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Excerpt: Take Me Back

Excerpt: Take Me Back

Book 4: Paradise, Idaho

If she didn’t want to be here, though, why was her foot pressing the gas pedal harder as she wound her way through the final curves and over the last hills hiding Paradise? Because she was late, and she hated being late, hated feeling breathless and guilty, the person she was trying so hard not to be anymore. She had to be here, so she just wanted to get it over with.

Strong. Capable. Determined. Yeah. That.

The white SUV flashed past in her peripheral vision before she registered it. Sitting just off the highway, nose pointed out, lettering on its side, light bars on top. She took a look at her speedometer. Sixty-eight. Whoops. She eased her foot up off the gas and told her heart to slow down, too. She was fine. Eight miles over the limit. Fine.

Fine in Washington. Where she wasn’t.

She heard the siren first, a faint wail. Then it got louder, and the flashing lights appeared around the curve in her rear-view mirror. An impatient blip on the siren let her know that he wasn’t just looking to pass.

She muttered something she’d never say in a classroom, turned on her blinker, and slowed down. A final curve, and the Super 8 motel appeared on the right, with the town of Paradise stretching out below it. Where she was supposed to be right now. She pulled into the motel parking lot, laid her hands flat on the steering wheel, and told herself, Breathe.

Now that she was stopped, the full force of the September heat hit her through her open windows, together with the sound of ticking metal from her hood and the faint chirp of crickets. She heard a car door slam heavily behind her and watched in the rearview mirror as the deputy walked toward her, his gray-clad shoulders broad in his short-sleeved uniform shirt, his big dark-gray hat and aviator sunglasses shading his face. His gait was confident. Not strutting, just solid and sure.

He stopped outside her window, put a big hand on the frame, giving her a close-up view of a whole lot of corded forearm muscle, and bent to peer inside. “Ma’am,” he began.

She said, “You have got to be kidding me.”

She still couldn’t see all of his face, but she didn’t have to. She’d have known that walk anywhere.

His hand was still there on the window frame, and he didn’t move. One second. Two. Then he said, “May I see your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, please?”

The first words he’d spoken to her in more than fourteen years.

Her day had lacked only Jim Lawson giving her a ticket. All he had to do was breathalyze her now to make the humiliation complete. She stabbed at the glove compartment with a forefinger and yanked out the envelope. It took her a while to find the right documents, and then she had to search for her license in her wallet, because it was buried, too. She should have organized her purse before she’d left this morning. Then she’d have been late enough to miss this whole thing. Just kiss that inheritance goodbye, and good riddance.

Closure was way overrated.

She handed the documents over, and Jim took them and said, “Would you step out of the vehicle, please?” His voice was deeper than ever, and completely impersonal.

No hope for it. She shoved the door open and got out.

She’d spent way, way too many hours imagining this moment. Somehow, though, she’d always been rich and famous when it happened. A Hollywood actress, first, paying a visit to her home town to dedicate a new wing of the high school. And then, because the actress idea had been manifestly stupid, a high tech startup whiz doing the same thing. By the time she’d been a high school teacher who would never be dedicating so much as a restroom block, she hadn’t needed the daydream anymore. Maybe once in a while she marveled that she’d ever cared that much, but that was it.

Honestly.

She might have chosen not to be a sticky, sweaty mess for it, though. And not to have been pulled over for speeding, too.

If you can’t make it, fake it. She crossed her arms, put one strappy-sandaled ankle over the other, leaned back against the baking-hot car door, and said, “Deputy Lawson, I presume.”

Jim was still holding her documents, but he wasn’t looking at them.

“Hallie.” His face had gone hard, the way it always had when he’d been under stress. Like he was closing down and hunkering behind the barricades.

“In the flesh. And late. So hustle up.” She couldn’t believe she’d managed that. She was doing fine. Keep going.

That perfectly chiseled mouth tightened. The mouth that had gone to work on her own, once upon a time. “You don’t get to tell me that.”

“And yet I just did.” She gestured at the documents. “Give me a ticket. Go on. I’ve got this funeral to attend.” Better and better.

“I’m surprised you bothered.”

“Believe me, so am I. I could’ve gone another ten years easy without coming back here. And, yeah, I was speeding. Not even going to argue. So go on, Jim. Do it.”

His head came up fast, and she would have grabbed the words back if she could.

“Go on. Do it. Please, Jim. Do it.”

