For Katherine, running for city council is about protecting children from the kind of grim childhood she had. And she won't let privileged politician's son Nick Delaney ruin her chances. Like he once ruined her dreams of true love and a family of her own.
Nick has his sights set on public office, not on rekindling a star-crossed romance from years ago. Yet as he and Katherine spend time together on the election circuit, his competitor compels him with her beauty and heart of gold. Falling for the opposition was never in his plans, but Nick will give anything to earn Katherine's forgiveness and renew their love.
About the Author
She is the 2012 Golden Heart® and Golden Pen Inspirational winner living in a small town in west central Florida with her wonderful husband of fifteen years. She spends her days creating new stories and taking care of her family.
Read an Excerpt
Stevie Mills tugged on Katherine Harper's sleeve and went for the pen in her hand. His restlessness kept her busy until the bailiff called the courtroom to order. She glanced across the aisle with a ready smile of welcome for the new family court attorney. But instant recognition of his dark hair and classic features stole the smile from her lips and the air from her lungs. Please God, no. Anyone but him.
The man turned toward her and froze, a yellow file folder clutched in his hand. Ties of a briefly shared past bound their gazes. The fast hitch of her breath was a discordant rhythm against the sluggish tick of the large clock mounted on the back wall.
Back in high school, his voice had been flat and cold as he explained how he had time only for the "right" people, the people important to his future. And a girl raised in foster care was so unimportant she simply disappeared into the far reaches of the county. The memory stirred the painful embers of disillusionment in her already burning heart. She was the last person Nick Delaney would ever expect to see slated as his equal in a court of law.
Stevie's squirming freed her from the magnetic pull of Nick's piercing gaze. She turned her attention back to the little boy with golden hair and caramel-colored eyes and helped him find his favorite crayon.
"Miss Harper," the judge began. "Are you sure you want to proceed today?"
Grateful for the judge's concern but unwilling to appear affected, Katherine rose, wetting her dry lips. "Yes, sir. Stevie and I are ready to continue." She took her seat before her shaky legs betrayed her weakness. The recent loss of her adoptive mother had her emotions raw, and Nick's arrival while she was emotionally defenseless had her worried. But her problems didn'tcouldn'tmatter right now. Stevie needed her focused on her job. His well-being was all that counted.
Judge Pierce looked toward Nick. "And you, sir, are ?"
Nick stood and faced the bench. "Good morning, Your Honor. I'm Nicholas Delaney, on loan from Judge Hawthorne for two months." His gaze slid to the side, taking in the curve of sharp cheekbones and a firm chin, all made less severe by the red-gold glints in Kat's auburn hair. "I'm very glad to be here." She flinched but didn't turn his way. The smile he offered the judge was as honest as his words.
Judge Pierce pinned him with as stern a glare as Judge Hawthorne had when she'd meted out his punishment. "I trust you learned your lesson with Hawthorne and I won't have to use further measures to keep you in line." The judge swiveled in his leather chair, switching his gaze to Kat. "Bring us up to date and state your motion, Miss Harper."
"Sir, Stevie's been at Hanover House for two weeks and has established a routine with Mrs. Potter. He begins grief-counseling sessions Friday. A change in location now would offset the progress he's made adjusting to his situation. As his advocate, I recommend he remain at Hanover House until his grandmother is released from the hospital."
"Mr. Delaney, any thoughts on Miss Harper's recommendation?"
The use of Harper as her surname had Nick's gaze searching her left hand. She watched him, her face void of emotion. Her current poise and carriage at odds with his memory of the shy, hesitant girl who had befriended him in study hall thirteen years ago. This new Kat was a complete stranger. Yet he couldn't resist the lure that kept drawing him toward her.
With a forced effort, he looked down at his notes. "Actually, sir, I wondered why the minor was not " A dull thud accompanied the rap of the judge's gavel and Nick's words faded.
"Mr. Delaney, we do not ever refer to a child in my courtroom by anything other than his or her name. They may be underage, but they most definitely are people and you will respect them as such."
"Of course, sir. I'm sorry." He looked first at the judge before nodding a silent apology toward Kat and Stevie.
"Why wasn't Stevie placed at a site closer to the hospital so arrangements could be made for him to visit his grandmother more often? Maybe we should consider doing that now, before he gets any more established in his current routine?"
The judge smiled at Kat while twirling his pen between his fingers. He leaned forward, as if eager for her response.
