The wail of the siren pierced the air, drowning out the deafening sound the muffler was making. Tess Morgan looked back in the rearview mirror, groaned, and eased up on the accelerator. Parking on the side of the road, she saw the motorists passing her and thought about taking her daughter’s blankie and throwing it over her head to hide from their curious stares. The color in her cheeks reflected the red lights flashing behind her.
“Why me? Why now?” she muttered while she watched the police officer step from his car.
The officer strode toward her. His tall, beautifully proportioned frame struck her first, but that observation fled quickly to be replaced with a series of others—his fierce, commanding countenance; his casual way of moving that belied an alertness; his lean, whipcord strength evident by the muscles bunched beneath his short sleeve dark blue shirt; his aviator sunglasses that hid his eyes from her; his physical magnetism that kept her staring at him when common sense told her to do otherwise.
When he stopped briefly to write down her license plate number, a rush of expelled air stirred her bangs. This officer sent her heart pounding; she always did have a weakness for a man in a uniform. With each purposeful step that brought him closer, her pulse reacted until it sped through her veins at an alarming rate.
Forcing herself to look away, Tess trained her gaze on a dent on her hood and gripped her steering wheel. She was vividly aware when he came to a halt beside her and leaned down. His musk scented after-shave permeated the car. When she centered her gaze on the man looming in her window, she saw her reflection in his sunglasses, a wide-eyed look on her face. She tried to discern beneath the dark shades, to sense any softness under the hard, unyielding lines of his expression. She couldn’t.
“Ma’am, may I see your driver’s license?”
His question freed her from her trance. “Driver’s license?”
“You do have one?” he asked, one eyebrow cocked.
Color flamed her cheeks even more. “I believe so. Somewhere.”
She gave him a weak smile, then turned to rummage through her purse. She found her wallet and rifled through it. She didn’t have her license. What did she do with it? Tension cramped her stomach. She certainly couldn’t afford one ticket let alone two.
“I can’t seem to find it. I know I have one. I just moved here and went and renewed my Missouri license last week. I had it in my pocket yesterday when I drove to the park to run.”
“Maybe, ma’am, it’s still there,” he said in a rich, deep voice that had a calming effect.
“No, I’m sure I put it in here when I got back home.” Frustrated, her hands shaking, she dropped the contents of her oversized bag on the seat next to her. She moved aside the apple, the curling iron and the small stuffed bear while she continued, “Unless Katie played with my purse last night. Anything’s possible with a curious four-year-old.” She finally saw the license, grabbed it and held it up as though she had won an Oscar. “See, here it is.”
“So it is.” He took it from her. A slight smile cracked his stern expression.
After all that had happened to her this morning, she would have to act like a blithering idiot chattering nervously when she needed all her wits about her if she was going to talk this police officer out of a ticket which she couldn’t afford. She could barely afford money for the gas to get her to her job interview.
After examining the piece of plastic, he looked into her face, nothing discernible in his expression. “Ms. Morgan, are you running late?”
She raked her hand through her short curls, nervous because all she saw was herself mirrored in his sunglasses. “No, just running fast.”
His half smile became full-fledged, denting the slant of his high cheekbones. “You were going forty-five miles fast which is fine on the highway but not on a city street with a speed limit of thirty-five.”
“I have a job interview this morning. The first promising one since I moved here last month. The market isn’t great for computer programmers right now. Just my luck, Katie picked today to rebel on wearing what I had picked out for her. I’ve been choosing her clothes for the past four years. But not today. Then Wesley couldn’t find his lunch box with Batman on it and Shaun had to have a certain kind of folder for school and it had to be today. I had to make a special trip to the store, then drop him off at school because he missed the bus. Why can’t kids tell you these things the day before?”
“I’ve asked myself that very same question several times in the past month since school started.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Two. One started first grade this year.”
“I have a first grader, too. Also, a third grader and my curious four-year-old.” She had him, Tess thought with an inner smile. There was a connection now between them. How could he give her a ticket when they had first graders in common? Just in case, she smiled openly at him. “How old is your other child, Officer,” Tess looked at his name plate, “Smith.”
