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Sunday afternoons were made for love.
The scent of lilacs, the taste of strawberry wine and Lori. Sweet Lorelei.
A smile tugged at Sheriff Wyatt Carson's mouth. But a second later his daydream was hijacked by the present, and gut-wrenching reality.
Painful memories sliced into his heart. When they were teenagers, Lori would call and say, "It's Sunday afternoon. Where are you?" It had been the same in college. "It's Sunday. I'll meet you in an hour." When they both had gone into law enforcement and worked a beat in Austin, those afternoons had been their special time.
But no more.
His Lori died six years ago.
The weight on his chest pressed down, feeling heavier than a two-thousand-pound bull. No air. No breath. Just pain.
At last he inhaled and he welcomed the rush of air. Yet he cursed it, too. He needed the memories. They kept him going. They kept him strong. Though years had passed, Wyatt still took life one day at a time, but the pain never lessened. It only grew deeper.
Blinking against the bright June sun, he slipped on his sunglasses and strolled to his patrol car at the courthouse. Now his Sunday afternoons were made for fishingwith his eight-year-old daughter, Jody. He'd moved from Austin to his small hometown to raise their child alone, in a safe environment. The way Lori would have wanted.
With a sigh, Wyatt slid into his car. His daughter was waiting.
Backing out, he waved at Delmar Ferguson, who owned the auto-parts store. Delmar was opening up for the afternoon trade.
Horseshoe, Texas, was much the same as it had been when Wyatt was a kid. An old two-story limestone courthouse, yellowing and graying in spots from age, sat in the center of a town square that happened to be in the shape of a horseshoe. Gnarled oaks and blooming red crepe myrtles gave the old structure a touch of beauty.
The weathered brick and mortar storefronts that surrounded the square were still the same, too. Some had been boarded upthe old furniture store, the fabric shop and the Perry Brothers' Five and Dime. The casualties of a changing America.
But new businesses had opened, including Miss Hattie's Tea Room, Flo's Antiques, Betty Jo's Candle Shop and a dollar store. The old Wiznowski family bakery was still on the corner. For five generations it had kept going strong, and probably would for years to come.
Horseshoe was the epitome of small-town America, its citizens upholding strong family values. It was a place where friendly neighbors helped each other. That had been the main reason Wyatt had chosen to come hometo heal while finding a way to live again.
He had to hurry because his daughter was not patient. First he had to go to the bait stand on the highway. As he reached Texas Highway 77, which ran on the outskirts of Horseshoe, a red convertible sports car zoomed by, barely missing Mrs. Harriet Peabody as she crossed the highway from her son's fruit-and-vegetable stand.
Harriet shook her walking cane at the car in vain. Then she saw Wyatt and pointed with her cane in the direction the car had gone.
Wyatt tipped his hat, signaling that he had seen the whole thing. He turned on his siren and roared after the speeder. The first thing he noticed was the blond hair whipping in the wind. The next thing was the woman's failure to respond to the siren. She kept goingfaster.
He clocked her going eighty-five in a seventy; through the business area the limit was fifty-five. This lady was in a big hurry. Wyatt stayed on her tail and she still made no move to stop as the siren wailed through the lazy afternoon.
Texas 77 was only two lanes, so he couldn't go around her because cars were coming from the other direction. They were about to reach the county line, so he picked up his radio to alert the highway patrol. Someone had to stop the woman before she caused an accident.
Just then an eighteen-wheeler appeared ahead of them and she had to slow down. Wyatt put down the radio as he waited for oncoming traffic to pass, and then darted into the left lane before she could. He motioned for her to pull over.
Behind her large sunglasses, he couldn't see her eyes, but her pink lips formed an angry pout. Again, she made no effort to stop. He motioned again, this time more forcefully, and he wondered if she was on drugs and not comprehending what was going on around her. No one was that arrogant or stupid to openly defy an officer of the law.
The driver of the eighteen-wheeler slowed to a crawl and the woman finally pulled onto the grassy verge, as did the big truck. Wyatt was relieved. She was boxed in and couldn't speed away once he stepped out of his car.
