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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20

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            Every woman makes mistakes.

            Susannah Quinn glared at the door to the Sheriff's private office. Yep, every woman makes mistakes, but most women didn't have to put up with a constant reminder of their not so brilliant actions. And most women didn't have their mistake showing up at their office –flaunting tanned muscles and polluting the environment with clouds of testosterone and male arrogance.

            Of course, mistake didn't quite describe what she'd done. No tiny lapse in judgment for old Susannah Quinn. When she decided to throw common sense out the window, she didn't mess around. Her fair skin flamed at the memory.

            Temporary insanity was the only explanation for her behavior. If temporary insanity was a legal defense in criminal court, shouldn't she also be able to escape punishment for her lapse in judgment? Instead, she had her mistake aka D. E. Hogan show up, right on her doorstep. That was cruel and unusual punishment if she'd ever heard of any. That kind of redress might be banned by the U. S. Constitution, but, apparently, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, it was still being dished out. What was even worse was that Hogan turned out to be the new consultant for the Murphy's Cove Police Department down on the coast. To make matters worse, he just had to drop by the Sheriff's office every blasted day.

            Susannah picked up her coffee cup, an oversized white mug emblazoned with red letters:  Deputies do it in mirrored sunglasses! She drained the lukewarm black coffee. Muttering beneath her breath at the injustice of it all, she slammed the heavy ceramic mug down.

            "What's wrong with you this morning?" asked Grace Collier.

            "Nothing." Susannah didn't look over at the dispatcher for fear of encouraging her. She'd known Grace, her best friend's mom, all her life and loved the outspoken woman, but she wasn't interested in being on the receiving end of one of Grace's well-meaning lectures.

            The ringing phone saved her. Grace punched a button. "Dispatch. This is Grace."

            Susannah ignored the conversation, knowing it was Grace's friend Eunice who ran the Courthouse Cafe across the street. The woman called every morning so she and Grace could discuss yesterday's episode of their favorite soap opera. Soap news ranked at the top of the list of excitement here in Vance.

            There was never any criminal activity in Alton County. Other than high school seniors climbing the spindly old water tower to spray paint Class of whatever on the rusty tank. Sometimes, a few years passed before a kid got an itch and a can of spray paint along with the desire to immortalize his graduation from the consolidated high school that served most of the  small towns in the county. Nothing ever happened in this narrow slice of coastal prairie far west of Houston. That was the way her uncle Barney Drummond, the Sheriff of Alton County ever since Susannah could remember, liked it. Life here moved as fast as a crawling turtle.

            Not much occurred even down in Murphy's Cove, the county's richest town. Besides, the resort town had its own overpaid police department to deal with the few year-round residents as well as the many rich divorcees who mobbed the coastal enclave for the rich and perpetually bored.

            The only hotbed of activity was over on the four-lane highway that sliced through part of Alton County. That's where the real action was. Susannah sighed. If catching speeders could be considered action. Disgruntled at her lot in life, she tried to return her attention to the report she was typing. Unfortunately, that reminded her of her temporary insanity.

            "Just Hogan," he'd said when her uncle the Sheriff had introduced him. Susannah had shaken his hand as if she'd never laid eyes on him before.

            Until Hogan, she'd had only one secret in her life. It had caused her humiliation and anger. Now, she had something else to hide. Ironically, Hogan was the only person on earth who knew anything about her first painful secret. One thing about being hurt, humiliated, and angry. Those emotions sure helped squash the warm tinglies that assaulted certain parts of her anatomy every time Hogan walked through the door. If only those painful emotions had changed her body's instinctive reaction to him.

            Another sigh escaped her. There was just something about Hogan. If she'd been a woman given to flights of fancy, she'd have called it love at first sight. But she didn't believe in love. Much less love at first sight. She knew enough about human sexuality to know love at first sight was nothing but pheromones. Calling it smell at first sight would be more accurate. It was just basic primitive sexual response.

            Whatever you called it, Susannah would do anything to keep Hogan from learning how susceptible she was to him. Her delicate chin squared in resolve. She might not be able to run away now that he was in her county, but she could stand and fight. Or take cover behind cynicism and sarcasm. Whatever worked.

            "Hey, hon. Eunice wants to know if you want her to save you some peach pie?"

