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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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            Hogan waited until Susannah went to Houston to visit the Alton County Sheriff's Department again. He didn't want another confrontation with Susannah. He'd have enough of those once they left for the Cove and the sham undercover assignment. If he was blessed with an inordinate amount of good luck, maybe the dynamics of their relationship could change. In his favor. He'd overheard a phone conversation a few days before between Grace and her daughter Paula. Grace had mentioned some college boy that was supposed to be in love with Susannah. That had got his attention. He needed intel.

            He dropped into the worn leather chair in front of the Sheriff's desk. "I thought maybe I should know more about your niece. Just to know how she might react in certain situations," he explained, trying to sound dispassionate and business-like. "How does Susannah's boyfriend feel about her being a Deputy?"

            "Hasn't got a boyfriend that I know of."

            "Nobody special at college?"

            "Nope. When she stayed on in Huntsville a month after graduation, I thought maybe it was because of that, but I found out it was just so they could hire someone to replace her at her part-time job. To be honest, Hogan, I never thought she'd take the job I offered her after one of my deputies quit. I know she wants something bigger and better. But she surprised me. Then again, maybe it wasn't such a surprise."

            "No boyfriend. Hmmm." Hogan felt like grinning. When Susannah had proved so resistant to his attempts to get to know her, to get closer, he'd begun to wonder if maybe there was a man in her life. Still, he hadn't been able to find a name connected to her despite the willingness of the ladies in this county to gossip.

            "Oh, she's got lots of male friends. She just doesn't let any of them get too close. She seems to have a way to keep men at arm's length."

            "That she does. I'm guessing she buys vinegar by the barrel."

            Barney's bushy eyebrows rose. He guffawed. "What does that mean?"

            "You know what I mean. Sour. She could curdle milk with her insults."

            "Now, Hogan, don't let her fool you." He turned and lifted the coffee carafe from its hot plate on the credenza behind him. "Want some more coffee?"

            "Don't mind if I do."

            "If we're being truthful here, I don't think my niece dislikes you, son. If that's what you're trying to find out."

            Hogan felt his face burn in embarrassment. He'd forgotten that Barney Drummond's soft drawl concealed a sharp brain. "That's not what I meant," he protested.

            "You see, that's the problem," Barney added.

            "What do you mean?"

            Barney shrugged. "There's things you don't know, and I probably should keep my big mouth shut, but then I've never been famous for shutting my trap. You see, Susannah was seven when her daddy walked out on my sister. The man never set foot in this town again. Plumb broke their hearts and just about killed my sister."

            Hogan nodded. He felt a rush of sympathy. He imagined Susannah with dark red braids and big green eyes. All arms and legs. And a broken heart. "I can't begin to imagine how hard that must have been."

            Susannah needed someone. Someone she could lean on. Someone permanent. That wasn't him. Sure, he wanted her. But he hadn't thought beyond the present. For the first time, he faced the painful knowledge that no matter how much he wanted her, he wouldn't be doing her any favors by having an affair with her. The realization depressed him.

            "I'll tell you this, son. Susannah's always had spunk. She was the one my sister leaned on. She had to be strong, and sometimes when a woman is strong, she gets too used to being the steel in the family. Steel isn't noted for its ability to bend. My niece ain't gonna bend for no man. She'll never be a doormat." He leaned close and said earnestly, "The man who wins her heart is gonna get a prize, and he'll have a damn fine wife."

            Hogan forced a laugh. "Wife? Hey, I was just curious. I'm certainly not in the market for a wife."  He flushed, uncomfortable about sitting with her protective uncle while he entertained thoughts of what he was in the market for. He knew Susannah's uncle wouldn't find it a bit acceptable or amusing that he wanted to romance her into his bed.

            "Too bad. Susannah would never bore you." The Sheriff laughed. "I wish I'd had a video of that little scene you two played out the other day. She got you good, son."

            Hogan grinned and remembered the so-called report Susannah had handed him. She'd looked so victorious. He'd let her think she had the upper hand. For now. It made the element of surprise his. Barney was right; she'd never bore a man.    

            "She definitely gave you what for." Barney's eyes narrowed. "Glad it doesn't seem to bother you."

            "You know the old saying, Barney. He who laughs last. . . ."

            "Didn't get the punch line?" Barney slapped his thigh and guffawed.