He turned off the siren, but left his lights blinking to alert traffic to slow down. He made a quick call to his office and asked his deputy, Stuart, to run a check on the license-plate number. Since the woman wouldn't stop, Wyatt thought the car might be stolen.
He retrieved his ticket book from the glove compartment and climbed out of the patrol car. With quick strides, he approached her, his jaw clenched. He was pissed at her disrespect of the law. He was pissed at her disregard for the safety of others. And he was pissed that his Sunday afternoon had been interrupted.
Wyatt removed his sunglasses and hooked them on his shirt pocket. When he reached her car, he stuck his hand in, turned off the engine and removed the keys, shoving them into the pocket of his khaki slacks. Then he motioned for the driver of the truck to move on.
The driver waved out the window and slowly pulled onto the highway in a gust of diesel fumes. Cars whizzed by, occupants rubbernecking for a better view.
The woman removed an earbud from her ear and pushed her glasses to the top of her head. She glared at him. Her icy-blue eyes were clear, so she wasn't on drugshe knew the drugged look. They were also red and swollen, as if she'd been crying. That wasn't going to sway him. Speeding wasn't allowed in his countyever. He had his own personal views about speeders, although he tried not to let them cloud his judgment.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she asked with a get-out-of-my-face attitude. "Give me back my keys."
"May I see your license and registration, please?"
"What for?" She flipped back her long, tangled hair.
"You were well over the speed limit, in a business area, too, and you made no effort to stop when you heard the siren."
"Business?" She glanced around at the fields of corn growing on both sides of the highway. "What business?"
He hitched a thumb over his shoulder. "Horseshoe, Texas. You passed the outskirts of town, doing eighty-five, barely missing Mrs. Peabody."
"I didn't see any town or whoever you're talking about."
"Your license and insurance, please." He'd had enough of her attitude.
Jody was waiting.
Tiny lines appeared on her smooth forehead, but she flung a hand to the passenger seat and grabbed a dark tan purse trimmed in red with F's imprinted all over it. Digging through its contents, she found her wallet. It was identical to the purse. Very expensive was his next thought.
Handing it to him, she said, "I'm not taking it out. It was too hard to get into the little slot."
His jaw clenched tighter and he made no move to take the wallet. This lady had a double dose of arrogance. "Remove it, please."
Her eyes narrowed to blue slits as if she was debating the request. Heaving a breath, she struggled with the wallet until the license came out. He noted how careful she was not to break a long, faintly pink fingernail.
He took the license from her, studying the name. Peyton Laine Ross from Austin, Texas. Twenty-eight years old. Old enough to know better. "Your insurance, please."
"Officer." She shifted to face him fully, her eyes twinkling with a light he understood well. She was going to try to soften him up by using every feminine wile in her repertoire.
"Sheriff," he corrected her.
"Sheriff" rolled off her tongue like a sweet-cherry lollipop. He could almost taste it, exactly what she'd intended. "I really don't know anything about the car's registration or insurance. My mother takes care of all that. The car is mine and it's insured, if that's what you're worried about." Beneath her lashes, her eyes cast a warm glow that would have weakened most men, but not him.
"Why don't you try the glove compartment?" he suggested, wanting to get this over with so he could be on his way.
"I'm really in a hurry."
"So am I."
She eyed him for a moment and then slid her tongue over her lower lip in a slow, provocative gesture, turning up the glow in her eyes to the sucker level on her male-radar screen.
"I have to get to Dallas as soon as possible." Her gaze moved slowly across his shoulders and chest. "You're a big, strong man and I know you understand."
"Insurance, please," was his response.
The glow dimmed.
Suddenly she flipped back her hair again and looked down at the wallet in her lap. She pulled out a hundred-dollar bill and waved it at him. "Will this make the problem go away? I didn't see your little stop in the road or hear your siren. I was listening to Bon Jovi. You understand, don't you?"
Shock seared whatever patience he had. A frown worked its way across his face. "Are you bribing me?"
She batted her eyes. "Of course not. It's a compromise. You take the money and I'll be on my way. That will make us both happy."
