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To Angela Wiznowski the sweetest sound in the world was her daughter's giggle: a bubbly gurgle erupting from her throat.
Angie leaned against the half-brick pillar on the porch of her bungalow-style house and watched Erin play in the front yard with her friends on a Slip 'N Slide. Today was her tenth birthday, and she'd had a fun-filled day. As the girls played with the water hose, shrieks and girlish laughter echoed through the late-May afternoon in Horseshoe, Texas.
Being a single mom hadn't been easy, but Angie must have done something right. Her daughter was happy. It was what Angie had done wrong that kept her awake at night.
The whole Wiznowski family had been there today, along with Angie's friends and neighbors. Everyone had come. Everyone except Erin's father.
Angie had made that decision a long time ago, but the remnants of guilt lingered. Maybe because it had been the wrong decision. A child had a right to know her father.
It was clear now. Back then, though, everything wasn't so black-and-white. It wasn't as if she hadn't tried to tell him, but he'd left town three days after they'd slept together for an extended vacation in Europe. Her attempts to contact him had failed. When he'd returned, he had an internship waiting for him in Houston. Angie had still tried to reach him, but when she found out he was engaged to someone else, she was devastated and unsure of what to do.
At eighteen, she'd felt alone and afraid. Keeping Erin's parentage a secret had never been a deliberate choice. It had just turned out that way. She couldn't tell him when he was set to marry another woman.
In college, Angie had met someone else, too, so fate had stepped in and the secret had stayed a secret. Part of her, the part that niggled at her late at night, knew Erin had missed a lot by not knowing her biological father.
Life went on, though. Her marriage had dissolved and she'd moved home to raise Erin alone. Although she wasn't alone, surrounded by her very large family in Horseshoe. Sometimes it just felt that way.
To make matters worse, two years ago Erin's father had returned to the small town and ran for the district attorney's office and won. He was now the D.A. Angie saw him almost every day. They had polite conversations like "How are you?" or "How's your family?" or "How are things at the bakery?" They were like strangers, as if that night had never happened. As if Erin had never happened.
Angie wrestled with her conscience daily, especially since his wife wasn't with him. Horseshoe was a small town and gossip was like a balloon-the more air blown into it, the bigger it became, and soon it was floating all over town with nothing to hold it up but a lot of hot air puffed up with half-truths.
Still, everyone listened to the gossip. It was better than boredom. The story was his marriage had ended years ago and he'd come home because his father's health was failing. She'd lost track of the number of times she'd marched to the courthouse to speak with him. He had a right to know, and she had to tell him even though her daughter might hate her.
But he was always in court or out of the office. She'd been waiting for the right time. When it came, he'd introduced her to his new girlfriend and she couldn't bring herself to tell him. Maybe she was just a coward. Fear kept her tied to her secret because she was afraid of losing what she loved most: her child. Erin's father was a lawyer and, even after all this time, he could try to take Erin from her.
Erin was starting to ask questions, too. One day Angie would have to tell her daughter about her father. Today was not the day. She dismissed the thought for now. The day of reckoning would come soon enough.
The afternoon was winding down and everyone had gone home except for two little girls and Jody, Erin's best friend, who were waiting to be picked up. The girls continued to play on the Slip 'N Slide, getting totally soaked, chasing each other with the hose.
Erin ran for the house. "Mama, I'm getting my beach ball. We want to play with it."
Angie started to stop her, but it was her birthday. They'd bought the ball at Walmart, getting ready for their summer vacation. They were driving to Disney World and stopping at every hotel/motel that had a pool until they reached the beach in Florida. Just Angie and her daughter. Erin would hit those teen years soon enough, and Angie wanted this special time with just the two of them.
Going to college and working, Angie depended on her family's support and help. Erin had three surrogate mothers in Angie's sisters. They adored their niece. At times, though, it was hard to have one-on-one time with her daughter. That was why Angie had moved out of her parent's home eight years ago and bought a house so she and Erin could have their own life.