She’d breathed the words that night, had begged him as she’d looked up at him standing over her. When she’d been stretched out on the hood of his car, because he’d pushed her down onto it. After he’d perched her up there and taken off her clothes, and she’d pulled at his T-shirt and run her hands over his chest, touching a man for the first time and loving it. On that night when he’d kissed her so deeply he’d stolen every bit of her breath and her will, and then had taken her lower lip between his teeth and given it a nip that had made her whimper and the heat flood. The night when his mouth and teeth and hands and tongue and every other aggressive, demanding part of him had let her know that this was for real.

Until she’d found out that it wasn’t real at all. That it hadn’t mattered, he didn’t care, and he could dump her again without a word, without a backward glance, when she’d needed him most.

He shoved her documents back at her. “I’m not giving you a ticket. You can’t yank my chain anymore. Get on out of here.”

He turned and walked back to his car. His shoulders were even broader than before. He’d always been built, but now, he was so much more.

Because he’d been a soldier, that was why, and now was a cop. Hard, physical training for a hard, physical job.

People changed. Jim had been through all kinds of trouble, the sorts of things she wouldn’t have wished on anyone. He’d been a soldier, and a husband, and a father, and then a widower. He wasn’t the brooding, intense twelve-year-old who’d made her ten-year-old knees helplessly weak, or the nineteen-year-old bad boy who’d broken her heart. And she wasn’t that girl anymore, either.

It didn’t matter anyway. It was over. Water under the bridge. A wave in the rearview mirror.

So why could seeing him still hurt her? Why had she resorted to a pretend-toughness that she couldn’t maintain for five minutes? Because she was weak, that was why.

She got back in the car, shoved everything back into the glove compartment, and took off with a squeal of tires.

Give me a ticket for that, Deputy.

* * *

Jim sat in the car and watched her drive off without the ticket he should’ve given her.

Who cared that she still looked sweet as strawberry wine and had a voice that curled right down inside him and went where it had no business being? You put the distractions away and did the job. And he hadn’t.

This hadn’t been his plan at all for how their first meeting would go. He was supposed to see her tomorrow at the lawyer’s office. That was the plan. Wearing a fresh haircut, a white button-down, black jeans, and his good boots. If he’d picked his clothes out already, so what? You suited up for the job. In this case, the job was to be cool and strong and calm, showing her how he’d moved on. He wasn’t that nineteen-year-old kid with no future and nothing to show for himself but a tool belt, spending the hot summer days pounding nails into another one of her dad’s crappy houses. He wasn’t the hormone-crazed teenager swinging down for “supplies” when the boss’s daughter came onto the worksite in her little shorts and her strawberry blonde corkscrew curls and her snug pink T-shirt. He wasn’t the rough trade who’d had to settle for watching those big eyes sliding on over to him, checking out his arms and his abs, while he’d wanted his lips on hers, his hand in her hair, and her whole sweet self backed up hard against the wall. And had known it would be more than his job was worth to make a move. Which had turned out to be exactly right, and then some.

He wasn’t that guy anymore, though, that kid with no prospects and nowhere to turn after she and her father had thrown him to the wolves. He had a good life, thank you very much. A house and a kid and respectability, right back here in the town where her dad had tried to take it all away.

And what had he done? He’d told her she couldn’t yank his chain. Which was clear-as-hell manspeak for, “You’re yanking my chain right this very minute.” He put his head back against the headrest and swore.

When she’d leaned up against her car, crossed her pretty legs, and stared up at him, though . . .

She hadn’t been cool—she’d been sweaty and messy and wild—but she’d been in control of the situation, and he hadn’t. The V-neck of her blouse had showed him that her skin was still pale and unmarked by freckles, and her arms had been firm and shapely under the tiny sleeves. And that blouse . . . it had clung to her in the heat, and that hadn’t done him any favors at all.

Go on, Jim. Do it.

No. He turned the key, slammed the rig into gear with unnecessary force, and put his blinker on. He wasn’t going to think about her stretched out on the hood of his car, or the way her skin had gleamed in the moonlight, or the way she’d shivered and moaned when he’d touched her. He wasn’t going to remember how it had felt to give sweet, sexy little Hallie her first time.

On the hood of a car. Yeah, Mr. Romance.

He shook his head and turned back onto the highway.

Tomorrow. You didn’t always get second chances, but tomorrow would be his.

Cool. Calm. In control.

Hopefully.

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