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From the first moment Callie Lattimer spotted her uncle, U.S. Federal Judge Dan Lattimer, waiting for her outside the security area at Memphis International Airport, she knew something was wrong. He barely kissed her cheek before he hurried her toward baggage claim and then to his car. As they sped through the night along Interstate 55 toward his home in midtown Memphis, the light posts on the side of the road appeared to fly by the car windows.
His hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles turned white, and the muscle in his jaw flexed. When he glanced in the rearview mirror again as he'd been doing ever since they left the airport, Callie could hold her tongue no longer. "Uncle Dan, what's the matter?"
His body tensed further, and he cast a surprised look in her direction. "What do you mean?"
"I can tell you're upset. Has something happened I need to know about?"
He shook his head. "No. I'm just a little preoccupied over a case."
Callie reached over and squeezed his arm. "You're not supposed to be worrying about a case, not with your retirement a week away."
"I know, but old habits are hard to break." He glanced in the rearview mirror again.
"You're going to have to break those old habits. I'm here to spend the summer with you, and I want us to enjoy our time together, especially our trip to Hawaii."
His forehead wrinkled. "We will, darling. I just have to get some things worked out before we can go. In the meantime, I've booked you a room at the Peabody. I think it would be better for you to stay there for a few days until I get this case cleared up."
Callie sat up straight and swiveled in her seat to face him. "What? I don't want to stay at the Peabody. I want to stay at home."
"You will. Like I said, just give me a few days, then we'll get started on our summer plans."
"But Uncle Dan "
"Oh, no!" her uncle exclaimed, his wide-eyed stare locked on the rearview mirror.
Behind them Callie heard the roar of a car engine as it pulled into the passing lane. She turned her head to look over her shoulder, but her uncle's big hand gripped the back of her neck and pushed her face down to her lap as their car surged forward in a new burst of speed. Callie tried to wriggle free of the tight grip, but it was no use.
The crack of gunfire split the air, and the glass on the driver's-side window shattered. Uncle Dan's hand loosened then fell off her neck completely, and the car swerved toward the road's shoulder. Callie glanced up to see her uncle slumped over the steering wheel, his hand now hanging limply beside him. Before she could reach out to him, the car hit the highway guard rail, which folded like an accordion. Her air bag released and pushed her back into her seat as the car flipped on its side and plunged down a small embankment.
The vehicle's jarring stop knocked the breath from Callie's chest, and she closed her eyes as dizziness engulfed her. After a moment she swallowed, opened her eyes and took a deep breath.
Somehow the car had righted itself before it came to a stop, and she struggled to sit up in her seat. She turned her head to the side and gasped at the sight of her unconscious uncle behind the driver's-side air bag. Blood poured down the side of his face. She pushed her air bag out of the way and fumbled to release the seat belt, but it wouldn't open. "Uncle Dan!"
She touched his neck, found his weak pulse and groaned. He needed immediate medical attention. Her purse with her cell phone inside had been next to her feet before the crash, but it could be anywhere in the car now. She swept the floor with her hand but couldn't find it. She glanced back at her uncle, but he still hadn't moved. Blood from his head wound covered the now-deflating driver's-side air bag and dripped to the floor.
She grasped the handle, pulled it back and shoved her shoulder against the door, but it wouldn't budge. "Help!" she screamed. "Somebody, please help us!"
The sound of raised voices reached her ears, and relief flowed through her. Just as quickly it turned to fear. What if the shooter was coming to finish them off? With them trapped in the car, they were perfect targets. Panicked, she shoved on the door again.
A man's face appeared at the shattered driver's-side window, and he peered inside. "Are you all right?"
In the darkness she couldn't make out his face, but the man's voice had a soothing quality. "Yes, but my uncle is hurt."
"I've called 911," he said. "Help will be here any minute to get you out of there." The man reached through the window and touched her uncle's chest. "He's breathing. Now you just take it easy until we get some help."
Callie leaned back in her seat and breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you for helping us."
"I'm glad I saw your car run off the road. I thought that car passing you got too close. Then I heard a loud noise like a gunshot. Whoever was driving that car meant to hurt you."
Callie nodded. "Yes, it looked that way to me, too."
