadn't been able to get through to his own wife, how would he get through to her? "This was a bad idea."
"What was?" Paddy asked distractedly as he shoveled through the files on his desk. The radio next to a flat-screen monitor crackled with the dispatcher's voice sending out units on the latest 911 calls. Messages also flashed across the screen. The watch commander divided his attention between the calls and the files. But from the half-empty coffee mugs on his desk and atop the file cabinets, he was used to people dropping by his office to talk, too.
So Chad didn't feel too badly for taking up his time. "I should have kept my mouth shut in court." He sighed. "Hell, I probably shouldn't have shown up at all."
"The judge would have thrown out the ticket then."
"He threw it out anyway." Because of Chad's interference. He pushed a hand through his hair. "Do you really need my help with the academy?"
Paddy looked up from his paperwork, his eyes narrowed. Then he nodded. "I can't wait to meet Ms. Howard."
"It's not like that "
"Like what?" Paddy asked. "She isn't young and pretty?"
"She's twenty-seven," he recalled from her license, which had actually had a good picturealthough he couldn't imagine her taking a bad one. "So yeah, she's young." He glanced at his watch, but he didn't have anyplace to go. His shift had ended.
She wasn't just pretty. With her spunk and sass, she was so much more. Thinking of her bright blue eyes and golden blond hair, gorgeous was the word that most readily sprang to his mind. Since the day he had pulled her over, he had thought about hertoo much. The way she had batted her thick black lashes and had spoken in a breathy voice, trying to flirt her way out of the ticket. Then in court, the way she'd gnawed her bottom lip
He suppressed a groan and lied to the watch commander, "I hadn't noticed."
Paddy laughed, knowing him so well that he had to realize Chad lied. "Well, helping me out as one of the class instructors will give you time to notice."
"She probably won't even show up." He hoped.
His stomach flipped as Tessa Howard, blond hair swinging around her shoulders, settled onto a chair at the table in the front rowjust feet away from where Chad Michalski sat with the other instructors. While most of the rest of the class had dressed casually in either jeans or khakis and sweaters or sweatshirts, Tessa wore a suit similar to the one she'd worn in court. A tailored, pinstriped navy blue jacket cinched her slim waist while a slim pencil skirt ended above her knees but inched farther up her thighs as she crossed her legs.
Chad swallowed hard and shifted on his chair. If only he'd kept quiet in court
The watch commander nudged his shoulder. "Tessa Howard?"
"Now I understand why"
Chad nudged him back. "Don't you have a class to teach?"
Paddy grinned, but stood up and addressed the group of citizens and instructors gathered in the third-floor meeting room. "Welcome to the Lakewood Police Department's Citizens' Police Academy."