The Polish-Catholic Wiznowskis were known for being a big family. Angie had four sisters and two brothers. Her brother Dale and her sister Dorothy had moved away right after high school. She was the youngest and often touted as the favorite, which was similar to being the little kid on the playground always picked on by the bullies.
Wyatt Carson, the sheriff, pulled up to the side of the house. His wife, Peyton, who was Angie's best friend, was with him. Peyton had gone home from the party so John Wyatt, otherwise known as J.W., their one-and-a-half-year-old son, could take a nap.
Wyatt came up the steps with his son in his arms. J.W. wiggled to get down and Wyatt let him. The baby scooted backward down the steps and tottered to his sister, Jody. He fell onto the Slip 'N Slide, laughing and getting soaked.
"Wyatt!" Peyton complained.
"He's a little boy. He wants to play."
Peyton wrapped her arm around her husband's waist. "You're changing him. I've done my quota for the day."
Wyatt kissed his wife. "The party over?" he asked Angie.
"Yes. Just waiting for two more parents."
Peyton was a beautiful blonde who was not the typical person you would find in Horseshoe. She had been raised in Austin in a wealthy family of social standing. She had made the mistake of speeding through Horseshoe one day, and Wyatt had arrested her because she'd had the nerve to try to bribe him. Who knew the sheriff and the socialite would fall in love? Peyton was now a small-town wife and mother. And happy. She and Angie had become fast friends through their daughters, and Angie treasured their friendship.
Two cars drove up to the curb. "The last of the birthday guests," Angie said. "It's been a long day."
The girls' squeals and giggles rose with excitement, and Angie glanced to where they were playing. They had the ball about twelve feet in the air, holding it there with the force of the water from the hose.
"Higher!" they shouted. Suddenly it bounced to the ground and toward the street. Erin ran after it.
"Erin, no!" Angie yelled.
Erin didn't hear her. Her concentration was on getting the ball back. Almost in slow motion Angie saw the truck coming around the corner. "Erin!" she screamed, but her daughter kept running in between cars to the street.
"No!" Angie sprinted down the steps and then froze in horror as she saw the truck slam into Erin, who flew up in the air and landed in a heap on the paved street.
In a matter of seconds Angie was at her child. Erin lay so still and pale. One of her legs was twisted in an unnatural way. A spot on her thigh was bruised and bleeding. Blood oozed into a dark red puddle. The sight sent fear burning through her.
Screams, shouts and sobs echoed through the perfect day and turned it into a nightmare. Someone kept screaming-a chilling sound. Angie wished they would stop. Her ears hurt from the loud noise, and then she realized it was her.
Wyatt knelt by her and put an arm around her. "Calm down."
Calm down. How did she calm down? Her child was lying like a limp doll in the street. Angie laid her face against Erin's warm one. Angie smelled bubble gum, and a sob caught in her throat. Her daughter loved gum.
Angie stroked Erin's wet hair and saw the bruise on her head and more blood. "Oh, my God!" She slipped a hand beneath Erin's head.
"Don't move her," Wyatt said. "An ambulance is on the way."
"Is is she breathing?" They were the only words she could manage.
Wyatt laid his fingers against Erin's neck. "Yes."
Angie kept her face against her baby's. "Mama's here."
Through the bits and pieces of her control she heard a bird chirping. An inane thing when her child's blood was seeping onto the pavement. How could this happen? How could this day go from joy to horror?
"Angie, she came out of nowhere. I'm sorry."
She raised her eyes to the face of the man who had hit her child. Her heart jolted into a spasmodic rhythm and then just flatlined, leaving her struggling to breathe. Fate had stepped in with a fistful of vengeance. She stared into the deep blue eyes of Hardison Hollister.
Hardy's chest expanded with raw terror. "I'm sorry, Angie. I didn't see her." His hands shook and his stomach roiled. He'd just hit an innocent child, and there was no way to make that better.