            "Very funny. Comedy must be in your family's DNA."

            "Guess typing your reports must've bothered her a tad."

            "Obviously," Hogan said dryly. It had been the only excuse he'd come up with to make sure he could see her every day. Pretty lame.

            The Sheriff's phone rang. Hogan paid scant attention to the conversation. He had to figure out a way to deal with being near Susannah. He'd suspected her by-the-book attitude was all about a need for justice. Her father had wronged her. In light of that, it was easy to understand her career choice. He just wondered how long it would take her to realize there was no more justice for what her father had done than there was understanding for it.

            Maybe when she discovered that fact she'd turn to a more suitable career which would be a good thing since he wouldn't be around to protect her. She probably didn't weigh a hundred and twenty pounds dripping wet and wearing her spit-polished black boots, her sidearm and all the other accouterments a cop had to wear today. The thought of her tangling with a hardened criminal gave him nightmares.

            A woman like her, with a crop of dark red curls and wide green eyes, not to mention a mouth just made for kissing, belonged someplace other than behind the wheel of a patrol car in harm's way. Where he thought she belonged was pretty obvious judging by the way his body reacted whenever she was around, but, he didn't think she'd agree to a trip to paradise via his bed. Especially when she found out how he'd lied. Even if he got this job wrapped up, there was little chance of their riding off into the sunset together.

            Lying to a woman with trust issues was a guarantee that you'd never have her in your life once she discovered the truth.

            "That woman is a royal pain," Barney said, as he hung up the phone. "Always has been. Always will be."

            "Who? Your niece?" Hogan asked, his thoughts still centered on Susannah.

            "Naw, not my niece." He pointed to the phone. "Thelma Thompson. Complaining again about water rationing. Like I personally made up the schedule to irritate her. Says her dadgum petunias are going to die if she can't turn the hose on them every day."

            "I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Thompson."

            Barney snorted. "Believe me, it ain't a pleasure. The woman's perfected complaining to an art form."

            Barney stood and stretched. Hogan could hear the older man's joints pop which attested to the Sheriff's sixty-plus years. Still, Barney moved like a much younger man and had biceps that looked like oak branches. Most men with a shred of common sense would not want to tangle with the man.

            "Now my niece on the other hand is as different from Thelma as night is from day. She's a delight, son. I'll admit she can be a bit difficult, but if you overlook that then the girl is an absolute delight."

            Barney dropped into his chair and kicked back. The springs on his ancient chair groaned as he propped his booted feet on the desk. "She sure didn't like havin' to type those trumped up reports though."

            "Anyone would think she'd been asked to dress in hot pants and turn tricks on Seawall Boulevard at the Cove." Hogan had loved the green sparks shooting from her amazing eyes during their altercations.

            "I'll be honest with you. She's a great girl, but I wish she wasn't so gung ho on being a cop. She's impatient. Just because she's got a badge, some dang Bruce Lee colored belt, and a college degree, she thinks she can leap tall buildings like Wonder Woman."

            Hogan grinned at Barney's mixed analogies. "Yeah, I got that impression. We both know college can't teach you how to be a cop. Criminal Justice grads know statistics and facts, but not much about human nature. Only experience teaches that."

            "You're right, Hogan. You're absolutely right. Susannah has a lot to learn. She needs some street smarts. Like you've got."

            "Right. She needs to learn people," Hogan agreed.

            "Exactly. Glad you agree with me."

            Hogan continued. "She needs to learn life isn't black and white, but gray. She's just too naive for her own good."

            "Exactly. I'm glad you see my point. That's why I didn't put up a fuss about this little undercover thing. Being together down at the Cove is a great opportunity. I think you should take her under your wing. Be her mentor and teach her some of the finer points about law enforcement before I turn her loose on the county."

            "She needs," Hogan broke off. His eyes rounded. He sat bolt upright, banging his knees into the front of the solid oak desk. "You what? What did you say?"

            "You heard me. With your experience, you can be a big help to her. She wants to be a real law man. I'm pretty sure she won't be satisfied with the county for long. I figure she'll go to the state police eventually, but I don't know if that will make her happy either. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if she didn't have plans to become a G-man like you. A feeb. God knows why she'd want to, but I love her like a daughter so I want her to get what she wants."

            He looked pointedly at Hogan. "Whatever she wants."

