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One mile to Rosewood. Kaitlyn would have done a somersault if she weren't crammed into her small VW Jetta with all her clothes, the entire contents of her bathroom, books, laptop, work supplies and her cat, Noodle, who had been screeching nonstop for the last thirty minutes. Leaving the highway, she pulled on to Main Street. Usually, when she visited her father, she took time to dally down the Victorian, tree-lined avenue. Now, feeling as though she were covered in road film, all she could think of was getting to her father's house, then out of the car.
And she was more tired than she could ever remember being. The exhaustion was both physical and emotional. A few weeks earlier, when Kate had received the news about her father's fall, she'd been concerned, but she hadn't expected anything quite so serious. He'd broken his hip, then as a result, suffered an embolism that could have been fatal. That ruled out staying home on his own. Knowing he didn't want to go to a long-term recovery facility, she'd offered to stay until he could live by himself again. And that would be quite a while. If he had another fall, a second embolism might not be detected until it was too late.
So in the last few days, she'd listed her condo with a Realtor, emptied what mattered into her car, arranged to have the rest moved to storage, and broken her engagement.
She hadn't expected Derek to be wild about her decision to remain with her father until he could live on his own again. But she hadn't anticipated his total lack of understanding. She'd always known his career was terribly important to him, that he had never shown any interest in her family, but… He'd always had an excuse when she invited him to visit her father. And she rationalized his absences to herself. Too much so, she now realized.
She lifted her left hand, now absent her large diamond engagement ring. Derek had been shocked when she returned it. Almost more shocked than hearing she was breaking their engagement.
Kate returned her grip on the steering wheel. Taking pity on Noodle, who was still screeching, she reached over to his crate and unfastened the latch. Poor baby, he hated driving as far as the vet's when they were home in Houston. Three hours on the road had been torture. Smiling, she pulled open the door of his crate.
White fur erupted. Claws extended, Noodle flipped back on to the top of his crate, bolted up on the car seat and landed on Kaitlyn's shoulders. Hair standing on end, he dug in his claws. She swerved over the white stripe in the middle of the road, trying to pull him off. Noodle just dug in deeper. Jerking the wheel in the opposite direction, she tried to reach her terrified pet. A few swerves later, she peeled his paws from her shoulders and he clutched on to the headrest.
She exhaled, then sucked in her breath when a siren suddenly shrilled behind her. Noodle screeched as well, jumping on top of her head.
Kate came to a stop somewhere near the side of the road. It was hard to tell, with Noodle obscuring her vision. Sweaty, exhausted and frustrated, she tried to unfasten his claws, but Noodle was having none of it.
Someone knocked on her window and she jumped, bumping Noodle into the headliner. Seeing it was a policeman, she rolled down the window.
His gaze roamed over her cat and the crammed car, but his critical expression didn't change. "Nice hat."
Closing her eyes, she counted silently to ten. "Don't tell me you pulled me over for a fashion commentary, officer."
"Nope. Left taillight's out. And, it's Sheriff Grey."
Taillight? Taillight! She hadn't slept for two days, she was worried sick about her father and now… this…. "I know Rosewood's a sleepy town, but surely you have better things to do than patrol for sinister taillight outages."
"Yeah, we're pretty backward here, but we still don't allow cars to zigzag all over Main Street. You may not have noticed, but people are walking on the sidewalks and the kids are out of school for the day."
She sighed. "I didn't think Noodle would go nuts when I opened his crate. I'm normally a very safe driver."
His Stetson shaded his eyes. "Hmm. License and proof of insurance, please."
Kate couldn't help it. She gaped at him. "I told you—"
Muttering under her breath, she dug in her purse and pulled out her driver's license and insurance card from her wallet. Still fuming, she didn't speak as she handed them over.
He gave them a cursory glance. Then he walked back to his patrol car. Well, technically his patrol SUV. She watched him from her side mirror. He was tall, and he slid right into the driver's side without having to step up. She could tell he'd entered her info and was waiting to see if she was a modern-day Ma Barker. As he did, she gently disengaged Noodle's claws and got him back in his crate. She glanced in the rearview mirror, trying to see what the sheriff was doing. Instead, she caught sight of herself.
Egad. Her auburn hair was twisted up on top of her head in a Pebbles ponytail. Wisps had escaped and poked out everywhere. She hadn't bothered with makeup, which meant her light-colored eyebrows and eyelashes were barely visible. Worried about her father, she hadn't paid a bit of attention to her appearance. Her mismatched T-shirt and cotton pants were testament to that fact.
