It was time to hit the road—again.
Candace Carmichael wrestled with the gearshift until it slipped into reverse and the car began to lurch into the darkness. Sure, navigating this crooked driveway would have been a hell of a lot easier with headlights, but that wasn’t an option, since she was trying to escape Gladys Harbaugh’s house without being detected.
And, okay. Fine. So this wasn’t the most mature way to deal with a roommate conflict. But there was just no way Candy could handle another scene with eighty-year-old Gladys. The old gal had been kind to let her stay rent-free for the first two weeks she’d been back in her North Carolina hometown, but when Gladys started to “borrow” Candy’s lingerie, it was definitely time to move on.
She squinted into the dark, delicately adjusting the car’s course as it scraped against a row of bushes. Not that a few extra scratches would be noticeable on this beast, a 1997 discarded police cruiser she’d bought at auction with her last three hundred bucks. Candy sighed. Sometimes, she couldn’t even believe how fast—and how spectacularly—her perfect world had imploded.
Was it really just a year ago that she’d cruised down her private drive in her shiny new Infiniti, admiring the way the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico set off the pristine white stucco of her five-bedroom home? All that seemed like some other woman’s life.
Just a few more feet.
The Chevy’s rear end finally cleared the driveway. Candy forced the gearshift into drive and pressed down on the gas, praying she could make it to the state highway before the damn thing backfired …
“Oh, shee-it.” Candy floored it. The car’s worn tires screamed against the asphalt as the engine released a series of cannon-fire belches, each one more obnoxious than the last. A quick peek over her shoulder showed Gladys’s bedroom light was on.
There was nothing to do now but put the pedal to the metal and head to Highway 25, which would get her out of Bigler. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her hands shook. And suddenly, it occurred to her that she was having difficulty seeing. Well, duh! She’d forgotten about the headlights! With a groan of frustration, she turned them on. That’s when red and blue flashing lights appeared in her rearview mirror.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Candy’s gaze darted from the alarming swirl of color in her mirror to the contours of the winding country road. Exactly where was she supposed to pull off? It was guardrail and woods as far as the eye could see. The quick blast of the siren made her jump in her seat.
“Okay! Okay!” she yelled out. “I’m fixin’ to pull over, you idiot! Give me a minute!”
Suddenly, in her peripheral vision, she noticed an open patch by the side of the road. It happened to be on the other side of the road, but she decided it was still her best bet, and whipped the car around to a skidding stop. Unfortunately, all the whipping and skidding hadn’t sat well with the engine, which began to spew smoke into the air along with another volley of backfires.
“Uh-oh,” she whispered. It seemed the officer wasn’t happy with all the commotion, either, and the large black SUV did a U-turn, the siren now whoop-whooping, and slammed to a stop in front of her, blocking any attempt she might make to get back on the road. Then a spotlight flashed on, so blindingly bright she had to shield her eyes.
Briefly, Candy thanked God for small favors. At least the person pulling her over wouldn’t be her lifelong friend Turner Halliday. He was the actual sheriff in Cataloochee County, and the sheriff didn’t work nights. He had deputies to take those less desirable shifts. So at least Candy would be spared the additional humiliation of being pulled over in the middle of nowhere, at four in the morning, by her childhood buddy.
The siren went silent. Candy heard the door of the SUV slam shut and she blinked against the intense light. She could barely make out the figure of a man advancing toward her, but she heard him cough and saw him wave his hand in front of his face, chasing away the smoke. She cut the engine, thinking … wondering …
Since this wasn’t going to be Turner strolling up to her window, she might be able to buy herself some mercy. She decided to get out the big guns. Shameless? Oh, absolutely. But what choice did she have? Candy began undoing two additional buttons of her blouse and arranged her weapons to their best advantage. Then she fluffed her hair and licked her lips. She hated to do this, but she didn’t have the money to pay for a simple parking ticket, let alone a moving violation. She took a deep breath and prepared herself for the dumb-blonde-recently-from-out-of-town defense.
That’s when the officer reached the driver’s side window, leaned in, and grinned at her.
“License and registration, ma’am,” Turner said, his bright eyes and white smile gleaming in the spotlight. “And you can put your ta-tas away. They’re not gonna do you much good in this particular situation, and besides—I’m more of an ass man, myself.”
Candy groaned and fell back against the driver’s seat. “Ah, come on, Turner. Have mercy on me.”
He shook his head and chuckled. “Candy Carmichael, this car you’re driving is a public safety hazard of the first degree—and that’s with the lights on! Lord have mercy, girl! What are you doing driving around in the dark in this piece of shit with no headlights? You could’ve killed someone, or gotten yourself killed!”
She sighed as she reached up to button her shirt. “Yeah. I know. Sorry. I was trying to escape Gladys and forgot to turn on my lights once I hit the main road.”
Turner laughed again and leaned an elbow on the open window. “She finally scared you off, huh?”
Candy rolled her eyes. “I had to get out of there. She’s a nice old lady, but she has absolutely no respect for my personal space. Thirteen days was all I could take.”
Turner made a soft humming sound in his throat and looked away. He began to nod. “Coming out to the lake house tonight?”
“Of course,” Candy said, smiling, hoping that this detour into small talk meant Turner had decided to take pity on her. How could he not? The idea of the four of them hanging out at the lake house was downright sentimental. It was what they’d done from grade school to graduation, just Candy and her best friend, Cheri Newberry, along with J.J. Decourcy, and Turner. Clearly, if Turner had a tender bone in his body, he’d have to let Candy slide for this little infraction. She was practically family! “I hear Cheri’s making some kind of new chicken thing,” Candy added.
“You bringing a cake?”
“Uh…” Candy bristled at the question. She hadn’t picked up a measuring cup in a dozen years, but if it would get her out of a ticket, she was willing. “You want me to?”
Candy exhaled with relief. “So … what kind of cake would you like?”
What was Turner doing?
She peered over the open window and her mouth fell open with disbelief. The whole time they’d been chatting about baked goods, Turner had been scribbling on an official-looking pad of paper.
“You know I’ve always been partial to your chocolate cake,” he said, signing his name on the bottom of the form. “That shit is so good it makes my head spin.” He carefully pulled the top layer of paper from the pad, smiled, and handed it to her.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Really. You ask me for a cake and then give me a ticket?”
His smile softened. “I was teasing about the chocolate cake and it’s just a warning, Candy, but it’s not for the headlights. You’ve got a serious exhaust problem, and I’m ordering you to have your North Carolina emissions inspection completed within seven days. Plus, you’re not wearing a seat belt.” He shook his head, slowly scanning her. “You’re a hot mess, girl.”
“Yeah,” she said meekly, accepting the piece of paper. Truer words had never been spoken, she thought as she looked away.
Candy refused to cry. There was no way she’d let her old friend see her fall apart. That had never been her style. She was a survivor. A fighter. Hell, she was a woman who’d started eight profitable businesses in the last decade! She would simply laugh this whole thing off. That’s right. That’s what she’d do.
Candy looked up again—and stared in astonishment. While she’d been busy with the self-coaching routine, Turner’s entire demeanor had changed. The corner of his full mouth had curled up mischievously. His hazel eyes smoldered under the brim of his dark blue sheriff’s department baseball cap. His latte-brown masculine face had softened and he’d tilted his head slightly.