"Now don't you worry. I'll stay right here with you until help arrives. It shouldn't be too long."
Convinced they were safe for the moment from the person who'd tried to kill them, she closed her eyes. This wasn't the homecoming she'd expected. She'd been looking forward to Uncle Dan's retirement celebration for weeks. He'd worked so hard for years, first as a Memphis police officer while enrolled in law classes at night, then as a Memphis attorney and finally as a federal judge. He had spent the better part of his life bringing criminals to justice. If anyone deserved a peaceful retirement, he did.
Callie had opted out of teaching summer classes at the University of Virginia where she was a professor in the School of Business so she could spend the entire summer with him. They were set to celebrate his retirement the way he'd planned for years-in a Maui beach house they'd rented for six weeks.
She clenched her fists and rubbed her temples. It wasn't fair. He was the best man she'd ever known, and he'd dedicated his life to raising her when she was left with no one. In just a few days he'd be able to leave the stress of his job behind and enjoy life for a change. He wasn't supposed to wind up wounded and bleeding for reasons she didn't understand while his attacker got away.
The sound of sirens pierced the air. Callie opened her eyes and looked toward the road. "They're here," the man beside the car said.
He'd hardly finished speaking before she saw the flashlight beams of the first responders bobbing in the darkness as their rescuers came down the embankment. The man who'd been talking to her moved out of the way as one of the rescuers stopped beside the car. He glanced at her uncle, then at her. "Don't you worry, ma'am, we'll have you out of there in no time and on your way to the hospital."
Thirty minutes later an EMT carried her up the embankment to the ambulance with its flashing lights. She eased over to the gurney where her uncle lay and grasped his hand. He hadn't responded to anyone since he was pulled from the wreck.
She glanced up at the EMT who had just finished checking his pulse. Even though she feared the answer, she had to ask the question burning in her thoughts. "Is he going to be all right?"
The EMT adjusted the oxygen cannula in her uncle's nose and frowned. "It's still too early to say, ma'am. The doctor can tell you more when we get both of you to the hospital. Even though you appear to be unhurt you need to be checked out, too. You can ride in the back with your uncle."
Before they could load the gurney into the ambulance, her uncle stirred, and his eyelids fluttered open.
She clutched his hand tighter and leaned closer. "Uncle Dan, it's Callie. Can you hear me?"
"Callie." The hoarse whisper seemed to exhaust him.
"Yes, I'm here. We were in a car wreck. We're going to the hospital. Everything is going to be all right."
He frowned and licked his lips. "Call Seth."
Callie clutched her uncle's hand tighter and shook her head. "Uncle Dan, don't talk. Just lie still."
His eyes grew wide, and he struggled to push up. "No!" he wheezed. "Need Seth. Something to tell him about the case."
She glanced up at the EMT who placed his hands on her uncle's shoulders and eased him back down to the gurney. "All right, Uncle Dan. I'll call Seth."
"Tell him it's important," he mumbled before he closed his eyes again.
New tears poured down Callie's cheeks as she watched her uncle being loaded into the ambulance. One of the EMTs grasped her arm to help her up, but she paused when a car skidded to a stop next to the police car blocking the highway, and a man jumped from inside.
She wouldn't have to call Seth after all-he was already here.
She braced herself for her first encounter with Seth Dawtry since the night when she'd turned down his marriage proposal. For years her uncle had said that she and the young policeman he'd mentored would make a perfect couple. He'd tried matchmaking every time she came back to Memphis to visit. It had almost worked two years ago.
Seth only hesitated a moment when he saw her standing at the back of the ambulance before he raced toward her.
"Is he alive?" His voice shook with each word.
She nodded. "Yes, but he's seriously injured. How did you know he'd been hurt?"
"One of the first responders is a friend of mine. He called as soon as he saw who it was. I got here as fast as I could." He glanced at the EMT inside the ambulance. "Is he conscious?"
The man shook his head. "He was for a moment but not now."
She took a deep breath and turned toward Seth. "He asked me to call you. If he regains consciousness, I'll tell him you arrived."
Seth's eyes narrowed, then his stare settled on her and turned cold. Even after two years she could see he still harbored anger toward her. He gave a curt nod.
She tried to smile but her lips trembled. "We need to go."
