Seven-year-old Kevin has been a handful for single mom Sarah Lindstrom, and when the new sheriff walks through her door holding her son by the scruff of his neck for egging his car, she knows she's lost control. But can she control herselfand keep the secret she's kept for so many years?
Tanner Jones has no idea Kevin is his sonhe lost the right to that information when he abandoned Sarah soon after graduation. Just because he's back in town doesn't mean he can waltz into her lifeand Kevin'sto pick up where they left off. But Sarah can't deny the feelings she still harbors for Tanner, and can't deny how her son is benefiting from his attentions.
When Tanner finds out the truth, what is he going to do?
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The eeny-meeny-miney-mo approach to paying bills wouldn't keep creditors from her door much longer.
Sarah Lindstrom sighed, planted her elbows on the desk and buried her face in her hands.
What she wouldn't do for some matches or a fireplace. But the only bookstore in Dillon, Texas, wasn't the place to find either of those things, even if she were dumb enough to resort to drastic measures. Burning the bills would only add to her problems, not solve them.
If one more straw would snap the camel's back, as Daddy used to say, then one more debt, one more unplanned doctor visit, one more call from Kevin's school ought to bring down a whole herd of cattle.
The thought of her son made her sigh again. It was only a few weeks into the new school year, and in that short time, he'd given her more grief than in all seven years of his life combined.
At the sound of the bell over the door, she glanced at the clock. The Bookies had arrived a bit early.
She smoothed the loose curls escaping from her braid, ran a hand over the front of her dress and smiled. Nowadays, besides reading, her only form of entertainment came from The Book Cellar's novel discussion group, an assortment of local women ranging from former schoolteachers to ranch wives to several of her own stay-at-home-mom friends.
Halfway through the office doorway into the large, overflowing bookstore, she froze. Her mouth hung open, the greeting she'd intended to call out shriveling on her tongue, sliding back down her throat, curdling in her stomach.
Her "one more straw" had arrived.
Instead of the group of women she'd expected to see, a man stood at the front of the store, framed between a pair of ceiling-height bookcases.
Tanner Jones seemed to fill her vision, standing taller and more broad-shouldered than she ever remembered, but looking, unfortunately, all too familiar. Except for the deputy sheriff's badge decorating his chest, and the gun resting on his hip.
A frown rumpled his brow and his hand gripped the back of a bright blue T-shirt, pulling up with just enough pressure to keep the boy inside the shirt dancing on tiptoe.
A single mother's worst nightmare. Doubled. The son she never wanted to see in trouble.
The man she'd once loved. Once lost. And never wanted to see again.
"Hold it, son," Tanner broke in.
Her stomach dropped. His voice had deepened with the years, but his once well-loved drawl triggered a fully illustrated volume of unwanted memories.
Sarah focused instead on Kevin, whose yelp revealed much more than his missing front tooth. What had he done? And why did Tanner have to be the one to catch him?
Half of her wanted to scream at Tanner to let her son go; the other half wanted to behave like a calm, rational human being who understood the importance of law and order.
Well, she'd never been rational around Tanner before.
"Put him down this instant."
He laughed. "C'mon, Sarah, I outgrew that tone in grade school with Mrs. G." He lifted an eyebrow. "Don't you think you ought to hear what happened first?"
"No. First, I think you ought to unhand my son." Her voice wobbled. She took a deep breath. She had to be strong for Kevin. They had no one else but each other.
"Let him go, then we'll talk."
To her relief, Tanner shrugged and released his hold on the T-shirt. Kevin's heels dropped to the floor.
"Mom!" He rushed across the room to wrap his arms around her waist and bury his face against her. "It's all right." She kept a reassuring arm around him but shifted him to her side so they could face the enemy together.
Normally, she had a healthy respect for the law. But this was Tanner Jones, and that made all the difference. "What happened, Kevin?"
Tanner whipped a leather-covered notebook out of his pocket. As he started toward them, her son trembled against her.
"Nothing happened, Mom!"
Tanner snorted. "You call defacing a sheriff's car nothing?"
"Oh, Kevin. You didn't."
The bell over the front door rang again, and Kevin's friend Billy poked his head into the room. "Hey, Kev, what happened to ya? The bus is late and Mom told Gary he had to drive us to school and he's yelling to hurry up."
Kevin slipped from her encircling arm and looked at her with pleading eyes.
She nodded. "You go to school, and I'll speak with Deputy Jones. Be prepared, though. We'll talk about this when you get home."