Damn woman! Why did she have to make this so difficult? His Sunday afternoon was now shot to hell. This lady had one heck of a surprise coming her way. He took the money, stuffed it into his shirt pocket and opened her car door. "Get out of the vehicle, please."
"What?" Her voice screeched like a petulant child's. "You took my money."
"For evidence. You're under arrest for speeding and trying to bribe an officer of the law. Now get out of the car."
"You can't do this." She spat the words, her face set. And she didn't budge.
"Get out of the car." His voice matched his mood. Determined. Angry. And slam-damn out of patience.
Her expression locked in petulant mode, she slid out.
She was pretty, very pretty. As his dad would say, she was put together on a Sunday morning when God was in a good mood and the angels were singing in the background. A natural beauty, for sureone that was enhanced by high maintenance. Big city, class and style flitted across his mind. Her slim, yet curvy body came up to his shoulders. He wasn't sure why he was noticing those things. She was just another woman, and a very arrogant one at that.
Then he became aware of what she was wearinga silky silver creation that looked like a bridesmaid's dress. Evidently she was headed to a wedding. He purposely avoided looking at the tempting cleavage peeping above the bodice. The hem of the dress fluttered around her ankles. Jody would call it a frou-frou dress.
She stomped her foot. "Do you know who my mother is?"
Her defiant words poked through his thoughts. "No. Can't say that I do."
"She works for the governor of Texas and she'll have your badge for this."
He met her eyes. Five minutes ago, he was inclined to be lenient. Now he didn't want to hear her excuses. "You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will he held against you in a court of law. You have the right"
"You bastard." The heat of her words stained her cheeks and tightened her perfect features.
He spared her a brief glance and continued her Miranda rights. When he finished, he asked, "Do you understand your rights?"
"Do you understand my mother will have your job?" she fired back.
He swallowed a curse word and tucked his ticket book under one arm. With a gentle nudge, he pointed her toward his squad car.
"What are you doing?" She stumbled trying to see his face.
He pulled his hat lower and opened the door to the back seat. "Get in."
"I will not." Her eyes flashed a warning. "Just write me a ticket and I'll be on my way."
The roar of the traffic was deafening, but he heard every word. "I might have been prepared to do that if you hadn't tried to bribe me. That's a serious offense and I don't take it lightly. Now get in the car."
The hot Texas sun caused suffocating waves of heat to roll from the asphalt, yet they stood there eyeing each other like two foes ready to do battle. He'd made up his mind. He wasn't going to relent. This woman needed a dose of reality.
She stuck out her chin. "I have a right to call my mother, you big, overbearing oaf."
"When we get to the jail, you may call whomever you wish, but not out here." Cars continued to whiz by, the exhaust fumes mixed with the heat billowing around them.
"Jail!" The color drained from her face and he saw the first flicker of fear on her face. But it was only fleeting. Anger quickly overshadowed it. "I'm not getting in that car!"
From years of experience, he knew there was only one way to deal with people like Peyton Rossshow her he meant business. He unhooked the handcuffs from his belt.
" She took a step backward.
He reached for her hand and snapped a cuff on her delicate wrist. Her skin was soft and satiny. He hadn't touched skin like that in a long time. Quickly he dismissed the sensation. He was an expert at masking his emotions. "Yes. I'm cuffing you."
Before she could react, both wrists were in the cuffs. "As the saying goes, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Evidently you prefer the hard way." Taking her arm, he angled her toward the open door.
Eyes blazing, she jerked away from him. "Don't touch me, you bastard. You lowlife country bumpkin. You'll pay for this." Even as she blasted him in a voice hot enough to boil water, she lifted her skirt, revealing slim ankles in high heels, and slid into the car.
He slammed the door on her diatribe, threw his book onto his seat and walked back to her vehicle, where he gathered her purse and iPod, as well as a small overnight bag from the floor.
The interior of the car was white leather, and a delicate scent of gardenias reached his nostrils. Gardenias? Not a scent he would associate with the fiery hellcat. Something more exotic came to mind, like Opium or Chanel.