An Officer and a Lady
Single mom Julia Harrison is the last person Tanner Reddington should get involved with. He's promised to stay away from all things baby. But the state trooper's protective instincts outweigh his misgivings when he meets the lovely midwife. Julia is opening a women's clinic in Kirkwood Lake, while raising two small boys on her own. Plagued by memories of the family he lost, Tanner fights the pull he feels toward Julia and her kids. But when an orphaned newborn brings Tanner and Julia together, they begin to consider their future as husband and wife.
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New York state trooper Tanner Reddington scanned the sketchy neighborhood with a practiced eye. All was calm at present, but after a dozen years on the force, Tanner was no stranger to life's quick changes.
A winter storm warning had advised local businesses to shut down for the day. Most had heeded the warning, but scattered bright windows said not everyone had closed up, despite the harsh conditions about to descend on Western New York.
Typical, thought Tanner as he sipped his coffee. When he burned his tongue, he scolded himself and pushed to keep his mind on his work. Normally, that wasn't a big deal. Tanner lived his job.
But with the first days of March looming?
The next few days were always tough, a face-to-face reckoning with anniversaries he couldn't forget. And then the calendar mercifully flipped and time moved on.
Lights shut off south of him as a short stretch of shops called it a day.
There were always a few that stayed open till the last possible moment, then made a bad situation worse by trying to get home in rough winter conditions. Today's storm would be no exception, but as he scanned the interstate entrance to his left, the low volume of traffic said a lot of folks had paid attention this time.
His peripheral vision caught something out of place. He swiveled in the driver's seat, sure he'd seen a blink of light that hadn't been there minutes before. He scanned the thin gray light of late afternoon to determine what he saw.
Nothing seemed out of place.
Focused, he set his coffee down and studied a group of buildings just south of the above-grade interstate entrance.
Another blink of light pinpointed the action. But what was it? And why was it coming from that vacant building?
He put the cruiser into Drive and headed toward the decrepit structure. Other than a long-established shoe shop run by an eccentric but knowledgeable distance runner, the neglected strip mall had sat empty for several years.
Cops hated empty buildings. Empty buildings offered shelter for shady characters and an opportunity for foolish kids to create trouble. This scruffy stretch of decay had been slated for demolition twice. Both times, legal mumbo jumbo got in the way. Last he heard, some do-gooder had bought it for back taxes, promising the world.
That was months ago, and so far, nothing had changed. Tanner reported his location and his intention, knew backup was on the way, and slipped into the parking lot at the far end by the shoe store.
A lone car sat parked in front of the north-facing vacant building. He ran the plate and came up with the name of a rental car agency.
Which meant whoever was inside didn't want to be traced.
Trooper Zach Harrison pulled up alongside Tanner less than two minutes later. "What have we got?"
"That." Tanner pointed toward the messed-up building and just as he did, the bob of light shone from inside again.
"Car?" Zach jutted his chin toward the late model Chevy standing alone outside the building.
Tanner pulled his cruiser around to the front, tucked it into the corner and climbed out. Zach followed suit.
As they drew close to the ratty storefront on the end, Tanner put his hand over his weapon, ready to defend himself. He nodded to Zach.
Zach took flank and Tanner rapped hard on the door.
The light flicked off, plunging the interior into darkness.
"New York State Troopers. Open up!" Nothing.
Which meant whoever was inside was either scared or dangerous. Tanner tried the door. Locked.
He motioned to Zach.
Zach nodded, started to move forward, then paused. He reached into his pocket, withdrew his phone, dropped his head back and sighed. "Julia, it's me. Get out here.
The light blinked on inside, and this time it stayed on.
A key turned in the lock of the scuffed-up door. Tanner took a step back as the door swung his way. Juliawhoever she wasstepped out.
Blond hair pinned up, great eyes, glasses tucked up into the hair and a look on her face that said she might be ready to kill someone. "You big lug. You scared me to death. What's the matter with you, coming looking for me like this? Is everything all right? Are the boys okay? Is it Dad? Or Jackson?" She clamped a hand on Zach's arm with a grip that said she wasn't afraid to take care of herself. "What's happened, Zach?"