            "No way." Hogan rubbed his knees."Forget it." He had things he wanted to teach Susannah, but law enforcement wasn't at the top of his list.

            "Aw, come on, Hogan.  Susannah is ambitious. You've got ten years experience."

            "Don't even think about telling her I'm with the Bureau. You, Walter, and Luke Orland are the only ones who know, and I want to keep it that way. I'm on personal time, and you know it. When this is over, I'm outta here."

            "But I thought Walter said you might be taking over the police department at the Cove for real?"

            "He caught me in a weak moment when I was thoroughly disgusted with the Bureau. I told him I'd think about it. I didn't make any commitments one way or the other."

            "Well whether you do or you don't, she still could learn from a mentor like you. Show her the ropes. Clue her in."

            Mentor? No. Lover was the label he wanted, but he couldn't tell Barney that. "Hell, Barney, I don't want to play nursemaid to a starry-eyed kid."

            "Starry-eyed kid?" Barney Drummond snorted. "She's never had stars in her eyes, more's the pity. And she's no kid." His eyes narrowed shrewdly. "I'd have bet money you noticed that already."

            Hogan didn't rise to that dangerous bait. Instead, he tried a different tack. "In case you haven't realized it, your niece and I don't get along. She doesn't like me. She won't listen to me."

            "Yeah, I'd noticed there was some, uh, tension, between you two." He chuckled softly. "But I bet you could overcome that. I think you're perfect for her. So does Opal." His eyes crinkled as he added, "As a mentor, of course. Let's say a tutor."

            Hogan's brain was spinning. "Sorry. You'll have to get someone else. It just wouldn't work out between us."

            He  suspected the Sheriff would throw him in one of his cells and hide the key if he knew what Hogan wanted to tutor Susannah in.

* * *

            Susannah was exhausted. Somehow, she'd accomplished everything including sneaking the clothes into her closet yesterday evening while her mom, who thought Susannah had gone to Houston to pick up something for the sheriff's department, was visiting the Palmers in Clayton's Bend.

            What she'd thought would be a dress or two from the expensive boutique and maybe a pair of shoes if she were lucky had turned out to be a complete wardrobe with outfits for seven days. Not only daytime and evening wear, but also swimsuits. And hats, purses, and shoes to go with every ensemble. Mayor Bofco's friend who owned the boutique even had a set of expensive luggage waiting for her. Susannah couldn't help but feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

            Susannah knew she should have sat down with her mom that very first day and told her everything, but she'd dreaded the conversation. So, like any mature, responsible adult, she'd procrastinated. Now it was Friday evening. She'd leave tomorrow so she had to tell her tonight. She was more worried than ever about telling Rory Quinn, but she hadn't had time to obsess about it because it seemed everyone she knew had suddenly wanted to talk to her today.

            She'd even had a call from her cousin Judy Anne Palmer, inviting her to come over the next time Rory visited. Judy Anne had seemed so nice that Susannah felt bad about calling her a professional virgin to Grace. Outwardly, it seemed as if she and Judy Anne should have a lot in common since they were both unmarried females living at home with their mothers, but the two young women had never seemed to connect, mainly because Judy Anne, recently promoted to principal of the high school in Clayton's Bend, was overloaded with responsibility.

            They'd chatted a bit and Susannah answered questions about the upcoming Midsummer Night's Fest. She assured Judy Anne that she and her mom would be delighted to have Judy Anne and her mother stay over the night of the festival.

            After that, she made a quick call home to her mom who promised she'd call Judy Anne's mother and second the invitation. Then Paula had called. After that, she had to work the Dispatch desk while Grace did some shopping at the big end of summer sale at Ainsworth's Department Store, the only clothing and home goods store in town.

            The phone rang constantly with requests for assistance for everything from Miss Lucille whose cat Elizabeth was stuck up in a tree again to Miss Adrian's complaint that someone had stolen three ripe watermelons from her garden to a fight in the Ainsworth's store parking lot where two shoppers had gotten into a fight over a clearance bed-in-a-bag set.

            Five o'clock came, but Susannah wasn't yet ready to go home and face her mother so she stayed. When the deputy on duty and the night dispatcher started asking if she'd brought her pajamas, she finished up and said goodnight.

