Read A Beautiful Wreck (Second Chance #3) Online
Authors: CeeCee James
uke strode down Main Street
, his long legs eating up the distance. The green and white awning of his favorite coffee shop snapped in the morning breeze. As he passed the shop the rich smell of coffee nearly dragged him inside. But a quick glance at his watch showed he was already five minutes late to the nine o’clock AA meeting. First time he’d been late in two weeks. With a heavy sigh, he started to jog.
He needed this meeting today.
Turning the corner, the first thing Luke saw was a police car pulled in sharply behind a beat-up blue Honda. Its light swung in loopy red and white strobe patterns, splashing the colors across the Honda’s back window.
Joe, an old friend from the police force, was the officer at the driver’s side window. Joe and Luke had joined the academy at the same time. Luke felt a flicker of surprise at how his friend changed. Joe had always been a big man, but now his belly hung over his leather belt, the belt already maxed to its farthest notch.
Luke slowed his pace as he approached, years of training making him wary. A frightened little girl’s face appeared at the rear windshield.
“Ma’am,” Joe began, his voice patiently trying to be heard over the toddler’s crying. “I need your insurance card, ma’am.”
A woman who looked to be in her early twenties scrambled through the contents of her glove box. Luke could read her anxiety from where he stood, near the car’s bumper. She seemed familiar. Taking a step to the side, he studied her face. It was Peggy, one of his neighbors.
Luke watched as she hauled the contents onto her lap and started to rifle through them.
Joe sighed before reaching through the window and plucking out the correct document. He also grabbed the registration. “I’ll be right back,” Joe said, and turned to walk to his car.
“Oh, hey there, Luke,” Joe called, spotting him.
“Hi, Joe. What’s going on here?”
“Pulled her over when I noticed the kid popping up from the rear seat.”
Luke checked his watch again before glancing at the Honda.
“Funny running into you here. We were just talking about you this morning at the precinct.”
Chills climbed his neck as Luke followed Joe back to the police car. “What do you mean?”
Joe slumped down into his seat and typed on his computer, checking out the registration. “Rumor has it you’re getting off your leave of absence. You made plans with the administrator to get reinstated?”
“The rumor mill is alive and well. Hey, listen, about your stop.” Luke gestured toward the Honda with a slight movement of his head. “Anything come up? Priors?”
Joe flicked his gaze from the computer up to Luke. “What? Don’t tell me she’s a friend of yours?”
Eyeing the young mother, Luke shoved his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, something like that. She lives in my apartment building. Been trying real hard to get her life together. What’s the story? I’ve always seen her carrying a car seat out to that car before.”
“She doesn’t have a car seat now.”
Luke rocked back on his heels, chewing the inside of his lip. Peggy reached for her daughter and dragged her onto her lap. The little girl wiped at her mom’s face. He looked at his watch again. Fifteen minutes late now. With a sigh, Luke walked over to the Honda and tapped on the doorframe.
The blonde woman’s face was tight with anxiety as she looked up at him. Recognition flooded her eyes with relief. “Oh, Luke!”
“Peggy? What happened to the car seat?”
She kissed her daughter’s cheek, before settling her down in her lap. The little girl stared curiously at Luke, two blonde pigtails sticking like antennas from the top of her head. “It’s David, my ex. He wouldn’t give the carseat to me today when I picked up Hannah. He …he wasn’t going to let me take her.” Peggy’s voice hitched as she started to cry. She pressed her lips together to gain control before continuing. “He’s been threatening me.”
Luke felt her panic. “Threatening you how?”
“David has money, you know. A house. He wants full custody, but that’s not what our custody papers said. I’ve never tried to keep Hannah from him. But now he has a new girlfriend, and he wants Hannah. He wants my baby.” Her shoulders began heaving as her control slipped.
Luke nodded. “Listen, you need to contact your lawyer about that. But let’s see what we can do with what’s going on now. Hang tight.” He waved at the little girl and returned to the cop car.
Joe’s chubby face was indignant. “Hey. This is my stop. You mind?”
“Can you cut her a break? Her ex wouldn’t relinquish the car seat.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, I’m not. It’s one of those custody battles about to turn ugly.”
Joe’s pen paused over the ticket pad. “Since when did you turn into such a softy?”
“I don’t know. Since whenever.”
“She still needs a car seat. That ain’t safe.”
“Yeah, I know. The station still carry them?”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Aw, man. You’re going to make me drive over there and pick one up, aren’t you?”
Luke lifted his eyebrow, staying silent.
The officer groaned. “You tell her it’s her lucky day. And I better never see that again.”
Luke nodded. “I owe ya one.”
Joe grumbled some more as he folded up the ticket book and jammed it between the seats. Wheezing, he heaved himself out of the car and slowly walked toward the Honda.