She turned Tanner's way as if just noticing him.
"The light." Tanner motioned toward the building interior. "You were flashing a light around and I came over to investigate. Zach's my backup."
"So " She drew the word out and looked up at Zach. "Nothing's wrong at home?"
"Not a thing."
Zach looked a little too pleased to be throwing Tanner to the wolves
In this case a very pretty wolf.
"Do you mind telling us what you were doing in this building?" Tanner asked.
She took her time shifting her attention from Zach to Tanner. "Because?"
"This building's been empty a long time. And there's a no-trespassing sign right there." He pointed just beyond Zach as he moved out of the way so she could see the sign.
She saw it, all right. She walked right past them, and despite the cold, harsh wind, she reached up, grabbed the card-stock sign and yanked it down, then tossed it into the wastebasket fastened to the corner post of the building.
Zach rolled his eyes, but he grinned, too, as if he thought her antics were funny. He turned to Tanner and waved as she moved back inside. "Tanner, my sister, Julia. Julia, this is Tanner Reddington. And stop giving him the evil eye. He's one of the good guys."
"He was ready to shoot me," she protested, scowling. "Don't you guys have something better to do than bother a woman when she's trying to measure her new work space?"
New work space?
Tanner looked at her, then the grungy interior. "You're putting a store in here? Really? You must have some serious money you're willing to throw away. If that's your goal" he raised his hands as if shrugging off the whole affair "then this is the perfect investment property. I can't think of a worse place for a"
She didn't let him finish. Instead, she thrust her cell phone into his hand with the flashlight turned on. "A clinic, actually. Here. Hold this. We'll need light, and with you and Zach here I can get this done and get home."
Bossy and quick, two things he disliked in a woman. "This is nuts. The storm's going to hit any minute."
"I've been called worse." She made Zach hold one end of a measuring tape, then walked the other end to about half the length of the building. "Eighteen feet by thirty-five feet."
"Am I supposed to remember this?" Zach asked.
She brightened immediately. "Perfect, yes! Thank you. And now back here." She moved farther back into the shadows and counted off space, then had Zach help measure while Tanner stood still, the beam aimed in their direction. She nodded, called out two more numbers to Zach and moved back up front. "You guys packing flashlights?"
Tanner withdrew his weapon and turned the flashlight on.
Julia eyed the gun-and-flashlight combo and whistled. "That's some serious flashlight equipment right there."
It was, and the attached light was sometimes a cop's best friend.
She took her phone back and jotted numbers before tucking it away. "That's it."
"If we get snowed in, I can sketch a floor plan over the next two days. Without the numbers, I'd be making assumptions."
"You know there's a storm about to hit us?"
"Hence, my need for speed." Her cool look said her reasoning was obvious and he was crazy.
Her quick dismissal made him want to read her the riot act about safety and good choices, similar to the one he dished out to the junior high health class a few days ago.
"What's with the rental car, Jules?" Zach moved toward the door, aiming his gun-mounted flashlight ahead so they could see their way out.
"My SUV got rearended by a drug salesman in a hurry to get home before the weather turned foul. It's going to be in the shop for a week at least."
"Were you in it?" Concern laced Zach's question as Julia turned the key, then tested the door to make sure it locked.
"Nope, it was parked, but he did a number on it."
"You know this sedan drives different on snow and ice," Zach reminded her as they stepped outside. "Don't expect it to respond the same way as your SUV."
"I won't." She turned to face them while the brisk wind whipped tiny snowflakes through her upswept hair. "I'm heading straight home, and I'll go slow, although now that it's snowing, I'm missing my Forester big-time."
"Just be careful. And who are you getting to do the work here?" Zach asked, and when she answered his question with a pert smile, he scowled. "I was afraid of that. You do know I have a wife and toddler at home, right?"
"Piper offered to help, actually, while Lucia watches Jack. She loves projects like this."
"And what exactly is this project?" Tanner asked as he and Zach made sure her car started all right. "A clinic, you said?"
Her happy answer made him want to turn tail and run, hard and fast.
And not look back.