            "No, thanks. I'm not in the mood for anything else sweet. I had one of Aunt Opal's cinnamon rolls this morning."

            Grace hung up the phone. "Maybe some more sugar would change your sour mood."

            Though Susannah protested that she wasn't in a sour mood, Grace waved her words aside. "You're grumbling and muttering beneath your breath with every word you type. And what's with all those long-suffering sighs?"

            "It's not fair that I have to do Hogan's reports while he swaggers around this office every day. Why doesn't he stay down in Murphy's Cove at the police department where he belongs?"

            "My advice to you, missy, is to just get over it. Life isn't always fair."

            Susannah clamped her mouth shut. She, better than anyone, knew how unfair life was. She'd learned that at the age of seven. Just in case she ever thought about forgetting that little lesson, what had happened when she'd turned sixteen would always remind her. Then there was last month. She just hadn't been able to leave it alone. What a fool she'd been.

            Enough, damn it! Anger at the present was better than wallowing in the past. She shot a venomous look at the solid oak door separating the outer office from her uncle's inner sanctum. Every day Hogan visited her uncle. Susannah suspected he hung around just to irritate her. Just to look at her with his big blue eyes as if he were–.

            "Damn!" Susannah struck the keys with so much force that her fingertips hurt. Thinking about him was always a mistake. Why wouldn't he stay away? "Double damn. I don't care if Hogan and Uncle Barney are best buds. Just let that man ask me to type one more report. Or. . . or . . . anything, and I will not be responsible for my actions."

            Her fingers flew across the keys as she typed. The archaic word processing program, set to make an audible electronic beep when a word was misspelled, beeped like the back-up horn on a garbage truck. "That man isn't even connected to the Alton County Sheriff's Department. Unless you count his schmoozing with Uncle Barney."

            Grace laughed at her as if she were a stand-up comic. With a careless wave, the woman dismissed Susannah's complaints and turned her attention to the romance novel that lay ever present on the dispatch desk.

            Susannah picked up a crumpled paper napkin covered with blue ink squiggles. "Would you just look at this? It looks like a Rorschach test, not notes to be transcribed. I should've refused the first time Uncle Barney asked me to lend a hand. I'd like to lend Hogan a hand. Right across his smug face."

            "Then why didn't you just say no?" Grace chuckled. "It's not like anybody twisted your arm and forced you to type Hogan's reports."

            Grace was right, but Susannah's intuition had told her it might be wise to pick her battles with Hogan. "I was just trying to please my uncle."  Her first day as a deputy for her uncle had been a disaster. She looked up and caught Grace's hard stare. "Okay, okay. We both know I was trying to make amends for my little faux pas."

            "Little faux pas? That's a good one."

            Susannah gritted her teeth as Grace laughed loudly. 

            "Hon. You're gonna grind the enamel off your teeth if you keep gettin' upset like that, and what's Hank gonna say about that?"

            Susannah exhaled loudly and leaned back, determined to cool off. "Thank you, Grace, for that pearl of wisdom. I'm sure your husband, talented dentist that he is, can just make me a set of veneers if that happens."

            When Grace laughed even louder, a reluctant smile tugged at Susannah's mouth. Grace had always been like a second mother to her. The only thing more ample than the woman's bountiful curves was her quirky sense of humor.

            "Hon, just smile when Hogan comes in. Don't stiffen up like somebody put you in a body cast. And quit being as touchy as a wet cat. Try to be more agreeable."

            "Being agreeable is what got me stuck transforming Hogan's chicken scratch into a report. If this report's for the Mayor of Murphy's Cove, why can't Mr. Hotshot Consultant get someone in that police department to type it?"

            "Maybe he likes the way you glow like a red warning light when he hands you his notes."

            "It's the principle involved. I'm a deputy, not a secretary."

            When Grace just chuckled, Susannah frowned. "Well, I am. Or I would be if I were given half a chance. Stop laughing. This isn't funny."

            "You're too danged serious. Lighten up. Be nice to Hogan. After all, he was pretty gracious about that little faux pas as you call it."

            "He was not! He was obnoxious and overbearing. I'll tell you what his initials stand for. D is for demanding. E is for egotistical. To top it all off, he got Uncle Barney to tear up the ticket."

