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Bobby Winslow was back in town.
According to the front page of the local paper there had yet to be an official sighting of the man who'd been voted "Best Hands (When it comes to working on cars)" in high school. But that didn't matter. The reporter was certain the town's bad boy, who'd spent the past six years rising to the number one spot in America's Cup Pro Racing stock car circuit, was on his way home.
Deputy Leeann Harris gave an indelicate snort and tossed the newspaper into the backseat of her cruiser.
She had to.
Otherwise she'd be tempted to take her eyes off the curvy mountain road to look again at the photos beneath the bold headline, including one taken just a few days ago when Bobby had been wheeled out of an injury rehabilitation center; it was the first time he'd been seen in five months. He'd struggled to his feet and spoken briefly, thanking those who took care of him after his accident and stating he was looking forward to continuing his recovery at home.
Everyone around town assumed that meant Destiny, Wyoming.
Never mind that Bobby had left at the age of eighteen with a vow to never step foot back inside the county limits. A vow made during a fervent outburst filled with the hurt and anger of a broken teenage heart.
A vow directed straight at her.
Of course, she'd made her own vow that spring day fourteen years ago.
This time it took the physical shaking of her head to force Leeann's mind back to the road ahead, both figuratively and literally.
She refused to get mired down in the past. Not today.
Using a technique she'd learned long ago to center herself in the here and now, Leeann mentally cataloged her surroundings starting with the beautiful late September day outside her windshield.
The sky was a dazzling shade of blue, sharp and piercing, perfect for squinting eyes and almost impossible to look away from. Birch, ash and maple trees stood tall and majestic on either side of the road. Their green leaves were giving way to the blazing yellows, oranges and fiery reds of autumn, while the smattering of pines and blue spruces stubbornly refused to let go of their glorious emerald needles.
The winding road wore a fresh coat of blacktop, like it'd pulled on a warm woolen jacket in preparation for another Wyoming winter of snow and ice. But when she rolled down the window and pulled in a deep breath, the air still held the lingering warmth of summer.
"What a beautiful day to be unemployed," she said to herself. Technically she wasn't out of work until her shift ended inshe glanced at her watchtwo more hours. After that, her three years with the Destiny, Wyoming, sheriff department would come to an end.
Budget cuts. Last hired, first fired. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Deputy Ben Dwyer had started a full month after her, but with a wife and two kids, Ben needed to keep his job. When word leaked out about the need to cut the department's staff by one, Leeann had gone straight into her boss's office.
It was time.
Moving on was something she'd been thinking about for a while now. After witnessing her two best friends finding true love with the men of their dreams and settling down in the past year, she was willing to admit, at least to herself, she was feeling a bit restless. Not for love, home or marriage like Maggie and Racy had found, but she did want something.
Like those many "forks in the road" her Aunt Ursula often spoke about, Leeann was ready to take the path less traveled with no idea where she was headed or what lay ahead.
The story of her life.
Pulling off the road to her favorite waiting spot that gave her a clear view down the mountain road, she slowed to a stop.
She hoped the remaining hours of her shift would be quiet, but the high school had let out almost a half hour ago. This stretch of windy road was a teenager paradise for cruising, especially on a beautiful day like today, just like it'd been years ago when she'd rode shotgun, a smile on her face and a white-knuckle grip on the seat while
A loud whoosh filled her ears. An oversize vehicle raced by so fast the draft caused the chassis beneath her to rock back and forth.
Was that a Winnebago?
Leeann flipped on her lights and siren and tore out after the jumbo motor home as it disappeared around the first turn. She lost sight of it, but there was nowhere for a vehicle that size to turn off for a least a mile. She pressed on the accelerator and roared over the next small hill, spotting the RV ahead as it pulled to the side of the road.
With no room to move in behind, she was forced to park in front, angling her cruiser nose in. Keeping an eye on her rearview mirror, she finished her call to dispatch that included the North Carolina license plate number and stepped out of the car.
Pushing her short hair back from her face, Leeann settled the Destiny Sheriff Department ball cap on her head.
Tourists. Probably a senior citizen with a lead foot.
She paused at the rear of her car, one hand inches from her weapon, and assessed the situation. Nice and quiet. So far, so good, except that thanks to the angle of the sun she couldn't make out the people inside the camper other than the fact there were two of them. At least.
She moved a few steps closer, motioning with one hand.
The driver understood and slid his window open. "Is there a problem, Officer?"
Okay, that was no grandpa.
The man leaning out the window had cropped salt-and-pepper hair and dark sunglasses obscuring his eyes. His arm was bigger than her thigh. The sleeve of his black T-shirt hugged the well-developed biceps, revealing a tattoo she couldn't quite make out.
"Please step out of the vehicle." There was no way she was dealing with this guy from where he sat three feet above her. "And bring your license and registration with you.
"I'm going to have to use the rear door." He patted the smooth surface beneath his hand. "We're having trouble with this one."
He offered a quick grin and ducked back inside.
Leeann watched as he talked to his passenger, gesturing with his hands before he moved out of his seat and disappeared from view. She walked back along the side of her cruiser, keeping it between her and the camper.
Eyeing the motor home, she noticed it looked brand-new and custom-made with its fancy paint job and tinted windows, but she was still surprised at how it'd zoomed by her.
The shade from tall trees to her left made it easier to see, and she paused on the other side of her car, her gaze on the person still sitting in the front of the camper.
A man, also wearing sunglasses, his with mirrored lenses, and a weathered ball cap on his head turned backward. He'd glanced her way through the window.
Seconds later, he did the classic double take.
Leeann held her ground and his gaze. Thanks to his sunglasses she couldn't be sure, but instinct and years of experience told her he was checking her out from the top of her ball cap to the tips of her steel-toed boots.
