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"Sorry I'm late." Jack Garrett slid into the vacant seat across from Gord Adamson, a former law school classmate and occasional courtroom adversary, at The Winking Judge, a small pub across the street from the courthouse.
"I was surprised to get your call," Gord admitted. "I thought you'd given up criminal law."
"So did I," he agreed. "But every once in a while, there's a client I can't turn away."
"Because you believe in his innocence?"
"Because I believe that he deserves a break."
The waitress came over, momentarily disrupting their conversation. Gord ordered a scotch, neat, and Jack asked for a bottle of the locally brewed Millhouse beer.
"I reviewed the file, Jack. And I'm sorry, but I don't see probation for Travis Hatcher."
"Come on, Gord. He's just a kid."
"A kid who took a baseball bat to a Mercedes that is worth more than twice my annual salary," his colleague pointed out.
"It was his father's car," Jack told him, though even he wasn't sure if that was a mitigating or an aggravating factor. "With incidental damage to two other vehicles."
"Restitution has already been made to the owners." Gord sighed. "What's your connection to this kid?"
"I handled his parents' divorce a few years back," Jack admitted.
"I don't seem to get any other kind, but this one was particularly difficult. A ten-year marriage that fell apart because the husband couldn't keep his pants zipped and the wife couldn't keep looking the other way. They fought over each piece of artwork and every stick of furniture, but mostly over who was going to get stuck with their ten-year-old son."
Gord, a father with two sons of his own, winced. "Damn, Jack. You're yanking on my heartstrings here."
"He isn't a bad kid," Jack insisted. "He just got caught in a bad situation."
"Give me some background," the prosecutor suggested.
"A few months back, Travis was invited to a weekend camp to try out for the national amateur all-star tournament. There wasn't anyone at the camp who doubted he would make the team. But instead of being offered a roster spot, he was sent home."
"I can understand that he would be disappointed and upset," Gord acknowledged. "But that doesn't justify his actions."
"That's not the end of the story," Jack told him. "About two weeks before the tournament, the number-one center fielder breaks his collarbone. There's no way he can play, so Travis calls the national team coach, asks him to give him another chance to prove that he can fill the vacancy. And the coach bluntly tells him, 'You're good enough, but you're never going to play on any team that I'm coaching. If you want to know whyask your father.'"
"The kid's dad screwed the coach's wife," Gord guessed.
Jack nodded. "Which he finally admitted when Travis confronted him after baseball practice."
"Jesus." His friend lifted his glass, swallowed a mouthful of scotch.
"There was no premeditationhe had the bat in his hand, and he simply reacted," he explained. "Under the circumstances, can you blame him?"
"Actions have consequences, and he has to be responsible for those consequences."
"Absolutely. But the consequences should be commensurate with the action. He had a moment where he acted impulsively and recklessly, but a criminal record will stick with him for life!"
"You stay up late last night working on that spin?"
"The truth doesn't need spin."
Gord considered that for a moment. "Is he remorseful?"
"Very." Jack passed a handwritten note across the table.
His colleague skimmed the page; he scrubbed a hand over his jaw. "Damn you, Jack."
"You're repeating yourself, Gord." He passed over several more pages. "Character references from his teachers, guidance counselor, principal, high school baseball coach, his boss at the grocery store where he works part-time, and supervisor of the homework club where he volunteers twice a week."
Gord sighed. "You really think you can get probation?"
"With a joint-sentencing recommendation, I do," Jack said.
"I'll go joint if anger management is one of the terms of probation, but the final decision is still up to the judge."
"Of course," he agreed.
Gord took another sip of his drink. "You still dating Angela from the registry office?"
Jack shook his head. "That was over a long time ago."
"No thoughts about settling down and starting a family at this stage in your life?"
"Hell, no." His failed marriage might be in the past, but it wasn't so distant that he'd forgotten. And how could he when he spent almost every day in meetings and motions with husbands and wives who had once promised to love, honor, and cherish their spouses and were now hating, dishonoring, and spurning them?
His friend chuckled. "Are you sure you don't want a minute to consider your response?"
Jack shook his head. "I was married once," he confided. "When I was young and stupid."
"Was it that girl you were with in Chicago?"
Jack paused with his bottle halfway to his lips. He'd forgotten that Gord had been at the same law conference he'd attended more than a dozen years earlier in Chicago. "No," he said now. "That wasn't her."
"So who was she?" Gord asked curiously. "Because I seem to recall that you had some pretty intense chemistry with her."