            "Tickets," Grace corrected. "One for parking. The other was for a cracked tail light on the Suburban he was driving. At least that's what you said."

            "Tickets then. And the tail light was cracked." Susannah hoped Grace attributed the crimson that stained her cheeks to anger. That day, meeting Hogan again, here in her town, had shaken her. After her uncle had introduced him, Hogan had possessed the nerve to ask her to lunch. Fear had flooded her. Fear that he thought they could have a fling. Fear that he didn't want a fling. Most of all, fear that she might not be able to keep her hands off him.

            When she'd declined his offer, his eyes had mocked her. She'd pretended to be absorbed in the fax from the state police that she'd been reading.

            In a voice so soft she'd thought perhaps she'd imagined it, he'd said, "Coward."

            Alarmed that he'd nailed it so perfectly, she'd not dared to look up. Moments later, the door had opened and closed. He'd left without challenging her further.

            Later, returning from lunch, she'd seen a black Suburban pull up and double park behind the cars filling the diagonal slots in front of the Sheriff's office. She honestly hadn't realized it was Hogan driving until she'd walked over to ask the driver to park in the lot across from the courthouse.

            His blue eyes had gleamed with amusement. And with something else. Something that made her breath catch. Suddenly, the heat of the July day intensified. She knew what Hogan was thinking. She could read it in his gaze as clearly as she could feel it in the pulse points of her body. And that really scared her. If only he hadn't looked at her that way. If the corner of his mouth hadn't lifted in that little smile.

            All it had taken to send panic chasing after the shiver of sexual awareness was his softly spoken question. "Don't you think we have something to talk about, Susy?"

            The timbre of his voice and the heat in his gaze were like flame to dry tinder. Terrified at her body's response to everything about him, Susannah had backed away. She shook her head. "Don't call me Susy." She knew her quavering voice must have matched her "deer in the headlights" expression.

            "No heart to heart talk today? No problem. I'll be here a few weeks. We've got time."

            Susannah had felt all the blood drain from her face. She'd felt hot and cold all in the same moment. She could find no words to counter what she viewed as a threat. To be honest, there was a traitorous part of her that wished she could leap into his arms. Into his bed. But that would be disastrous.

            All she'd had to do was make a joke about that night. Pretend that she was sophisticated. Unfortunately, she'd lost the ability to put together a coherent sentence, much less a smart, hip response to defuse the situation. So she'd taken refuge from his searching gaze and husky voice by whipping out her ticket book from her khaki shirt pocket. Gruffly she'd explained he was illegally parked. She'd only intended to write a warning. But Hogan had flirted. He'd winked and softly said, "Are you sure you don't want to go someplace private and talk about this, Deputy? Maybe we can work something out?"

            That had just increased her panic. In a flash she saw a future she dreaded. He'd finish his job at Murphy's Cove and shake the dust of this small town. If she yielded to her emotions, he'd leave her with nothing but regret. She'd ripped the ticket out and handed it to him. He'd laughed.

            The sound was the match to her fuse. She seared him with a glance and walked around the Suburban, making a pretense of inspecting the lights on the rear of the Burb just to buy her panicked brain more time. In her most official voice, she said, "Your right rear tail light is cracked."

            "Well, gee whiz, Officer," he said in a parody of a Texas drawl. "You sure as shootin' better write that up. Can't let a lawless desperado like me get away with anything."

            His mocking voice spurred her on. Retribution was a bitch with a ticket book in hand. Ripping the second ticket from the book, she handed it to him with a flourish. "As you wish."

            "You must not have been in uniform longer than a nano second, or you'd know you don't give tickets to other law enforcement personnel. It's not professional."

            His jeering words burned her. She'd wanted to smack him with her ticket book.

            Fortunately, her uncle had arrived just then. It hadn't taken the Sheriff long to get the picture. He'd tsk tsked a bit, taken the tickets from Hogan, and stuffed them in his pants pocket. She'd known her uncle would tear the tickets up. And he had.

            Battle lines were drawn that day. When Hogan dropped by, he alternated between flirting outrageously and treating her like a child. She countered with whatever put-down fit the occasion. She was just counting the days until he packed up and went back to wherever he'd come from. Until then, her best defense was a good offense.

            Still, it hurt that her best friend's mother seemed to side with Hogan. "Grace, you don't think it's right for Hogan to act as if he's above the law, do you?"