“Oh, I love that age. The terrible twos hasn’t descended yet”
He looked at her with a disconcerting directness for a long moment before clearing his throat and replacing his smile with that stern, no-nonsense expression. “Mrs. Morgan, do you also realize your safety sticker is overdue?”
“Every time I drive this car. People can hear me coming five blocks away. I can’t get my safety sticker because of my muffler and I can’t get a muffler without a job and money. I promise I will the minute I land this job.” She resisted the urge to glance at her watch. She didn’t really need to be reminded the minutes were ticking away all too quickly.
“Where are you headed?”
“When is your job interview?”
“Fifteen minutes. Well, then I’ll make this quick for the sake of Crystal City’s noise level.” He flipped open his black pad. “I’ll give you a warning this time. Don’t let me catch you speeding again, Mrs. Morgan.” He scribbled on the paper, ripped it off, and handed it to her. “Consider this a welcoming gift from the city.”
“Thank you, Officer Smith.” Tess stuffed the warning into her pocket.
He turned to leave, swung back around, and added, “And get that muffler fixed. That’s what attracted me to your car in the first place. You’re car in the first place. You’re right it’s loud and can be heard blocks away. The next police officer might not be so welcoming.”
Tess started the engine and wanted to cringe when she heard the offending piece of junk come to life. Not only did she need a new muffler but a whole new car. This one was on its last wheel. As she pulled out onto the street, she waved to the officer who was watching her from his vehicle.
* * *
Zachariah Smith laughed at the sight of Mrs. Morgan driving away. She would be lucky if she made it to Carson International. Not only did that car sound awful, but it looked like a demolition derby reject with its two-tone paint job—rust and blue.
Thinking about her car led his thoughts to the woman behind the wheel. Her hair was a bundle of curls, rich, dark with hints of wildfire in them. They framed her beautiful face like a halo of flames. Her soft voice was throatily sexy, even when she was chattering away, and she had a disarming smile that touched a part of him that he had thought was dead.
He flipped his pad open to the carbon copy of his warning. Tess Morgan. 513 Oakcrest Drive. That was four blocks from his house. Too bad all the good ones were married. She would have been interesting to get to know.
* * *
Tess stuck her hand into the pocket of her dress and withdrew the warning that Officer Smith had written earlier that day. She read what he had scribbled in a bold handwriting across the middle of the piece of paper, “Good luck with your job interview. Z. Smith.” As she ran her fingertips over the letters, she wondered what the Z. stood for. It had to be an unusual first name to fit an unusual man.
Oh, well, she wouldn’t see him again, she thought, shrugging and replacing the warning in her pocket.
Tess looked out the window over the kitchen sink, a smile playing about the corners of her mouth. She had done it. She had a job and a chance to provide for her children. Ever since meeting that nice Officer Smith today, her luck had changed. He had been her good luck charm.
A vision of her good luck charm popped into her thoughts, causing her breath to catch. The man looked dynamite in a uniform and his smile was pure sexy. A picture of him walking toward her earlier filled her mind with warm images. Her first impression of strength and power had only been reconfirmed when he had talked to her, his voice deep, husky, with a calm, reassuring tone. Tess thought about the man’s two children and knew instinctively he would be a good father, a good provider.
Too bad he was married, she mused, then instantly banished that thought from her mind. She hadn’t come to Crystal City to get involved with anyone.
“Mommie, Wesley won’t play marbles wif me,” Katie said, then immediately stuck her thumb into her mouth.
Her daughter’s declaration startled Tess from her daydream. Conscious of the patches of red on her cheeks that the vision of the police officer had produced, Tess glanced down at her daughter, who stood with that determined look on her face, and knew she would never make the Back to School Night on time. The story of her life, late for everything. Tess wiped her hands on a towel next to the sink and then knelt in front of her youngest child. “He has to clean his room first.”
“He promised to play after dinner.”
“You’ll just have to wait until he’s through with his chore.” Tess started to rise to finish her own chore when her daughter’s pout warned her Katie wouldn’t let this go.
“Go see if Shaun will. I think he’s out back playing with Bruce.”
Her daughter’s face lit up, and she raced out of the kitchen. Tess sighed and turned back to the dinner dishes. One disaster averted. But it would be a miracle if she could get out the door in the next thirty minutes without something else happening. Three children had a way of roughening the waters of life.