            Heat shimmered above the hot asphalt as she climbed into her soft top Jeep. She reversed from the parking slot and drove away. The sun hung low above the horizon. Warm air flowed past her and ruffled her hair. She drove the few blocks home at a snail's pace. Absently she noted the kids playing baseball on the nearby elementary school ground even though day was turning into night. Thankfully, the small town of Vance was still safe enough that parents didn't worry about their kids playing outside after dark.

            Susannah hadn't been exaggerating when she'd described their yard as the most beautiful in town. She paused a moment as she turned into the driveway to admire it. The yard in front of the simple white frame bungalow was a lush emerald green carpet. Dense, dark green pittosporum shrubs bordered the house with shasta daisies massed in front of the shrubs. Bright yellow day lilies marched up both sides of the front walk. Live oaks marked the boundaries of the yard and shaded the house. A deep porch sheltered the front door and wrapped around to the back. On the side porch, an oak swing hung from the ceiling.

            Susannah followed the curving drive to the back. The garage doors were the old fashioned heavy kind that opened in the middle. Since there was no automatic opener, she and her mother usually parked in the driveway. She pulled up next to Old Reliable, her mother's ancient burgundy minivan that ran better than it looked.

            Everyone in town knew that if they wanted to locate Rory Quinn on a summer evening, just go to her backyard. That's when Rory took advantage of the relative coolness of early evening and the filtered shade of river birch trees to weed the many flower beds.

            Susannah saw her mom wave. She waved back and turned off the engine. How was she going to tell her mom about the undercover assignment?

             Her mother returned to the bed of scarlet and sunny yellow zinnias lining the weathered cedar fence separating their back yard from Grace and Hank Collier's back yard.

            Susannah could remember back when the house wasn't in nearly as good a shape, and the yard was just like any other yard with grass and an occasional tree. When she'd started high school, her mother had suddenly developed an all consuming passion for gardening. She'd always thought her mom had been too busy trying to make a living and trying to fix up the old house she'd bought to indulge in a hobby. But maybe that wasn't true. After the conversation she'd had with Grace, she'd begun to wonder if her mother was sublimating her needs by the physical labor of gardening. She'd spent a lot of time thinking about her mother lately.

            Rory Quinn's passion for gardening made their home a showplace. The white bungalow might be modest, but the yard more than made up for the house's unprepossessing appearance. In fact, the yard was a riot of color and smell. She caught the scents of honeysuckle, night blooming jasmine, and roses. That's what she liked best, the flowers that perfumed the air. Jasmine and honeysuckle on the cedar fence and trellises with old-fashioned climbing roses that bloomed profusely and delighted the nose.

            Susannah smiled as she watched her mother straighten and stretch her back. Dressed in a white tee shirt and jean shorts, she looked more like a teenager than a woman in her early forties. She'd been only sixteen when she'd gotten pregnant with Susannah.

            The late afternoon sun picked up red highlights in Rory's pony tail. Her mother's hair was a brighter red than Susannah's, and not a single thread of gray dimmed the shine of Rory's red-gold hair. Her eyes were a blue-gray. Susannah had gotten her father's green eyes.

            The gathering dusk obscured the few lines of stress on Rory's face, the only evidence of the hard years the woman had endured. The years had been difficult, but, all in all, they'd left little mark on her mother's heart-shaped face. All the damage lay on the inside, invisible to onlookers. The blow to Rory's heart when Susannah's father had left them had been devastating. But there was more that Susannah had only recently learned about the matter.

            Cheerful Rory Quinn who'd been the homecoming queen in high school in the tenth grade had turned into a bitter, morose, clinging woman determined to make sure her daughter didn't make the same mistake.

            Susannah had done her best to be a good daughter, never giving Rory problems, always pitching in, trying to be daughter, mother, friend, and companion to Rory. She'd tried her best to make sure her mother didn't regret being saddled with a baby daughter while still in high school. She would never hurt Rory, not intentionally, but sometimes she felt suffocated by her mother's love.

            Sometimes she just wanted to get away and draw a free breath. But she had stayed, rock steady for her mom to lean on. But, too often, she found herself wishing she had the courage to leave. But that would hurt her mother greatly. Susannah sighed. Grace might be right, but it was hard to think about living your own life when you spent so much time taking care of another. That was a responsibility she hadn't wanted. It had been thrust upon her. She hadn't even thought about it much before last month. Maybe, in her heart, she resented the burden.