He frowned, as if trying to recall the details of those three glorious days that were still indelibly imprinted on his mind, then shook his head. "I don't remember."
His friend snorted. "Yeah, and I took a job in the district attorney's office for the extravagant salary."
"Why did you leave private practice?" Jack asked, because it seemed like an opportune moment to shift the topic of conversation.
"Because when Sheila and I got married, she understood that I wanted to get my practice off the ground before I took any time off for a vacation. On our third anniversary, she reminded me that we still hadn't had a honeymoon."
"And yet, you're still married," he mused.
"Because I was smart enough to realize that I needed to balance my personal life and my professional life. Five years and two kids later, it was the smartest move I ever madeeven if it means that my kids will have to go to public school."
"Thankfully not something I have to worry about."
"Never say never," Gord warned.
But Jack wasn't worried. He was thirty-seven years old and happy to be on his own. And while he datedalbeit a lot less frequently than he had in the pasthe always said goodbye without any regrets. The sole exception was the one unforgettable weekend he'd spent in Chicago with Kelly Cooper.
Yeah, he had a boatload of regrets where she was concerned. He regretted walking into The Four Brothers pub for a drinkand not walking right back out again when he realized the gorgeous bartender who'd snared his attention was none other than the girl who'd lived next door when they were kids.
He regretted giving in to the irresistible urge to taste the sassy mouth that had tormented him for more years than he wanted to admit; he regretted succumbing to the need to explore every inch of her soft, silky skin with his hands and his lips; he regretted losing himselfover and over againin her warm, willing body. Mostly he regretted ever letting her go.
"Speaking of family," Gord said, drawing Jack's attention back to the present, "I should get home to Sheila and the boys."
He started to call for the waitress, but Jack shook his head. "You go ahead. I've got the bill."
"Thanks." Gord slid out of the booth, offered his hand. "I'll bring your client's case forward for a plea on Wednesday, when Judge Parrish is sitting."
"I appreciate it," he said, confident in the knowledge that Judge Parrish had never overruled a joint recommendation.
After his colleague was gone, Jack sat alone, nursing a second beer. He was grateful for Gord's cooperation with Travis's caseand annoyed that just the mention of Chicago had brought memories of Kelly Cooper to the forefront of his mind.
Not that those memories were ever very far away, especially not since his brother had informed him that she was coming home.
He didn't understand why she was the one woman he couldn't forget. They'd spent one unforgettable weekend together, but neither of them had mentioned the possibility of anything more. So when Kelly called a few months latershortly after Sara had decided she'd been too hasty in ending their engagementhe'd been completely caught off guard. Just the sound of her voice had the memories flooding back and desire stirring. Then Sara had walked into the room and pointed to her watch, and he'd admitted to Kelly that he had an appointment with a wedding planner. After a brief moment of awkward silence, Kelly had offered a quick congratulations and an even quicker goodbye.
Six months later, he'd married Sara. About two years after that, Kelly married some guy out in Seattle. Now they were both divorced, and despite all the years that had passed, he hadn't forgotten about her. For some inexplicable reason, memories of one long ago weekend still stirred his blood more effectively than most of the flesh-and-blood women he'd dated in recent years.
Maybe it was because he still felt guilty about the fact that he'd slept with the girl who had been his brother's best friend since childhood. Yeah, it was the guilt, he assured himself.
Because Jack refused to consider that he might have had feelings for Kelly that ever went any deeper than that.
The knots in Kelly's stomach tightened as the plane touched down on the runway.
This was itthere was definitely no going back now.
Not that she wanted to go back. Although she'd made the decision to move back to Pinehurst quickly, it hadn't been impulsively. Which made her realize she'd been thinking about it for a lot longer than she'd been ready to acknowledge. Because no matter where else she might have lived, Pinehurst was still home.
She'd had such grand plans when she'd moved to Seattle. A new city, a new job, a new husband. Even when she and Malcolm had gone their separate ways, she hadn't wanted to leave Seattle. Of course, Malcolm's momthe only grandmother Ava had ever knownhad still been a big part of their lives. Kelly knew she wouldn't have made it through those first few years without her former mother-in-law, and when Beverley Scott had passed away, she'd been at a loss. Not only because Bev had willingly stepped in whenever Kelly needed someone to watch her little girl, but because the older woman had been Kelly's best friend in Washington.
Now it was time for a fresh start again. After more than a dozen years on the West Coast, she had no regrets about leaving. But she wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't regret coming home.
The plane pulled up at the gate, and the knots multiplied.