As she scrubbed a pan, Tess heard Bruce, their Great Dane, barking. She watched from the kitchen window while Katie dragged Shaun into the house, their dog none too happy to be left alone outside on the rope they had devised to keep him in the yard since there was no fence. Her eldest child wasn’t too happy either, but Katie ruled her two brothers and they rarely denied her anything.
Tess let another sigh escape her lips and thought back over the day’s events. She still couldn’t believe she had the job, that her car had made it to Carson’s and back home. After a long year of fighting uphill for everything, maybe things were starting to go her way now.
“I’ll finish up in here,” her grandmother said as she entered the kitchen.
Tess continued to wash the dishes, stacking them into the drain. “You can dry. With both of us working we’ll be done in no time.”
“But you have that meeting tonight. You’ll be late.”
“Why spoil a perfect record.”
“That’ll have to change with this new job.”
Tess chuckled. “I’ve already set my alarm for an hour earlier in the morning. That should allow me enough time to settle any disputes that erupt here and get to Carson’s by eight”
Granny Kime picked up the towel and a glass and began to dry. “It’s about time something went your way. I can’t stand to see you struggle since Brad left you.”
The mention of her ex-husband’s name sent a chill down Tess’s spine. “It was for the best,” she replied evenly while inside she quavered.
“Best?” Granny Kime shook her head. “How can you say that? He walked out on you and left you with three young children. Have you forgotten what it has been like for you this past year?”
Tess drained the sink, staring at the soapy water swirling downward. “Forgotten? Never, Granny Kime.” The pain she had felt when she had read Brad’s note on his pillow resurfaced and pierced her heart. She had awakened one morning with hope that they could work their problems out, only to find his letter. He had written the brief note to tell her he wanted a divorce and he had moved out. He had left his family without a backward glance and she never wanted to feel that kind of betrayal again. “I don’t need a man to make my life complete. I won’t ever depend upon one again.”
“Don’t judge the rest of mankind by Brad.”
Tess draped the dishcloth over the nozzle. “I’m not. It’s just that I married Brad right out of high school. I went from the safety of your home to his. It’s time to find out if I can do this on my own.”
“You can. You’re my granddaughter.”
Tess laughed. “I could always count on you for support.”
“Well, I’m glad you finally came to your senses and decided to move here. A big city is no place to raise three children all by yourself.”
“Speaking of three children, it’s awfully quiet. I’d better go check on them before I leave. I don’t trust silence.”
Tess walked through the living room, relieved to see Katie bent over the glass bowl full of black marbles, her little hands grabbing them to stuff into a plastic cup as fast as she could. Tess smiled at the game her daughter had made up to play with her brothers. Whoever filled the cup up the most was the winner and somehow she always managed to win.
Sticking her head into the bedroom Wesley and Shaun shared, Tess noticed her second child was playing with his Lego set, not putting it away. Taking a deep breath of the lavender-laced air, Tess was glad she had placed some of the scent in the aroma pot. She needed its calming effect right about now. She pushed the door open wide and stood in the entrance with her hands on her hips. Wesley was so engrossed in what he was doing that he didn’t hear her until she cleared her throat.
“Young man, what are you doing?”
He froze. “Playing.”
“I can see that. Maybe I should rephrase my question. What are you supposed to be doing?”
“Cleaning up. But, Mom, I’m almost done. See this warship I’m making.”
Tess let her gaze travel over the chaotic terrain of her son’s room. It looked as if he had already staged a war of mass destruction. “You’re not done in my book, and that’s the only one that matters.”
“But, Mom, I’ve been working all evening.”
“You have?” She again ran her gaze over the mess scattered everywhere on the floor. “If I’m not mistaken, somewhere under all this,” she gestured at the disorder, “there is a brown carpet. I’d like to see it when I come back to check your progress.”
“But I’ve got this great idea for the ship. I thought I deserved a break.”
Tess glanced down at her watch, noting her time was running out. “You’ve been at it for twenty minutes. You get a break when it’s done. Now if you don’t want me to take the Lego set away, I would suggest you get this room cleaned up. You’ve got until I leave. Fifteen minutes.” She closed the door on her son’s third, “But, Mom,” and left to change into something suitable for her first school meeting in a new town.