"Stevie is at Hanover House under Mrs. Potter's care because of her success in dealing with children who've suffered the loss of one or both parents." She kept her voice modulated to a tone as soothing as the hand she rubbed along Stevie's back.
"He sees his grandmother every other weekday and on Saturday and Sunday. When she's moved to the rehab center she'll be closer to Stevie's current location." She turned toward him with a raised eyebrow, all but daring him to say more.
"Forgive me." He resisted the urge to bow in deference to her imperialness. "I've had Stevie's case file for less than a week. I'm not up to speed on every aspect yet. I agree with choosing Hanover House as the" He caught himself in time. "As Stevie's temporary residence. But what service drives him to the hospital on weekends?" He struggled to keep the censure out of his voice over a service that probably cost the state an arm and a leg.
Temper sparked in her eyes. "I drive Stevie on the weekends. We stop at his favorite restaurant on our way back. My treat."
He nodded, ceding her the point. The last thing he needed was to offend Kat and have the judge choose sides against him on his first day in family court.
Judge Pierce's voice broke the tense silence growing between them. "Do you have any other concerns in regard to this case, Mr. Delaney?"
"No, sir. I'm in full agreement with Miss Jenkins, I mean, Mrs. Harper's choices."
"Good, then this hearing is complete. Miss Harper, copy Mr. Delaney on the weekly progress reports you send to my office from now on." Thunk went the gavel.
"Yes, Your Honor. Thank you, Your Honor," they both said.
As Kat stuffed a file folder into her briefcase along with the coloring book and crayons she'd given Stevie earlier, Nick stepped toward her. He left his own paperwork spread across the table, forgotten for the moment.
Her head came up and she nailed him with a frigid glare. "I don't use that name anymore. Call me either Katherine or Miss Harper."
"You were married?" That shouldn't have surprised him. Her eyes were a brighter green than he remembered. The green of new leaves in springtime. A silver clip held her wavy auburn hair back from her face. The look would have been severe on another woman. On her, it emphasized the sculpted roundness of her cheekbones and her straight nose. Her full lower lip glistened from some clear cosmetic. She wore a navy suit cut to follow her curves and accent her narrow waist. Her matching leather heels put the top of her head even with his shoulder. She was beautiful. A man would be insane to let her go.
"Adopted." She took Stevie's hand and started out of the room.
"What?" He'd lost himself in the sight of her, her answer slow to register.
She stopped and pivoted to face him. "I was adopted after " Her gaze dropped to the floor, then rose to meet his with a cold, hard flash of defiance. "I was adopted by a wonderful, kind woman named Alice. I took her name. Kat Jenkins doesn't exist anymore." She bent and whispered to Stevie before they walked away.
Nick stood motionless, staring after them. He'd wondered where she'd gone, if she'd been okay after she transferred. When he'd asked his father about her disappearance, he'd said it was common for kids like her, the ones who'd been in the system for years, to move on. They had no focus, no discipline. No sense of worth. They knew their future was doomed, and they were jealous of those more fortunate, so they disappeared.
Obviously, Kat, or Katherine as she preferred to be called, had found her focus. He marveled at her success. She was an attorney. She'd been better than he had been at math in high school. Thanks to her, he'd earned his acceptance into his father's alma mater based on his abilities, not his father's name.
He wasn't sure why God had sent him on this side trip through family court, but he would use the opportunity to renew his friendship with Katherine. She challenged him. Made him think beyond himself. To look for what others needed that he could provide. She didn't settle. He liked that about her. In a way, he had her to thank for his pursuing a career in politics. For wanting to give back. He collected his papers with a lighter heart than he'd had when his day had started. This was his second chance.
After court, Katherine dropped Stevie at Hanover House. Her heart was still pounding like a jackhammer as she drove to her office. Her short, angry gasps of breath, the thud of her heart slamming against her ribs, were a result of shock. Anyone would react this way if faced with someone from their pastsomeone who had betrayed them. There was no other explanation for the burning, tearing pain in her chest. A ghost from her past, piled on top of Alice's death, weighed her down with grief, making every breath a battle.
She rubbed her chest, trying to ease the pressure that had cinched tight around her the moment their eyes met. The sensation had nothing to do with Nick's handsome appearance. And it definitely had nothing to do with eyes the color of the deep sea. Because no matter how good he looked on the outside with his chiseled jaw and broad shoulders, inside beat the heart of a deceitful manipulator who used people for his own gain.
Nick wasn't thinking about what Stevie needed. His concern was for whatever closed the case faster so he could get back to his "billable hours" cases. Even if that meant separating Stevie and his grammy. But she wouldn't let him. Stevie and Mrs. Tindle had something sacred. They were a family.