“Well, young lady,” Joe said outside her window. “You’re off the hook on this one. But we need to get you a car seat. You have a choice. Either wait here while I go pick you one up from the station, or pay the ticket.”
A smile flickered on her face, slow at first as though she were afraid to believe the good news. “I’ll stay right here,” she said. “Thank you!”
Joe pointed at her. “I have your address. You better be here when I get back.”
“Relax, Joe,” Luke said, clapping him on the shoulder.
“I’m not moving a muscle. Want my keys?” she scrambled to pull them from the ignition before passing them out the window toward him.
Joe scowled. “Nah, I’ll be right back.” Shooting a side-glance at Luke, he said, “You coming?”
Luke hesitated. The AA meeting was only fifty feet away. He glanced at Joe. Lord knew, if Luke didn’t babysit, Joe might get distracted, or even forget. Judging from the frown on Joe’s face, he wasn’t too happy about the errand.
“Yeah, I’ll come. Now be a peach, and go get one of those teddy bears I know you have in your trunk.”
“The smartass is back.” Joe grumbled as he headed back to his car. The trunk opened, shutting a moment later with a resounding slam. “Catch!” Joe yelled, chucking the toy at Luke.
Leaping, Luke caught it. A little bear with a blue bow. Luke grinned at it and passed it through the window to the toddler. “Here you go, munchkin.”
“Come on, Luke! I don’t have all day,” Joe called.
Luke waved at Peggy. “We’ll be right back. Lock your doors.”
She gave him a thumbs-up before rolling up her window.
“All right, champ.” Luke muttered, jogging back to the cop car. He slid into the passenger seat. “Ready? Let’s go.” Luke pulled out his phone to text his sponsor that he wasn’t going to make the meeting.
Joe looked at him for a moment before a sarcastic smile cracked his face. “Dude, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. Where’s the tough undercover officer I used to know?”
“He’s grown up and seen there’s more to life than just good guys and bad guys. Now let’s go.”
Joe shifted the car into drive. “So, I was glad to hear you’re doing well. And the latest scoop is that you’re already armpit deep in an investigation?”
Luke raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“I heard you’ve got your thumb on Nicholai’s pulse.”
“Who told you that?” Luke frowned.
“Word on the street is that you have something of Nicholai’s, and he wants it back.”
“Let him come and get it,” Luke growled. “I’ll be waiting.”
Joe’s worried eyes studied him. “You be careful. His operation has only gotten bigger since you’ve been out. We’re having a hard time stopping his shipments. Every time we crack down, we’re a day too late. Somehow, he’s managed to keep one step ahead of us.” He shook his head as lines by his mouth creased in anger. “You hear he took out two of our guys from the West Precinct, right? Cold blood, right in front of their homes. Of course, nobody saw nothing.”
“You know this? How come you guys aren’t stopping him?”
“We’re still on his trail. But he moves like a ghost. Hard to stop a ghost.”
“And somehow the ghost found out I have his necklace. Something stinks.”
“You think there’s a leak?” Joe asked.
“A ghost isn’t that powerful. There’s no way he could have known. Someone’s being his eyes and ears.”
he day was
as warm as the weatherman had predicted it would be. Cassie rolled down the window and breathed in appreciatively as the scent of spring air filled the car. She couldn’t believe three weeks had passed since she’d last left home.
Since Luke had plans all day with his administrator, so Cassie had made some plans herself.
“You have arrived,”
the navigational system on her phone announced. With a deep breath, Cassie entered the Willamette National Cemetery. It was only an hour away from Freymere, and she’d been putting it off for far too long. She steered down a long circular drive lined with maple trees, which led to a large, nearly empty parking lot. After choosing a spot shaded by a large tree, she parked the car.
It was peaceful, dotted with flags and flowers, a light breeze carrying the scent of freshly-mowed grass. She climbed from the car, willing her shaking nerves to mellow out. With a scrap of paper in hand, she walked onto the grass and silently counted the rows.
Half an hour later, Cassie found the grave marker and slowly ran her fingers over the etched letters. Leif Hensley. She leaned forward to kiss it and rested her forehead against the cool stone. “I’m here, Leif. I’m sorry I haven’t come before this.” A few tears trickled down her face and gathered at the corner of her lip. “I miss you… How are you?”
She squeezed her eyes tight to stave off the deep pull of grief. She wasn’t the grieving widow. There were real widows out there. She was just the girlfriend.