Groaning, she plopped her head back against the seat. Imagine what that sheriff must be thinking. Couldn't have been a balding, paunchy middle-aged officer. No, it had to be a hunky guy about her own age. Despite his Stetson, she glimpsed the thick, dark hair that grew just past his neckline. His eyes were equally dark, surprisingly intense. Well over six feet of lean, muscled man.
Still seething, she could see in the mirror that he was writing something. Emerging from the SUV, clipboard in hand, he strolled back to her car.
"I'm citing you for a malfunctioning taillight, Ms. Lambert." He handed her the clipboard. "Sign on the bottom."
Kate gritted her teeth as she signed, then almost jabbed him when she shoved the clipboard back out the window. "Nothing better to do than harass innocent citizens, Sheriff?"
"I could have written you up for weaving all over the road—that's a moving violation. This is a fix-it ticket.
Send in proof you've had it repaired and the ticket will be dismissed."
Still mad, she accepted the ticket, staring straight ahead. She pushed a button, starting to roll up her window.
"Your license," he reminded her.
She let go of the button, but didn't lower the window, making him reach into the narrow space to return her driver's license and insurance card. When she had them in hand, she finished rolling up the window, then jerked the car in gear.
Although she accelerated as fast as legally possible, she also looked again in the rearview mirror. In all her visits to Rosewood, how had she managed to miss this guy?
Tucker took his time strolling back to the SUV. Once inside he thumped the clipboard back in place. "Nitwit out-of-towners. Wish they'd stay in their cities."
Yet even as he groused about the woman, he wondered who she was, where she was going. That didn't happen often. Tourists who wandered into town from the main highway rarely stayed long when they found out Rosewood wasn't tailored for visitors.
But this one… Looked like she'd filled the car with everything she owned—definitely not the typical visitor. And her unusual green eyes had filled with a fire as unexpected as it was intriguing. He didn't like passing out tickets indiscriminately, but the safety of his citizens trumped a pretty woman any day. Funny, he hadn't thought about a woman's looks since…
He sighed. Not that a day went by that he didn't think of Shelley. But it shocked him that a stranger could make him forget for even a minute.
* * *
After settling Noodle at her father's house, Kate took time to shower and change before driving to the hospital. She glanced at her watch, realizing it had taken longer to bring in her things than she'd planned. That, and unlatching Noodle from the thick living room drapes, where he'd decided to hide.
Kate waved to the nurse at the unit desk, then entered her father's room. "Hey, Dad."
"Hey, yourself. I wasn't expecting you tonight. Thought you'd be unloading your car."
"Done." She put her purse on the bedside table. "Well, a lot of it. I don't have to get everything in tonight. And since the ambulance is bringing you home in the morning, I didn't have to empty my little car."
Marvin shook his silver-haired head. "Who'd have thought one bad step would cause so much bother?"
Kate took his hand. "Hey, none of that. You're my optimist, remember?"
"Here, you're having to take time off…." He sighed.
"Not really. I brought the canvas I'm working on."
"But what about your next project?"
"Clients can find me on my Web site or by cell." She smiled, determined to lift his spirits. "As long as people have artwork to restore, I can run my business anywhere."
"Still, I promised myself I'd never become a burden."
She blinked away the sting of tears. "You've always carried me, Dad… through everything…especially when Mom died. I'm old enough now to know how hard that was for you, but you never let on." Kate squeezed his hand. "And who wouldn't want a vacation in Rosewood? You picked the perfect place to retire."
That nudged out a smile. "Yeah, it's pretty special. Good-hearted people."
Kate thought of the sheriff, but decided not to pass on that bit of information. "You're ready to be back home."
"Nurses and doctors here are okay, but you know how I feel about hospitals."
Ever since her mother had died, Marvin had a horror of hospitals. It was something she'd strongly factored in when making her decision. He would need months of recuperation. Feeling fiercely protective, she was determined he wouldn't spend it in a long-term recovery facility that would crush his spirit. She knew many of the places were excellent, but that wasn't the issue. He didn't need to mentally return to the worst time in his life. "When you get home in the morning, you can start recuperating with Noodle."
"Hated the trip?"
"And then some. I expect him to pout for days."
Marvin laughed. It was good to hear. Always an upbeat, charming, strong man, it had been frightening to see him lying in a hospital bed, connected to so many tubes and machines.
They chatted for a little while, and her father understood when she told him she still had to do some grocery shopping. She needed to replenish the fridge and pantry.