"A pregnancy center for the poor. We'll service folks who've slipped through the cracks or who've fallen on hard times, or just don't have the means to get things done. We hope to open within a month as long as we can get the setup work done. And while this doesn't look pretty now" she jutted her chin toward the scruffy strip mall "we can tackle the outside in the spring. For right now, clean and safe prenatal care is the plan."
Something rose high in Tanner's throat. His heart, maybe?
He'd made it a point to stay away from anything to do with pregnancy and women these past three years. He avoided hospital detail as if it were the plague, he never sat near people with kidsor those expecting babiesanywhere. Ever.
He didn't need reminders of what he'd lost. It was there, every day, in the empty bed he used to share with a beautiful woman. His life, his love, his partner in all things. The extra bedrooms in the sprawling ranch home he'd finally sold over two years ago, his attempt to physically erase brick-and-mortar memories.
Julia gave him an odd look, as if wondering what he was thinking, but then she waved, turned on the engine and headed toward the parking lot exit.
Zach moved to his car. "Hey. It's cold and snowing. Why are you standing there? Let's go grab food at The Pelican's Nest and we can monitor calls from there."
Tanner didn't want food. He didn't want to pretend this was okay.
A pregnancy center, stuck in a boarded-up strip mall, right in the middle of his patrol zone.
He waved Zach off as he climbed into his cruiser. "Not hungry, but thanks. I'll go back to my watch spot near the entrance ramp. That way I'm close if anything goes down at this end of the lake."
Zach gave him a thumbs-up and shut his car door.
Tanner climbed in more slowly.
An hour ago he'd been sitting peacefully, watching conditions worsen, hoping for a quiet night. Now?
He couldn't get Ashley and baby Solomon out of his mind. In less than twenty-four hours, he'd lost his wife and his premature baby boy, tiny and sweet, born too soon.
His heart ached.
He thought he was managing fairly well. Most days he did all right, but the three-year anniversaries were looming.
He moved his cruiser back into position and stared at the low-slung buildings across the two-lane road.
You'll be fine, his conscience assured him. You've done okay, it's time to move on.
Tanner hated those words. Lame reassurances from people who hadn't suffered his kind of loss made him want to punch something. He kept a gym membership for that very reason.
Sadness welled within him, but the sorrow had an angry side. A side that railed at God, at medicine, at the timing that changed his life while he'd sat powerless to help.
Ashley gone. Their baby gone. Life alone.
A call on the radio made him pull himself together. A car had gone off the road, just north of the Kirkwood Lake exit. He pulled out of his parking spot, cruised across the lake-spanning highway and headed for the snow-clogged ramp.
Twin headlights stared off to the east, illuminating chunks of ice along the nearby shore.
The car had spun off the bottom of the ramp. Tanner eased around the corner and idled the cruiser, lights flashing. Pulling his hat and gloves on, he hurried across the quickly deepening snow, his flashlight aimed ahead.
The bright beam outlined a silver Chevy that looked familiar. And inside, watching him, was Zach Harrison's sister, Julia.
He tried to wrench her door open. Nothing happened.
She stared up at him, her gaze trusting.
"Can you open the window, Julia?" He shouted the words over the rush of wind.
She shook her head.
He tried to circle the car, but the passenger side was tipped down into the snow, lodged against the embankment. No access there.
He came around front again and called Zach's phone. Julia's brother answered right away. "Julia's had an accident, she's trapped, she's not in danger, doesn't appear to be badly hurt, but I need her cell phone number. I can't talk to her through the window, the storm's too loud. And then get over here, we're at Exit 8, northbound on Lower Lake Road."
Zach rattled off the number. Tanner heard him hit the siren before he disconnected, and the sound of an approaching ambulance or rescue vehicle told Tanner help was on the way.
He dialed her number and waggled his cell phone for her to see.
She looked startled when her phone rang, groped for it, then shook her head, dismayed.
She can't find the phone.
He tried again, hoping the ring tone would help her locate the cell. This time she zeroed in on the noise, stretched, and when she sat back up, the look of triumph on her face said she had the phone.
He dialed again and she answered quickly. "I'm stuck."