Angie glared at him with angry, unwavering eyes.
"It was an accident," Wyatt said. But it didn't change the sick feeling in his stomach as he stared at the little girl in the pink bathing suit with her leg twisted beneath her.
What was her name? He couldn't bring it up. Horseshoe was a small town, and everyone knew everyone. He and Angie had been more than friends once, but now they were mere acquaintances. They were civil to each other and often met by accident at Wyatt and Peyton's house. But he always kept his distance. Over the past two years, he'd been successful at that. How had he just hurt the one person she loved most in the world?
The blare of the siren whipped through the trees and roared to a stop not far from where they were kneeling on the pavement. Two paramedics jumped out with a stretcher. One began to ask questions. One was on the phone to the hospital, explaining the situation and checking the child's injuries. They quickly put a collar on the little girl and loaded her onto the stretcher and into the ambulance. A tearful Angie followed. Hardy's heart squeezed at the sight.
He glanced toward the house. Peyton held her son. Jody and two other girls were grouped around her, crying. Two women stood beside them. Someone needed to go with Angie. She didn't need to be alone. But everyone seemed frozen in shock.
He did the only thing he could. He climbed into the ambulance.
Angie eyes opened wide. "What are you doing?"
He sat on the side bench as the paramedics worked with the little girl to stop the bleeding. "Someone needs to go with you and since I caused all this, the logical person is me."
"There's no need," she said in a cool voice.
But there was no arguing. The ambulance zoomed toward Temple and the nearest hospital.
"How is she?" Hardy asked, not able to take his eyes off the child. She was so tiny. His chest grew even tighter as he saw blood soaking the stretcher.
"We've stopped the bleeding and started an IV," one paramedic answered. "Looks as if she's fractured her femur, but the doctors will give a better assessment once we reach the E.R."
Hardy stared at Angie and the years seem to roll back to a time they both wanted to forget. A time he had worked very hard to forget.
His sister, Rachel, and Angie were friends in high school. Their mother had been killed in a drive-by shooting while walking to her car at an Austin mall. She'd gotten caught in a fight between two gang members and was the only one to die. Her sudden death had hit the family hard. Rachel had been seventeen and crushed, as they all had been, but she couldn't seem to cope. Not until Angie had become a steadying force in her life.
Angie was sweet, kind, warm and giving. With her sunny disposition, she seemed to bring joy into a room. She had a sweet innocence about her that screamed "untouchable." Besides, she was his sister's age and too young for him.
Rachel had seemed to need Angie, and Angie had always been at the house. If she wasn't, Rachel was on the phone begging her to come. Angie had worked in the family bakery in Horseshoe, but she spent as much time with Rachel as she could.
Busy finishing up law school at the University of Texas, Hardy had rarely come home on weekends. But after his mother's death he'd come home often. Sometimes he had to wonder, though, if it was for his family or to see Angie. There was just something about her that made other people feel better-made him feel better.
Rachel had never liked to get dirty or sweaty. When they swam in the pool, Rachel would sit in a lounger while he and Angie frolicked in the water. He'd taught her to dive and how to hold her breath and open her eyes under the water. She'd been afraid to do that at first, and he'd laughed at her silly face when she finally did it. And he'd laughed when she'd made a belly buster off the diving board. He'd enjoyed being with her as much as Rachel did. Being six years older, sometimes he'd been ashamed to admit that.
Angie was a good cook and he lost track of the number of times she'd cooked in their kitchen-nachos, pizzas or anything Rachel wanted to eat. He'd eaten right along with them, soaking up the smile on Angie's face. They'd fought over movies. She had liked chick flicks, and he had liked action films. They'd done a lot of compromising and teasing. Rachel had been an artist and always drawing in her sketchbook and frowning at them. At times it had felt as if it were just the two of them in the world. He couldn't wait for Friday afternoons when he would head home to Horseshoe and Angie would be there.