            "Might as well get this over with," Susannah said aloud. Her mom was going to be upset over the Murphy's Cove assignment, but then everything about Susannah's career upset Rory. She remembered her conversation with Grace. Was her mother happy?

            Rory had lost her innocence and any chance of a life outside Vance in one reckless act. One stupid mistake. Susannah shuddered, refusing to believe that it could have been anything but a mistake. Her mother didn't lie. She didn't. Love hurt. And it ruined lives. She never wanted to love anyone the way Rory had loved the boy who'd made her pregnant and then seven years later had walked away.

            Grace had to be wrong. Her mom was happy. Even if all she did was garden and run her bookkeeping business. It sounded boring to Susannah, but maybe it made Rory Quinn happy.

            Susannah walked toward her mother. Immediately, she noticed the new athletic shoes. "Mom. You're wearing shoes. How wonderful."

            "Dr. Munoz said I could ease into real shoes, even wear heels eventually. But he said no dancing in high heels." Rory laughed as she stood and dusted her hands together, sending dried zinnia petals to the mulched flower bed below. "As if there were any likelihood of that."

            The way Rory sounded. The rueful laugh she gave. Suddenly, it all made Susannah uneasy. Did Rory want to go dancing in high heels? "Uh, that's great, Mom."

            "How about some dinner? Iced tea and chicken salad?"

            "Sounds good. I'll change and get started." Susannah hurried into the house where an attic fan rumbled, pulling fresh air inside and billowing the white lace panels at the old-fashioned double-sash windows. It wasn't really cool, but it was tolerable, and much cheaper than running what many older Texans still referred to as refrigerated air conditioning.

            In her room, she emptied her pockets and tossed her cell phone on top of the bureau. She realized she'd forgotten to buy a refill card for the pay-as-you-go phone. She was desperately low on minutes so she had to get a card tomorrow or she'd be up a creek without a paddle. Or a cell phone.

            She shed her uniform for a pink cotton halter top and a pair of jean cut-offs similar to those her mother wore. Nothing ever went to waste in their household. They both wore jeans until they were ragged then hacked the legs off to make shorts. They economized every way they could. Living frugally meant no internet or email at home. Her mom had an old computer she used in her bookkeeping business. No fancy cordless phones. No Caller ID. No cable though they did have a DVD player since there was no movie theater in town. They lived an uncomplicated life. Some might call it austere.

            Barefoot, she went straight to the kitchen where she poured two glasses of iced tea and started chopping an apple for the chicken salad. She set the wicker table on the porch and returned to the kitchen where her mother was washing her hands at the sink.

            They chatted while Rory chopped pecans then mixed in the apple and leftover chicken chunks. Rory added a dollop of Miracle Whip and mixed it well while Susannah covered two plates with shredded Romaine lettuce. Rory divided the chicken salad between the two plates.

            As they carried their plates to the table on the back porch, Susannah thought how much she loved this time of the evening. No cable television nor any of the other things that took most people's time in the evenings. Instead, they had leisurely meals outdoors with conversation instead of noise. Their leisure time was spent reading or engaging in hobbies. Rory had her gardening, and Susannah her martial arts workouts.

            The aroma of a multitude of blooming flowers wafted over the yard while lightning bugs, or fireflies, glimmered in the near darkness. For a mother and a daughter used to each other's company, they found a variety of things to discuss. When had that happened? She remembered silent meals when she'd been a child. Her mother had been too sad in the early years and too busy working in the later ones.

            Susannah looked at her home and the glorious yard. "Mom, I don't think I've ever told you how proud I am of you."

            Startled, Rory looked up. "What brought that on?"

            "I just realized how hard you've worked all these years to create this." Susannah gestured to indicate the house and the yard. "You did it almost completely alone, working two jobs until the bookkeeping business brought in enough to support us. Then you bought this old house and brought it back to life."

            Rory laughed. "Remember how awful it looked? How the floors sagged and there was a nest of squirrels in the attic?"

            "I do remember. It's amazing what you've done."

            Rory blushed and seemed to glow with pride. "Thank you. I know we've never had a lot of luxuries, but I'm proud that I've always kept a roof over our head and food on the table." She reached over and squeezed Susannah's hand. "Now, speaking of food on the table, let's eat."