Reaching into her purse, she removed a small flag. “I brought you this,” she whispered, feeling silly as a flag the size of a minivan snapped in the wind overhead from the pole, as well as one placed in front of his stone. She tucked it into the stand with the other. “I wish there was email where you are. I’d like to hear what kind of trouble you’re getting into up there.” A little smile quirked her lip as her fingertips trailed over his name again, each letter causing the lump to pulse in her throat. Pushing away, she sat back on the grass.
Cassie glanced around. Old-growth trees had been left to grow along the fringes of the cemetery, and from their branches birds chirped madly. In the distance, Mt. Hood raised its majestic white-capped head.
“I found your cousin, Luke.” She twined a blade of grass around her finger before letting it softly slip through. “I’m trying to help him. He’s on the wagon now, doing good. Real good.” A frown creased her face. “I’m babbling. I don’t even know what to say.” She bit her lip. “I have so many regrets. That last year together was so hard. And I’m sorry, Leif. I’m sorry, but I’m angry. You left, and I’m stuck. We were both so young. But I know it wasn’t supposed to end like this.”
More tears trickled down her face. “I need to move forward. I don’t know how.” She looked up at the sky. “You were always so good with helping me. So what I’m saying is, help me say goodbye. I won’t ever forget you. My first love. I hope you are happy up there. You deserve it. Every bit. I miss you.” Reluctantly, she stood up and brushed off the back of her pants. “One more thing, Leif.” Her voice choked up. “Kiss our boy for me, okay?” Her heart thrummed inside. She clenched her fists at her sides as the ache washed over her. Trying to stay ahead of the wave, she took a shuddering breath.
Don’t go under. Not here.
After exhaling, she opened her eyes again.
Birds continued their springtime battle in the trees. Sunshine slanted across the cemetery, causing thousands of rectangular shadows to checkerboard the lawn. The flag snapped and the chain clanged against the pole overhead.
Is it too much to ask you to give me a sign that you’re okay and I can move on?
She closed her eyes again.
Dear God. Right or wrong, you have Leif now. Please take care of him. And, if you’re not too busy, I could use some help too.
She rubbed at her temple, still not ready to walk away.
Her purse vibrated against her leg as her phone buzzed. Fumbling for it, she pulled it out. “Hello?”
She knew something was wrong by the sound of his voice. “Luke, what’s the matter?”
“Where are you?”
“I’m…I’m at the cemetery.”
“Oh, crap. I’m sorry Cassie. I’ve been texting you. And—” His voice broke off sheepishly. “I got worried when you didn’t answer.”
“Worried? Why are you worried about me?”
“I’m dipping my toe back in the water. I’m watching for the sharks again. Nicholai knows I found the crucifix.”
“Luke, honestly, you don’t have to worry about me.” Cassie scrambled around for the keys. “I’m the most self-defensive person you’ve ever met.”
“I forgot,” he said dryly. “With your purse filled with weapons. You might gummy-bear them to death.”
Cassie’s fingers brushed against a package of half-eaten gummy bears, and she pushed it away in annoyance. “How do you know what’s in my purse?”
“I was right?” his voice held a tone of surprise.
“No—o,” she faltered. “Hey, could you hang on for a sec?” She held the phone against her chest. With one last look at Leif’s headstone, she blew it a kiss. “I’m heading out. Going to try and figure what this whole living thing means. I’ll see you on the flip side, Leif. No matter what, I’ll always love you.”
Clearing her throat, she straightened her shoulders.
Just take a step. He knows. He understands.
She looked up at the clouds.
You do understand, right, Leif?
A small flicker of peace stirred in her heart.
Releasing the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, Cassie lifted the phone to her ear again. “Okay, I’m back.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end, and then Luke’s husky voice. “He’ll always love you, too.”
Heat climbed her face. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean for you to hear that.”
“It was beautiful,” Luke said. “He was a lucky man. He knows you love him. I know he wants you to move on. I know he’s proud of you.”
The lump grew back in Cassie’s throat in full force. “You think so?” she choked.
“I know so. I’m his blood, so I know these things. No matter what you think, no matter how things ended, you two left a permanent mark on the pages of love. It’s there now for all eternity. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only mark you get to leave.”
“What do you mean?”
“Love, Cassie, love is what it’s all about. You two found it, and I know for sure my Jennifer found it. She’d be the first to say that’s what life is all about. I’m thinking she was right.”
“I’ll tell you what, love hurts.” Cassie reached her car and hit the button to unlock the doors. She climbed in, waiting for Luke’s response.
“Yeah, it does. Love can be a source of real pain. You have to love freely, even knowing you could get hurt.”
“I wish you were here,” she whispered, her fingertip tracing across the top of her steering wheel.
“Tell me why.”
She sighed and lowered her head against the back of the seat. “I’d hug you until I remembered how good love felt again.”
“Is that that job description, Principessa? Because that happens to be my exact area of expertise.”