Seth backed away. "I'll follow the ambulance to the hospital and see you there."
Callie wanted to tell him there was no need for him to go to the hospital, but she knew he would never listen to her. His relationship with Dan had been forged years ago when Seth was a recruit at the Memphis Police Academy where Dan was an instructor. They'd bonded right away, and in Dan, Seth had finally found a father to replace his own who had abandoned their family. Dan also regarded Seth as the son he'd never had.
She nodded and climbed in beside Dan's gurney. Before they could close the door, one of the men who'd pulled her from the car ran up to the ambulance. "I found your purse in the backseat," he said. "I thought you might need it."
Callie took her purse and smiled. "Thank you. I appreciate everything that all of you have done for us tonight."
He touched the front of his helmet in a small salute. "It's part of the job, ma'am. I'll be praying for you and your uncle."
The ambulance door closed before she had a chance to respond, to tell him how those words from a man she'd met only minutes ago had comforted her. She glanced down at her uncle lying so still on the gurney and wrapped her fingers around his big hand. One of the EMTs grabbed the rear doors to close them, and Callie glanced over her shoulder. Seth had already disappeared from view.
Still holding his hand, she dropped down in the seat across from her uncle. When she'd arrived at the Memphis airport an hour ago, she hadn't expected this turn of events. The memory of a roaring car and a gunshot blast flashed in her mind, and she closed her eyes and groaned.
Then there was her brief meeting with Seth. She'd been resigned to bumping into him at Dan's retirement party, but had hoped she could avoid any extended conversation. So much for that plan. Now he would be at the hospital, and she would have to keep him informed of her uncle's condition.
He'd tried to hide it, but even after two years she could feel his smoldering anger toward her. Perhaps he never would forgive her for how she'd hurt him, but she had hoped by this time he had moved on. She'd put the events of two years ago behind her, but it didn't look like he had.
Her uncle's body jerked suddenly and gasping sounds came from his throat. The EMT grabbed her uncle's hand out of her grasp and pressed his finger to the pulse. Frightened, Callie scooted away to give the attendant more room to work in the crowded ambulance.
"What's happening?" she cried.
Without answering her, he turned and yelled to the driver. "We have a problem back here. Move it!"
The ambulance surged forward, and Callie could only watch in horror as her uncle struggled to breathe. The vehicle careened into the hospital parking lot and came to a screeching halt at the emergency room bay.
Before she could ask another question, the back doors opened, and the ambulance driver reached up to help the EMT whisk the gurney out of the ambulance. A nurse helped Callie to the ground, seated her in a wheelchair and hurried toward the entrance.
The EMTs had the gurney inside before Callie and the nurse got to the doors. When they entered the waiting area, Callie grasped the arms of the wheelchair and choked back a sob at what she saw. Two nurses and the EMTs ran down the hallway beside her uncle's gurney. Before she could call out to them, they made a sharp turn and disappeared into a room on their right.
The nurse turned the wheelchair toward the exam rooms on the other side of the area. Callie sat up straight. "Where are you taking me?"
"To an exam room," the nurse said.
"But I want to be with my uncle."
The nurse shook her head. "I'm sorry, but you can't do that."
The question was no more than out of her mouth when she saw the answer in the nurse's eyes. She couldn't be with him because he was dying.
Seth Dawtry's heart sank as he pulled his car into the emergency room's parking lot. An ambulance, its rear doors still open, sat backed up in the bay for unloading patients. He knew enough to know that if they'd abandoned the ambulance to rush the patient inside, things weren't looking good.
He pulled the car to a stop and sat there a moment, grasping the steering wheel, trying to work up the will to go inside. As badly as he wanted to know his friend's condition, he couldn't bring himself to move. Not when it meant facing Callie.
He'd known Dan was picking Callie up at the airport tonight, but he hadn't expected to see her so soon. In fact, he'd planned to stay as far away from her as he could while she was in town. But his anger toward Cal-lie was no reason to abandon Dan right now.
He would be polite to Callie because Dan would want that. But as soon as Dan was out of danger, he'd go back to keeping his distance. With a sigh, Seth said another quick prayer for Dan before he jumped from the car and sprinted toward the entrance.