Kyndal Rawlings thought she'd learned her lesson when Chance Brennan left her to pursue his Ivy League dreams. Yet here she is, in Kentucky, falling for him all over again. Maybe it's being stranded in a cave with him the same place they first became lovers.
Or maybe there's still something between them.
Not that anything will changeeven after four tense days of depending on each other for their very survival. Chance needs a certain kind of woman to help him with his career. And Kyndal will never be that kind. But something has changed. Something that will force them to decide what they really want.
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The intercom buzzed like a trapped insect, and Chance's mind immediately shot to items he could use to put the old thing out of its misery. When he became a judge, his gavel would top the list.
"Sorry to bother you again, Mr. Brennan. Sheriff Blaine on line three." Despite having fielded hundreds of calls during the day, Alice sounded as fresh as she had at eight that morning.
Chance took the opportunity to stretch his back and shoulders as he swallowed the last bite of a turkey club. "Thanks, Alice. Now, please, go on home. It's late." Before she could hang up, he added, "I hope your dad's surgery goes well Monday. If you need anything, just let me know."
"I will, Mr. Brennan, and thanks again for all your help. Good night."
"Night, Alice. See you Wednesday." Chance punched the button to line three, leaving the phone on speaker. "Hey, Buck. What's going on?"
A frustrated sigh exploded in his ear.
"Caught kids at the cave again, Chance."
Chance bit back the expletives on the tip of his tongue. He didn't have time to deal with the teenagers and their nonsense. "How many?"
"Five. These was having an orgy and smokin' pot. Probably got a stash hidden in there somewhere."
"Which means they'll be back. Or somebody'll be back." Chance massaged his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger. The constant hassle with kids and the cave was making him doubt his sanity about buying that property, even if it was a prime lakeshore piece. One girl already had stitches from cracking her head on a low overhang. How many more of them getting hurt was it going to take?
"That's what I figure, too. I'll have a look-see tomorrow. Maybe I'll find it or find whoever comes after it."
The sheriff's easy manner didn't fool Chance. If a stash was there, Buck Blaine would find it. His redneck mannerisms conned a lot of people, but underneath the hick exterior beat the heart of a criminal investigator.
"You need me to come to the office?" Chance offered halfheartedly. "I'm still in Paducah, so it'll take a half hour or so, but if you need me "
Buck's customary chewing gum smacked across the phone line. "Nah, no need. Trespassin's gonna be the least of these kids' problems. We can hold off on the paperwork till tomorrow."
Chance rubbed his hand down his face, relieved he wouldn't have to add a stop at the sheriff's office to his already late night. "Sounds good to me."
"We've got most of their parents on the way, so I'm gonna make sure these young'uns have had a bad night." Chance could almost feel Buck's laugh vibrating the receiver. "They'll think twice before they visit your place again."
"I don't know, Buck. These kids don't even think about things the first time." With all the secluded areas around Kentucky Lake, it was beyond Chance's comprehension why the damn kids insisted on partying on his property. "Can we keep this out of the paper? If the cave gets any media coverage, kids will likely swarm it again."
"If that state-of-the-art, handy-dandy security system I've ordered ever gets installed, you may be out of a job."
The sheriff gave a gritty chuckle. "I can only wish, but I doubt it. The Bible promises the ignorant are with us always, you know. Or somethin' like that."
"Amen, brother." Chance raised his soda in a toast. "I've seen enough frivolous lawsuits to know ignorance is a certainty."
"You got that right. See you tomorrow?"
"I'll be there. Night, Sheriff."
"Good evenin', Chance."
Chance hung up and looked at all the piles of paper covering his desk. The call had broken his concentration. Getting back into the wearisome Davenport case seemed unlikely now, even if his dad did expect the finished briefs by Sunday. He'd have to wait until he could see it with fresh eyes. Tomorrow.
He glanced at his watch, noting it was after nine. Friday night and still in the office. "Brennan, you need a life." He wadded up the sandwich wrapper and pitched it into the trash.
His mom had tried to warn him what it would be like, tried to make him see joining his dad's practice wasn't a good idea. Bill Brennan had never accepted anything but perfection from his sons. Perfection had come easily for Hank but seemed always just out of Chance's reach.