His scrutiny caused a heated flush to steal over her skin. It'd been many years since she'd had a physical reaction to a man's gaze. A tinge of annoyance mixed with the surprise coursing through her.
Why now? Why him?
Did she somehow know this guy?
No, that was crazy.
The stranger finally turned away and she blamed her body's response on the warmth of the Indian summer afternoon.
Still, it'd been a long time since she'd gotten that kind of response from someone. When she'd first started working as a deputy sheriff, it had happened often when she pulled someone over, be it a local or an out-of-town tourist who recognized her. But other than one of those celebrity magazines doing a "where are they now" profile on her a couple of years ago, Leeann was far removed from the bright lights and big city of her former life.
Did he know who she was? Or, more precisely, who she used to be?
Maybe he just didn't like the law. Except the tiny hitch that pulled at one corner of his mouth had her thinking he'd been about to smile. To flirt his way out of a ticket?
Just then the rear door of the camper opened and out stepped a giant of a man.
He was easily over six feet tall, the rest of him as powerfully put together as that one arm he'd displayed out the window. The black T-shirt stretched tautly over his wide chest, matching black jeans fit him like a second skin and the scuffed work boots gave him a couple of extra unnecessary inches in height.
He walked toward her, his gaze locked with hers. Other than her usual watchfulness that was part of the job, she felt none of the physical effects from a moment ago during that silent exchange with his passenger.
With no time to figure out why, Leeann pushed the thought aside when the driver stopped a few feet from her. He offered another grin that appeared too good-hearted to be artificial and held out his hand.
She took the paperwork, looked at his driver's license first then glanced back at him. "Dean Zippenella?"
The picture on the New Jersey license matched the man in front of her, but his full name? "Dean Martin Zip-penella?"
His grin widened as he shrugged. "I come from a large Italian family and my Nonni was a big fan. Most people call me Zip or Zippy."
"You should meet his brothers Frank and Joey."
Leeann glanced up as the guy still in the camper spoke. That voice. Barely above a whisper, and still the measured tone easily carried across the distance to where she stood. She hated to say it sounded familiar, because it didn't, but still a nugget of awareness tugged inside her.
She then noticed the dog in his lap, its two front paws on the window frame. Bland canine features spoke of a mongrel heritage and its coat was a mix of browns and tans, except for the solid patch of black over one eye.
"As in Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop?" she said, looking between the two men.
"Which one are you?" she asked the guy in the camper.
"Huh?" The hand scratching at the dog's ears stilled.
"Are you two related?" she pushed.
Their overlapping answers had her moving her gaze back and forth in suspicion. "Is my question too confusing?"
The driver crossed his arms over the impressive width of his chest. "We're not blood, but we're close as family can be."
Leeann tilted her head to one side, hoping Jersey got her unspoken message. If he was going for intimidation, it wasn't going to help his cause. He dropped his arms.
"What does it matter?" The man in the camper spoke again, his voice still low but now with a harder edge to it. "And why pull us over? We weren't over the posted speed limit."
The unspoken end of his sentence hung in the air.
"Look, I'm getting a bit tired of going back and forth between you two. Why don't you join your friend out here? And leave Fido inside."
He stared at her again until Leeann broke from his gaze to look back to his friend, ignoring the persistent internal whisper that she somehow knew this stranger.
"Is that really necessary, Officer Harris?" he asked.
The use of her name caused Leeann's head to snap back toward him.
The tone of his voice sounded different now. Softer. Almost recognizable.
Why had he called her by name? Could he make out the letters on the small tag attached to the front of her uniform?
She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. "Yes, it's necessary."
He looked away and this time his gaze held with his traveling companion's. Leeann glanced over in time to see the Rat Pack namesake give his head a slight shake.
"On my way," the Smart Mouth finally replied, pulling the dog back inside and swinging his oversize bucket seat away from the window.
The driver sighed.
Leeann focused her attention on him again, wondering why he didn't want his friend out here.
"Her name is Daisy," the muscleman said, his grin back. "The dog? She's mine and her name is Daisy. After Daisy Duke. The hottie from The Dukes of HazzardT"
Leeann fought back a grin and the urge to roll her eyes. "Yes, I know the show. Is anyone else inside the camper?"
"Nope, just the three of us."
She nodded, feeling at ease with the big guy. Still, she continued her silent count, which had started when she'd asked his buddy to come outside.
She soon reached one-eighty, approximately three minutes. The driver kept looking at the camper's side door and shifting his weight, as if he wanted to go and see what was taking his friend so long. Another few minutes passed before the door finally opened.
The man gingerly stepped down, starting toward them in slow, measured steps. She immediately wondered if he was under the influence as he fought to keep his balance.
Unlike his buddy, this guy's clothes seemed to hang off him, despite his tall frame and the width of his shoulders. His white cotton shirt was wrinkled and hung loosely over baggy jeans. His sneakered feet shuffled through the dirt as if he had to work hard to put one foot in front of the other.
He'd turned his ball cap around, the brim now low on his forehead, allowing her to only see the flat press of his lips. In anger? No, this guy was in pain.
When he finally reached them, a fine sheen of sweat glistened on his face and throat.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
His head jerked in a quick nod as he ran a hand across his chest, pulling the soft material taut.
"Can I see your driver's license, please?"
This time he offered a halfhearted laugh and her heart flinched. Then he removed his ball cap and slid off his glasses, his mouth relaxing in a halfhearted smile.
"It hasn't been that long, has it, Leeann?"
The air vanished from her lungs as her heart froze.
Alive and well and standing right in front of her. Gone was the belligerent stranger and in his place stood the man she had once promised to marry. The newspaper hadn't lied.