"Wait a minute—" Tanner began.
Her son bolted, sneakers pounding across the wooden floor, down a side aisle and through the front door, which he slammed shut behind him.
The bell jangled so hard, she thought it might fly off and break a window. "Damn, the kid's fast," Tanner muttered.
Fast and long gone—while she stood there, trapped. Kevin had done plenty to concern her lately, from smart-mouthing her and his teachers to acting the clown in class. He would face the consequences eventually. She would have to face her consequences right now.
Tanner started down the center aisle toward her. She had no plan, but instinct knew what she needed. Distance and a sturdy barrier. Immediately.
Sidestepping, she put the long, waist-high counter between them. With shaking fingers, she straightened the pile of bookmarks near the cash register. Wishing for a more time-consuming chore, she glanced around the store, through the windows, everywhere but at Tanner.
Where were the Bookies when she needed them? Reluctantly, she looked back to find Tanner standing across from her. Sunlight glinted off the badge pinned to his shirtfront, threw golden highlights into his sandy-colored hair. He'd been blonder back in their school days. Butterscotch, she'd tease, tug on a handful, then run away. But he'd always catch her.
Today, he'd caught Kevin.
She leaned against the shelves lining the wall behind her, bracing herself.
"What are you thinking, Sarah, letting your boy run off like that? Don't you even want to know what he did?"
"Of course, I do. But first, I want to know what you're doing here. Why did you come back to Dillon?"
"What's this look like?" He tapped a finger against his badge. "I'm Deputy Sheriff in this great state of Texas, sent to guard the good folks of Dillon."
She took a closer look. "You're County?"
At least he wouldn't have an office in town. She'd grasp at any spilled straw, though Daddy would've told her you can't fix the camel's back once it's snapped.
"I still don't understand why you're here. What happened to Deputy Worth?"
He frowned. "Worth's out on sick leave, so I'm assigned to Dillon for the present. And judging by your boy's activity this morning, I'll have plenty to keep me busy."
"For heaven's sake, Tanner. He's only a child. What kind of damage could he have done to your car? Surely not enough to make you so ready to lynch him?"
All right, even she could recognize an overreaction when she heard one. But Tanner had always driven her to extremes. Had made her do things she wouldn't ordinarily consider—
No time for those thoughts now. Or ever.
She had her child to worry about. "Lynching?" He laughed, loud and full-throated, tipping his head back, exposing the long lean column of his neck. "I just wanted to give him a scare, make him think twice before he goes off and does something else he shouldn't."
"Just what did he do?"
"Took it upon himself to decorate my car."
Her heart sank. She sneaked another glance at Tanner. He didn't look nearly as fierce as he had when he'd first come into the store, Kevin dangling from his fingertips. With any luck, she'd get by with a written warning, instead of a ticket she couldn't hope to pay. If her son was guilty of the damage.
"You know for a fact it was Kevin?"
"Caught him egg-handed."
"Eggs?" She sagged in relief. "Is that all?"
"You know what dried egg does to a paint job?" He flipped open his notebook. "Kevin Lindstrom," he read aloud. "Age?"
"Under eighteen," she snapped. "That makes him a minor." Low down in her stomach, a small tremor of guilt and fear began to build. "W-why do you want to know?"
His eyes focused on her, and her legs threatened to buckle. She knew what Kevin must have felt like, without solid footing beneath him.
"I'm going to keep an eye on that child."
"He's my responsibility, thank you."
He snorted. "And a great job you're doing, too, aren't you? Can't even control your own son."
"How dare you!"
"I'm a deputy sheriff, that's how. Seems to me your boy's a bit high-strung and looking for some attention."
"He's a typical child," she shot back.
"Trouble waiting to happen. Where was he supposed to be when he was egging my County vehicle?"
"Waiting for the bus at a friend's house."
"With no one to watch over him?"
"His friend's mother keeps an eye on both boys." What did he think, she let her son run wild? "You heard Billy. If his brother had to drive them to school, something must have happened to the bus."
She would find out what—later. Her affairs were none of Tanner's business. Not anymore.
"I'll give you the price of a car wash and make sure Kevin knows what he did was wrong. Let it rest with that."
"Can't. Pranks can lead to worse things. We sure don't want Dillon overrun by hooligans."
"I agree with you there. But egging a car is childish mischief, Tanner." Ticket be darned. She'd take on a mountain of debt before she'd let her son be railroaded by a deputy carrying a grudge along with his gun. "Are you calling my son a hooligan?"