Okay, she was more than a little nervous, but she reminded herself that she was doing this for Ava. This decision, like every other decision she'd made since she'd learned that she was pregnant, had been focused on what was best for her daughter. Even if Ava didn't agree.
And the words she spoke, as they made their way off the plane, confirmed that she didn't. "I can't believe you made me leave Seattle to come here," Ava grumbled.
Kelly hadn't expected that her daughter would be overjoyed by her decision, but she had hoped that she would have accepted it by now. "You know, if you weren't so determined to hate it, you might actually like it here," she told her.
"I doubt it."
She didn't argue. The choice had been made and their new life was about to begin, so all she said was "Grab your suitcase."
They'd packed only what they needed for a few days, with the rest of their clothes and household items being shipped.
Ava hauled the bag off of the conveyor belt. "How are we getting to Pinecone?"
"Pinehurst," she corrected automatically. "And Uncle Luke said he would pick us up and take us to our new place."
"When are we getting a car?"
"Before August fifteenth," Kelly assured her, because that was the date she was scheduled to start her new job as an in-house accountant at Richmond Pharmaceuticals.
Ava rolled her eyes. With the purple streaks she'd added to her hair during her last sleepover at Rachel's house and the gloomy expression on her face, she looked too much like a typical sullen teenagerand she was still only twelve. As much as Kelly desperately hoped this move would help turn things around with Ava, she knew that any change would take time.
"I'll probably start looking tomorrow," she said, hoping to appease her daughter. "I just wasn't keen on picking up a rental and then driving to Pinehurst after spending all day on airplanes."
"How far is Pinetree?"
"About an hour from here," she said, not bothering to correct her on the name of the town again. Instead, she grabbed the handle of her own suitcase. "Let's go find Uncle Luke."
Kelly headed out of the baggage claim area, then stopped so abruptly Ava plowed right into the back of her.
"Geez, Mom," her daughter grumbled.
Because standing at the car rental counter, where Lukas said he would be waiting, was his brother, Jackson, instead.
"Mom?" Ava prompted, sounding genuinely concerned.
Kelly had to remind herself to breathe, and she exhaled slowly. "Nothing's wrong," she lied, not wanting to alarm her daughter. "I just lost my train of thought for a moment."
"Well, put brake lights on next time," Ava suggested. Then, after looking around, "I don't see Uncle Luke anywhere."
"Apparently there's been a change of plans," Kelly noted, trying to keep her tone light while she inwardly cursed Lukas Garrett all the way to hell and back.
"Does that mean we're going to rent a car?" Ava asked.
"No, it means you're going to meet Uncle Luke's brother."
A lot sooner than I had planned.
She stood for another minute, still rooted to the spot, and just looked at Jackson. She hadn't seen him in thirteen years, but she'd recognized him immediately. But it was more than the dark brown hair that was always immaculately trimmed, more than the exquisitely shaped mouth that had inspired so many of her teenage fantasies, and more than the green eyes that were as dark and clear as emeralds. It was even more than the fact that he was six feet of solidly built male, with broad shoulders and strong arms that ensured any woman would feel secure and protected in his embrace. It was, more than anything else, the way Kelly felt when she looked at himall hot and tingly and tongue-tied.
Sternly reminding herself that she wasn't still sixteen years oldor even twenty-oneshe took a step toward him.
He glanced up from the book he was readinga legal journal of some kindas if he sensed her approach. She'd noticed that the book was in his left hand, and that the third finger was bare. But the fact that he'd been divorced for quite a few years now didn't make him any less off-limits.
As he closed the cover of the journal, his gaze skimmed over her, from the top of her head to her toes in a quick, cursory perusal that nevertheless caused heat to flare low in her belly and spread through her veins. She hadn't counted on this, and that was a definite miscalculation on her part.
But how could she have known that, after so many years, he would still have this effect on her? Because even from a distance, even after so much time, she couldn't deny her body's instinctive response to him. Or the ache in her heart.
She pushed her bangs away from her face and silently reprimanded herself for even noticing that her hair was as flat and tired as the rest of her. She'd dressed comfortably for travel in a pair of faded jeans and an ancient University of Chicago sweatshirt and had put on the barest touch of makeup before heading out to the airport more than ten hours earlier. As a result, she felt not just unprepared but ill-equipped to come face-to-face with Jackson now.
When she'd decided to return to Pinehurst, she'd known it was inevitable that she would see him. But she hadn't planned on seeing him when she was looking like this. She knew it shouldn't matter, but when a woman was facing an ex-lover, she wanted to look her best. Unfortunately, she wasn't even close.