            "Oh, pish. You're too young to be such a stickler for rules. Just once I'd like to see you thumb your nose at responsibility."

            Grace's outburst surprised Susannah. "You make me sound like a, well, like a stick in the mud. A pompous stick in the mud at that."

            "Kids should be kids, but you skipped over that and went straight to adulthood. You're too serious to moralize like this."

            Surprised, Susannah asked, "Do I really sound so self-righteous?"

            "No, hon, no." Grace smiled and held her thumb and index finger close together. "Well, maybe just a teeny bit. You gotta quit judging people and how they should or shouldn't act. And quit assuming responsibility for other people. You've been doing that since you were seven. It's time to live your own life. Let others live theirs. Good golly. Have some fun. Stop being as unyielding as a clod of sun-baked mud."

            Grace's assessment hurt. A lot. Susannah blinked to dispel the sudden moisture that threatened to turn into tears. "I was just saying that Hogan, as a hotshot consultant, should set an example for others."

            "It's not as if he robbed a bank. All he did was double park."

            "That's illegal. He was impeding traffic flow. He could have caused a traffic jam."

            "Oh, come on. Not only is this the smallest dang county in Texas, it's also got the smallest towns. The closest thing to a traffic jam here in Vance was when Cici Rojas's pet sheep got loose and rammed the plate glass window at the bank."

            Susannah smiled at the memory. She'd been fifteen when the massively overweight Ruffles had made his great escape.

            "Now that assault sheep impeded traffic when everybody jumped out of their cars to try to catch him. Would you have written tickets for all of them or joined in the effort to catch Ruffles? I'm just saying that sometimes there might be mitigating circumstances to consider."

            Resignation seeped through Susannah. "You should have been a preacher the way you keep at a person until she admits her sins. All right. Maybe he wasn't impeding traffic. I'll even admit, I should have let him off with a verbal warning."

            "You've got a bad case of Rookie Cop. Ever hear about pride going before a fall?"

            The phone rang again. Susannah decided it was better that Grace thought she was a gung ho rookie than to have her learn the truth. She listened to Grace's side of the conversation, hoping someone, somewhere, needed a deputy. But the call was from another of Grace's friends. No escape. The only thing more boring than this job was the small town she couldn't escape from either.  And the only thing more boring than that was her personal life.

            In college, she'd had friends. And dates. Though she'd never let any relationship slide into the perilous waters of romance. She sure didn't have to worry about that here. Eligible men were as scarce as unbroken sand dollars on a Gulf coast beach. Not that she cared, she silently affirmed. She'd decided long ago that all she wanted was a career. She'd be a good cop. If her uncle would give her a chance. She didn't want romance, but a social life would be nice.

            Unfortunately, her high school friends had deserted Vance for the bright lights of Houston or San Antonio. She didn't blame them. She'd have done the same if it hadn't been for her mother. Luke Orland, her high school boyfriend, was now a cop down in Murphy's Cove, but they hadn't hooked up when she'd come home. To Luke, women were divided into two groups. Those good for sexy fun and games, and those he'd never get between the sheets. She still fell into the latter category.

            Boring job. Boring town. Boring personal life. The triple threat was about to do her in.

            Maybe it would be more bearable when Paula came home. Grace's daughter taught at Sam Houston State, the college they'd both attended. When the summer semester ended next week, she'd be home. That might save her sanity.

            To Susannah's annoyance, after Grace finished the latest call, she picked up where she'd left off. "You've always been a rule follower, but in law enforcement, professional courtesy is as important as protecting and serving. You don't write the Mayor's pal a ticket. Especially when the Mayor runs the richest town in the county. And you sure don't ticket a cruiser from another police department." Then Grace spoiled the whole effect of her professional courtesy lecture by giggling like a school girl. "There's easier ways to get a stud muffin like Hogan to notice you."

            Horrified, Susannah stared at Grace. Surely the woman couldn't know. "I did not write him a ticket so he'd notice me. Even if the governor declares D. E. Hogan heaven's gift to womankind, I wouldn't be interested. He's not even what I'd call handsome."

            "Well, Susy Q," a male voice drawled. "I'm mortally wounded. Are you sure you don't find me appealing?"

 

 

 

   

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