            Regardless of how easily they could talk about most things, Susannah couldn't figure out how to broach the subject of her assignment at Murphy's Cove. Tonight, the quiet pleasure of their dinner together was filled with too much pondering on her part. She couldn't get Grace's comments regarding her mother out of her mind. Was Grace right? She found herself studying Rory, listening not to her words, but to her tone of voice, watching her facial expressions. She picked at her chicken salad rather than eat.

            "Doesn't the chicken salad appeal to you, dear?"

            Startled, Susannah looked up. "No. It's fine. Really." She forced herself to eat a bite. "Delicious, like always." She looked at her mother. Feeling nervous because she didn't know how her mother would react, she said, "Could I ask you something, Mom? It's kind of personal."

            Rory quirked an auburn eyebrow and shrugged. "You're being very serious tonight. Okay. Shoot. What do you want to ask?"

            Susannah forged ahead. "Do you ever get lonely?"

            "What?" Rory laughed, but stopped when Susannah didn't join in. "You're serious?" At Susannah's nod, she slanted her head to the side as if in thought. "Well, maybe. But who doesn't?"

            That wasn't the answer Susannah wanted.

            Rory laughed. "You look as if you just found out there's no Santa Claus."

            Susannah tried to grin. "What? No Santa? Now you tell me."

            Rory's laughter subsided to a smile then that faded. She looked at her daughter. "What's this about?"

            "Nothing. I just wondered." Susannah forked a piece of pecan out of the salad and nibbled on it.

            "Well, don't lose any sleep over it. When I feel that way, I just get busy and pretty soon I forget all about it." Rory gestured toward the yard. "There's enough work here to keep me too busy to think about anything else. Besides gardening, I've got the bookkeeping business. Now you've come home to live. So what more could I possibly need?"

            That definitely wasn't what Susannah wanted to hear. "But what about other things? What about," she hesitated. Her eyes dropped then raised to meet her mother's eyes. "What about men? Do you ever think about, well, men? Meeting someone?"

            Rory's laughter held an edge to it, but no amusement. "Meet someone? Here? In Vance? You're kidding,  right?"

            "After my father left, after time had passed, did you ever date? Maybe you did, and I just don't recall it. Was there ever anyone?" All Susannah really remembered was how bad it had hurt when her father had walked out. And she remember her mother's tears. An ocean of them. Susannah had hidden her own tears in her pillow at night as she'd listened to the sobs from her mother's room.

            As her mother remained silent, Susannah studied her hands, not wanting to look into her mother's eyes for fear she'd see tears there. Her father had been a subject to avoid when she'd been a child. Just the mention of his name would send Rory into a tailspin. One time when she'd been nine, she'd asked her mother why her Daddy didn't come visit the way other divorced dads did. That night, for the first time in months, she'd heard the sobs again from her mother's room. She never asked about him again.

            "Date? Who would I date?"

            To her surprise, her mother didn't look shocked. Or angry. Or depressed which Susannah had feared. In fact, her voice was calm and without a hint of anguish.

            Rory lifted the tea pitcher and refilled their glasses. "Who could I possibly have dated? There's not a whole lot of bachelors in Vance. And I had you to raise not to mention the job of supporting us when all I had was a GED. Your father paid child support, but it wasn't much."

            She sipped her tea. "I could have fought him for more. I could have found him and forced the issue. But I thought if he didn't want us then I didn't want his money. After a few years, I didn't really want to see him again." She grinned ruefully. "I think that's what they call cutting off your nose to spite your face. I wasn't particularly bright about that part of my life. I should have swallowed my pride and demanded more."

            She swirled her glass of tea. The ice cubes clinked against the glass. "Sometimes I look back and am amazed that we survived. If it hadn't been for Barney and Opal and Grace and so many others, I guess we wouldn't have."

            She reached over and patted Susannah's hand. "Actually, I guess I owe you as much if not more than anyone else. You, Susannah, saved me."

            Susannah fidgeted in her seat. "Grace thinks--."

            Rory laughed and rolled her eyes. "Oh, Lord. Has Grace been running off at the mouth again. Is that what this is about? I can imagine what Grace thinks. Lord love her. Sometimes I think that woman missed her calling. She should have been an advice columnist. Lord knows she's got an opinion on everything. You put whatever Grace said out of your head."

            Rory pushed away from the table. "Enough of this. Come on. You've got a lot to do if you're going to be ready to leave in the morning. Do you need any help packing those fancy new clothes you've got?"