"'Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?'" Chance read the plaque on his office wall, a gift from his dad.
Those kids at the cave needed such a parent. One who cared enough to kick their asses if they acted stupid.
Then again, those kids at the cave would probably kick back. Kids were different now. He smiled at the memory of Old Man Turner showing up with a gun and running Kyndal and him off of his property. One look down the barrel of that shotgun made sure they wouldn't be back.
If Old Man Turner were still alive, Chance would hire him as a guard for a month or two. But he doubted that tactic would work on these kids. They weren't nearly as naive as he and Kyndal had been.
Kyndal Rawlings. At one time, he'd thought the two of them would be together forever. Now that was naive. Their separate ways had turned out to be in entirely different directions. She hadn't gone to law school the way she'd always planned had become a photographer, of all thingsworking for some damn liberal environmentalist website. Of course, she did stage that sit-in against hot dogs in the high school cafeteria claiming they were made from throwaway parts, so maybe the clues were there all along, and he was just too smitten to see them.
He hadn't thought about Kyndal in a while. In fact, he'd pretty much refused to let himself think about her since they'd split. When he did, guilt still gnawed at him. Breaking up with her had been almost as hard as losing Hank, but it was the right thing to do, damn it. That was obvious now. He would never have made it through college and law school if they'd stayed joined at the hip. Every class together was unhealthy, but Kyn couldn't loosen her hold. She demanded his total attention.
Just as his career did now.
If he wanted a judgeship by the time he turned forty, there was little room for dating.
But someday, the right woman would come along. Someone goaloriented. Career focused. Someone with an impeccable reputation and a drive to match his own. A few connections to sweeten the deal wouldn't be a bad thing, either.
He'd straightened the scattered papers and had switched off the desk lamp when the intercom buzzed again, startling him, ratcheting up his wish to sledgehammer the damn thing.
"Chance?" His dad's voice boomed over the line.
"Good. I was afraid you'd left already. Your mom just called. The travel agent got us on an earlier flight Sunday morning. Can you get those briefs to me tomorrow?"
"Okay. I'll finish them up tonight." As if he had a choice. His parents' first trip away together in years. Only three days, but it was a start. He switched the lamp back on.
"And I want you to take this new Farley case. Look over it. We'll discuss it first thing Wednesday morning."
"I'll be ready."
"Seeing Denise this weekend?"
"You're a fool. Someone's going to snatch her up."
"If I'm lucky." Denise Macomb was the flavor-of-the-month his dad was trying to cram down his throat. She met all the criteria, but her voice sounded like a violin badly played.
"Get those briefs done," his dad said by way of parting.
Chance watched the intercom light switch off. "You have a life, Brennan." He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "And this is it."
Snap. . .snap. . .snap. Three good shots before the tiny bottom lip started to pucker again.
Thank you, Lord, for digital cameras and comfortable shoes. Kyndal's third straight day of twelve-hour shifts was almost over.
"I think we got her." She smiled at the young couple hovering nearby, only now truly noticing them.
The young man's shirt had Ted's Car Wash stamped on the pocket. His zit-covered face suggested he couldn't be much more than seventeen. A chunky high school ring hung from a chain around the girl's neck.
Kyndal sized them up, knew immediately they were here for the free 8x10 and wouldn't be able to afford any of the great package deals Shop-a-Lot offered at a bargain price of $29.95.
She watched the way they handled the infant so carefully, saw the pride shining in the boy's eyes as he kissed his baby girl and his baby girlfriend on their foreheads. How long before he'd be out of this picture?
"Come over here and you can see the shots." Kyndal swiveled the freestanding monitor to face the couple.
The best part of this job was getting to see the parents' eyes when the portraits clicked on. Without exception, they all softened instantly. If only she could capture that moment on film, those images would be priceless.
The shots were better than good, and Kyndal watched the parental expressions turn fretful when they realized they had to choose.
"They're all so precious. Can we get all three, Danny?" The young mother's voice held little hope, but the blue of her eyes shone intensely like the stone in the ring around her neck.
The young man's head dropped, and he lowered his voice. "We can't afford 'em, Lisa. We can only get the free one."