Since it had been evening when she arrived at the hospital, Kate had parked near the emergency room, the best nighttime exit. A lot of employees used the same entrance and she could hear the shuffle of their footsteps, the whoosh of automatic doors.
Head down, she dug in her purse for her keys.
Kate heard the voice, just as two strong hands grasped her arms. She jerked her head up, staring into a broad chest. The man stepped back so she could see his face.
That obstinate sheriff! His height, the boots and hat— no doubt about it.
"Don't you ever watch where you're going?" The brim of his Stetson shaded his eyes and she couldn't tell by his voice if he was being sarcastic or teasing.
"This is a hallway, not a racetrack." Abandoning the search for her keys, she echoed his own words from that afternoon. "Lots of pedestrians, you know."
She thought she spotted a glimmer of amusement in his expression.
"You didn't get very far."
Kate drew her eyebrows together, uncomfortably aware that she still hadn't put on any makeup and that she looked a mess. "Excuse me?"
"Aren't you just passing through?"
"What makes you think that?"
"Your car was pretty loaded. Most folks don't spend more than a few days looking at the wildflowers."
"I'm not most folks."
"I sensed that when you let your cat out of his crate. Cats aren't known for enjoying car rides."
So now he was an expert on cats. Kate realized she was grumpy. Tired and worried about her father, she was hard-pressed to be polite. More to the point, she hadn't forgotten the stupid, unnecessary ticket. "Cats are allowed in cars here, aren't they?"
It was definitely amusement in his dark eyes. "We don't lock up many drivers for taking their cats along."
Hysterical. "So, what do you lock people up for? Driving down Main Street?"
"Actually, our cells are empty ninety-nine percent of the time."
She wasn't amused. It wasn't as though she'd intended to swerve all over the road. And he could have been more understanding about the circumstances. Since he was so tall, she had to tilt her head to meet his eyes, but she did, hoping she conveyed her resentment.
He waited another moment, but when she remained silent, he tipped the brim of his hat. "Got business to see about."
Clutching her purse, she nodded in return.
He walked past her to the ER registration desk.
Don't look! Don't look! And she almost didn't. A foot from the exit, she peeked back. And he wasn't even a mite less impressive.
Tucker Grey pulled into the driveway of his house. His twelve-year-old daughter, Alyssa, had all the lights in the living room on. And as he parked in front of the detached garage that was set back from the house, he could see that she had the kitchen lights on as well. She did that when she was alone. Had ever since her mother died two years ago. He felt guilty that his daughter had to be on her own, but Alyssa now protested she was too old for a babysitter.
He had insisted—until a few months ago, when the only sitter he could find was barely a year older than Alyssa. The lady next door offered, but she was swamped caring for both ailing parents and a new grandchild. Other neighbors had also offered, but Alyssa didn't want to stay at anyone's house—she felt she was always in the way. Still, Rosewood looked after their own; people in town kept an eye out for her, knowing she was a latchkey child and that the Greys didn't have any other family in the area.
Tucker's sister, Karen, had moved away years ago, and she continued campaigning for them to join her family in Iowa. But he was a Texas man, down to the heels of his cowboy boots. Besides, Rosewood was good for his daughter. It was all she'd ever known, and he wasn't about to make her go through any more changes.
Still, it remained difficult for him to open the door and walk into the house, knowing Shelley wasn't there… wouldn't ever be there again. She had made their house a home. Now it was just a place where he slept and ate.
Pushing open the back door, he took off his hat and hung it on a peg. An open bag of potato chips sat on the table along with some sort of dip. He hoped Alyssa had eaten something more substantial for dinner. The television blared in the living room, something else that had begun after Shelley's death.
Stomach down, legs kicking in a crisscross fashion, Alyssa sprawled out on the couch with her homework. He was lucky. She was a good kid, doing what she should without being told. Remembering his own preteen years, he probably would have ditched his homework if his mother hadn't kept at him.
Alyssa looked up, her dark, blunt-cut hair nearly obscuring her eyes. "Hey, Dad."
He picked up the remote and lowered the volume. "Tell me you ate something besides chips."
"Sure." She turned a page in her math book. "I had pizza."
He thought of their stock of frozen food: dinners, mi-crowavable pizzas, egg rolls. It had been a while since they'd had anything else. His hours had lengthened and he rarely got home in time to eat with his daughter. "Sorry I'm late. Accident on the highway."
She sat up, looking at him in genuine concern. "Did anybody get hurt?"