            Startled, Susannah's mouth dropped open. "You know about that?"

            "Grace doesn't just run off at the mouth to you. She told me that same day. Not only did she tell me what you should have told me, she also said Barney had made Mr. Bofco, the Mayor of the Cove, promise to be my shadow while you were gone." Rory sniffed. "How embarrassing for the poor man. And for me! As if I were a child who needed babysitting. I'm going to have a talk with my brother."

            Rory's ire quickly faded, leaving her looking troubled. "I know how important this must be to you. Why didn't you tell me?"

            Susannah shrugged, not wanting to say that she was afraid of her mother's reaction.

            When she remained silent, Rory said, "Well, never mind. Now's your chance to fill me in on all the details while we wash up."

            Susannah's mother surprised her again. Rory offered nothing but positive comments about the upcoming assignment in Murphy's Cove. She even went so far as to say that even if it was boring Susannah might enjoy a week's vacation in a luxury hotel.

            As they cleaned the kitchen, Rory said, "I want to tell you how much I appreciate your helping me out this summer."

            "That's okay, Mom."

            "No. I mean it. Ever since you were a little girl, you've been my tower of strength. I know you turned down offers so you could come home to Vance. I know you made sacrifices." She reached over and ruffled Susannah's curls. "Your short hair reminds me of your baby curls." She blinked rapidly.

            Susannah was surprised to see tears in Rory's eyes. "Mom? Are you okay?"

            Rory laughed. "Sure. I'm just wondering where all the years went. You should still be a curly-haired toddler. Seriously. I do appreciate your sacrifices." She tugged Susannah's short curls. "Though you didn't have to sacrifice your hair."

            "It was time to part with it." Susannah shrugged. "I was beginning to feel like Rapunzel. Besides, it didn't look--."

            "I know. Professional. No one would take you seriously as a cop with such long hair." Rory sounded resigned. "I've never been happy with your decision to major in Criminal Justice." Softly, she said, "I understand your motivation, but being a cop isn't going to help you find your father. Even if you did find him, you can't make him come home. That was a long time ago. We've all moved on. Though it took some of us," she grinned and pointed a finger at herself, "longer than others."

            Guilty knowledge weighed heavily on Susannah. So much so that she couldn't laugh at Rory's weak attempt at a joke. "I know that. I'm not a hurt little girl any longer."

            "I'd like to amend my answer to your earlier question." Rory pumped lotion from the dispenser in the kitchen. "I find my life is pretty darn good especially since you're home now. There are things I want to say to you, but not tonight. We've had enough serious conversation. There'll be time in the future to say them. Lots of time. Right now, you need to pack and get to bed. Tomorrow will be a long day." She smoothed the lotion over her hands and arms.

            Everything her mother said just made Susannah feel worse.

            "See?" Rory asked with a bright smile. "I'm getting used to your being a deputy. I'm not so worried about it since you chose to take the job Barney offered you."

            Susannah's heart sank. Now was the time to tell her mother that she didn't intend to stay a deputy in her uncle's sheriff's department forever. But the words wouldn't come.

            "Tell me about this D. E. Hogan," Rory said. "Grace says he's quite a hunk. What does D. E. stand for?"

            Susannah hated herself for being such a coward, but she seized the change of topic. "Domineering and egotistical?"

            Rory chuckled. "Sounds as if you aren't one of his admirers."

            "Definitely not. Grace admires him enough for both of us. He expects me to fall at his feet too I guess." Susannah shook her head adamantly. "I can't stand the man. This would be a plum assignment if it weren't for him." Warming to her subject, she told Rory how Hogan had gone out of his way from the very beginning to annoy her.

            "Sounds as if he made a vivid impression on you." Rory's face held an odd expression. "I've never heard you express such strong feelings about a man before. Any man." Thoughtfully, she murmured, "Even in high school, you were oblivious. And believe me. I could see Jack and Juanita Orland's boy tried his best to capture your interest. Hmm. This is odd. Very odd."

            Susannah barely heard her mother's soft comments. She was thinking about what the Mayor had said. If Hogan really did have experience, what was he doing out here in the boondocks? True, Murphy's Cove with its jet setters was more cosmopolitan than the rest of the county, but it was nothing to excite a real cop. Not the kind of cop she wanted to be.

            So what was Hogan up to?





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