Kyndal remembered the glow on her own mom's face when friends admired the free 8x10 of Kyndal at twenty-eight months. She would go on and on about Kyndal's smile looking "just like her daddy's."
Mason Rawlings had walked out of their lives a month after that portrait was taken, but her mom still talked about his smile to this day.
I might have his smile, but that's the only thing I ever got from him. She couldn't help wondering if he had any regrets.
Life wasn't easy for teen parentsnor was growing up as the child of one as Kyndal knew firsthand.
She sighed in resignation, aware she was about to give these kids a break and forfeit her last three hours' commission in the process. "Which one would you like? I'll print it for you." She allowed her mouth to droop into a pout of feigned preoccupation, tried to sound bored, glanced at her watch to let them know it was closing time.
The girl chewed her bottom lip until the young man prodded her with his elbow. "Number three."
Kyndal pressed a key and pretended to be busy as she fumbled with some order forms. She turned back as the paper slipped from the printer. "Oh, shoot! I've printed billfolds of the wrong one. Here, you can have these." She held the prints out to the young man, but he hesitated. "No charge," she assured him. "I'll just have to throw them away."
"Now." She hit another key, queuing up number two to print as two 4x6's. "You said number two, right?"
"No, we said number three." The young man gave her a look that could have indicated she'd sprouted an extra nose.
"Crap. I've done it again." She watched their guarded looks of amusement as she thrust the second sheet toward them and sighed dramatically. "Third time's a charm, right?"
Another keystroke sent the correct command, and the 8x10 slid from the printer. "She really is a doll." Kyndal checked the finished product before handing it over. "Sorry for the inconvenience."
The lights blinked, indicating five minutes until closing time. The couple moved toward the exit, the young mother clutching the photographs to her chest.
Kyndal watched until they were out of earshot. "And that's why I have to get back to a job where I can shoot golden eagles instead of golden-haired toddlers." The hope that tomorrow would bring that dream job back was never far from the surface. She let it rise to the top as she disassembled the gear and lugged everything to her car.
Tomorrow will bring the perfect shot that will make me somebody. Tomorrow will bring the perfect shot that will make me somebody. The mantra couldn't block out the sluggish start of the old Jeep's engine, but if she said it often enough, it had to come true. That's what affirmations were for.
When she reached her apartment, fatigue convinced her to leave everything in the car except her laptop. Dover, Tennessee, wasn't a hot spot for crime. In fact, Dover, Tennessee, wasn't a hot spot for anything. But it was centrally located between the other two towns where she took family portraits on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and the apartment she rented was clean. And cheap.
She'd tossed a package of ramen noodles into some water before she saw the message light blinking on the phone.
The light always brought the same thought to her mind. This could be the big one. Her hand shook as she pressed the voice mail button.
"Kyn. It's Mom. Going on a little road trip with Lloyd for a few days. Talk to you later."
Lloyd who? When did a Lloyd come into the picture? And "a few days" meant she'd quit her job at the dog kennel. Or gotten fired. Kyndal swallowed her frustration and sent a mental warning to the little girl she had photographed at closing time: Being a parent to your forty-four-year-old mother is not an easy row to hoe.
She deleted the message, but the light blinked again, indicating a second message.
"Hey, Kyndal." Mike Sloan's southern drawl oozed from the handset. "Heard about a tourism magazine star-tin' up in your hometown. Sounds like a good fit for you. Gimme a call."
A job opportunity? In Paducah? She grabbed the phone and had half of Mike's number punched in before logic reared its head. Would it be wise to trust the man whose dumb-ass moves had caused her to be blacklisted for the past six months? He and his shady contacts ultimately caused the lawsuit that became the demise of the True Tennessee websiteand her own reputation by association.
But his intentions had been good. She punched another button. He was trying to make things up to her.
Four years of eye-opening, truth-seeking public awareness of pollution in the Cumberland River brought down by an asinine lawsuit over a totally unnecessary hack job. Her stomach tightened at the memory.
But it turned completely over at the thought of many more ramen noodle suppers. The ten-cent price had made them a staple when she was growing up, but she'd always dreamed adulthood would bring better fare. And it had for a few short years. Then it was back to ramen noodlesjust like Mom used to fix.
But someday her luck would change when she found that perfect shot.