Family. She beat back the urge to cry over her loss and squared her shoulders. All crying would do was give her a bigger headache. No one could claim she wasn't practical. Detached. The word drifted in the air around her.
Gina Lawson, her assistant, glanced up from her desk. The usual sparkle in her mischievous eyes dimmed when she spotted Katherine. She hopped up from her seat. "I thought you'd grab lunch at the courthouse. I'll fix some tea and order a salad from Ramon's," she said before heading to their small kitchenette.
She disappeared before Katherine could stop her. Gina believed her grandmother's secret brew could fix anything. Katherine grimaced and her tongue grew thick at the memory of the syrupy fixall.
A few minutes later, a steaming cup of the amazing elixir sat on her desk. Gina stood behind her like a sentry assigned guard duty until every drop of the sweet, minty concoction was gone. In a gentle tone, Gina asked, "How are you holding up? Do you want me to call and reschedule the afternoon session?"
"I'm fine, just tired. We have a new attorney for the state. Things took longer than usual." She shifted the mountain of files on her desk and breathed through her nose, desperate to stifle the nausea swirling in her stomach.
"No one will think less of you if you stop giving your whole life to your job. No one expects that but you. You should take time for yourself."
"I had plenty of 'me' time last week. This is where I belong."
She'd grown up like the kids in these file folders, carried along through a system as bumpy and unfeeling as a conveyor belt. The constant shuffling kept emotional attachments at a minimum. Safe.
She shut her eyes against the bitter acceptance that her purpose in life was as a temporary part of someone else's, a sort of stopgap before they moved on. The ugly truth was she wasn't meant for the permanence of a family.
Gina sat facing her. "You deserve a husband, a family, not an ever-changing array of faces in file folders. Jeremy just preached on this."
Jeremy, her pastor, preached monthly about how God didn't intend for people to be alone, citing Adam and Eve as the first example. He claimed God allows special people into our lives for companionship. A parent, a friend orthrough the natural progression of relationshipsa soul mate.
But Katherine knew better. She was the exception to the rule. Friend? She'd thought she'd found one in Nick a long time ago. Parent? She'd had twono, three. Her birth parents were dead, and now, so was Alice. She wasn't about to think of the damage a professed soul mate could inflict on her banged-up heart. The mere idea had her vowing to roll the fragile organ in a triple layer of bubble wrap and stick it on a shelf well out of reach forever.
She swallowed against the constriction in her throat and held tight to her resolve when she answered Gina. "I gave up on fairy tales and Prince Charming a long time ago. I have a lot to do. If there isn't anything else, I need some quiet time before I have to go back." Her gaze moved to the files.
"Well." Gina wouldn't meet her eyes. "You know the list of your volunteer work Judge Pierce wanted turned in for the community service selection committee? His clerk called this morning to remind me of the deadline."
The pulses of pain throbbing in her head morphed into thorns of irritation, and her words came out with a definite bite. "I'm not interested in becoming Pemberly's next Citizen of the Year. The selection committee uses the responses from the volunteer list to nominate candidates for the award. I'm busy doing real work in the real world. I'm a paid officer of the court. It's wrong to reward me for doing my job."
Gina harrumphed and waved the form at her. "I filled it out for you. All you have to do is sign right here." She jabbed her finger at the red sticky tab marking the spot. "And, Ms. Paid Officer of the Court, I don't recall you getting any compensation for the nights, weekends or holidays you spend at the shelters and halfway houses giving out free legal advice." She paused only long enough to breathe. "Not to mention, driving a little boy to see his grandmother while she's in the hospital. If anyone deserves an award for looking out for this community, it's you. And while you're at it, why don't you think about running for public office? I heard there's a seat open on the city council."
Couldn't she catch a break today? Her body ached as if they'd all used it as a punching bag. The tea hadn't worked its special effects. Her head was still pounding. "I told you, I'm not signing it. Now let it go." In one fluid motion, she plucked the paper out of Gina's hand, wadded it up, and tossed it toward the garbage can.
Gina's look as she salvaged her reusable sticky tab from the crumpled paper conveyed her belief Katherine had lost her mind. "I'm telling Judge Pierce you're being stubborn. And, I made copies. Lots of copies." She stalked back to her desk.
"I'm always stubborn. That's how I get my way in court," she yelled toward the empty doorway. With a tired sigh, she rubbed at the ache in her temples and prayed she was wrong about God's plan for her life.