Authors: Brenda Minton
“Good luck with her.” Jesse pocketed his pen. “If you need anything at all, give me a call.”
“Thanks. Do you have any advice on how to handle your grandmother?”
Jesse laughed an easy laugh and pointed to the ring on his finger. “If I had advice, it would be to trust her. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. Has she offered you a ring?”
“She asked me to come by her house. She has something she wants me to haul off.”
“Yes, that sounds like my grandmother trying to give away another heirloom ring. Don’t worry, she doesn’t take this job lightly. She puts a lot of prayer into her matchmaking.”
Slade stood in the opening that led from the room. From there he could see the parking lot and he watched as Mia pulled a cupcake out of a box and gave it to his son. She laughed as Caleb licked frosting off the cupcake. Caleb offered her a bite and she shook her head.
“Maybe I’m partial because she’s my sister, but she’s a good person, Slade. She’s tough. She’s independent. Not every man can handle a woman like Mia.”
“I’m not sure if I can.” Slade tried not to smile—even he knew he failed. “I know you have to go. Thanks for taking care of Caleb.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” Jesse excused himself and left.
Slade walked to the door that led out to the parking lot. For a minute he stayed inside, just watching as his son and Mia sat on the curb. Caleb licked the last of the cupcake off his fingers and then he saw Slade and waved.
He joined them in the parking lot. Mia held out the box, offering him the last cupcake. She smiled and he couldn’t think past that smile that lit up her face. He couldn’t get past how she’d held his son back at the school.
Somehow he and Caleb had gone from a duo to a trio that included Mia. And it felt right. At the same time it caused a big ache in his heart. Letting her in meant letting go.
ver the next week things settled into a routine that was easy to handle. Mia spent time with Tina. At home she searched for Breezy. She thought a lot about Slade, but she spent more time avoiding him. On a pretty Monday in October, Mia’s mom took her to Tulsa for a doctor’s appointment and then to the office to talk to her supervisor.
They discussed how Tina was doing and if there was anything more that could be done to protect her or to make her feel safe. Mia hadn’t quite known what to say. She had replayed the day Butch got killed in her mind hundreds of times. She’d thought about what Nolan said about the money that had disappeared.
Mia’s boss wanted to know if it was possible that Tina had the money. Mia doubted it. She didn’t see Tina as a person who would put her kids in danger by keeping the money. And if she did have it, she wouldn’t be hiding in Dawson in a single-wide trailer.
Someone had the money and Nolan Jacobs wanted it back. But he was smart enough not to come on his own. He would have other people do his dirty work.
The other thing Mia’s boss had asked her was if she planned to return to work. She had been placed on medical leave, but he wanted her back, if at all possible. Even if it meant reassigning her, or possibly transferring her to another division.
In another state.
Once she got back home, and after her mom left, Mia put on shorts and her running shoes. She walked outside. October had brought cooler weather, even some rain and she could feel fall in the air.
Mia stretched and then she started down the road, lengthening her stride, fighting past the ache in her arm. She breathed in the cool air, the scent of the country fields. She thought about leaving. She thought about staying. In each scenario that played through her mind she thought about Slade and Caleb.
She thought about not being enough for them. She’d been in their world. She’d walked through the halls of the school and she’d tried to play the part. As much as she’d loved playing the part, she didn’t know if she fit the role.
It ached deep inside her, the idea of not fitting in. She knew how to play so many people, so why not play the part of someone who could fit into Slade and Caleb’s life? Why couldn’t that be who she really was, and not a role?
She thought about Tina because it was easier than dwelling on her own life. Tina had had more contractions today, but her new doctor said it could be another week. Since she arrived, there had been no signs that she’d been followed, that anyone knew where she was.
Mia pushed all the thoughts from her mind and focused on the sun setting on the horizon, sinking into the clouds and casting the sky in hazy, yellow light. A car came from behind her. It slowed and stopped.
Mia turned slowly, cautious until she saw the patrol car.
She hadn’t spent a lot of time with him since the day at the emergency room. She didn’t know if he’d been avoiding her or if he’d simply been busy. Maybe she’d avoided him.
“How did the appointment go?”
She stared out at the horizon where the sun was sinking. “Okay, I guess. The doctor isn’t saying a lot. He thinks I’m healing better than he’d hoped for, but he doesn’t think I’ll get full use of my arm. My boss is pushing me to decide what I want to do.”
“Where I want to work?” She looked back at him. “If I want to come back.”
“That’s a lot to think about.”
“Yes, it is. I didn’t think it would be this hard.”
“To go back?”
She nodded and then she managed a smile to brighten the mood. “So what brought you out here?”
“I had something for you but you weren’t home.”
“No, I needed to get out and think.”
“This isn’t a good idea.”
“Really?” She leaned to touch her toes and to draw in a deep breath. He took off his hat and tossed it on the seat of the patrol car. “Mia, please get in and let me drive you home.”
“No, I can’t. I’m going to finish my run.”
“Then I’m going to follow you.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t. I don’t need to be protected. You can go to the house and wait for me.”
“I’m going to follow you.” His jaw tensed. His brown eyes caught and held hers. She wanted to give in to him, but she couldn’t.
This felt like the line in the sand. She couldn’t be the type of person he wanted her to be or needed her to be. “I’m jogging.”
“Mia, get in the car.”
She shook her head. She really wanted to get in that car with him, but stubborn pride and self-preservation joined efforts to keep her safe from the heartbreak sitting behind the wheel of that patrol car.
“What’s wrong with you?” He stayed next to her as she kept going.
“I can’t do this.” She glanced his way, but kept running.
“Do what? Get in the car?”
She stood outside his car, looking down at him and wanting like mad to put her arms around him and hold on.
“I’m not a mom or a wife a man comes home to every night. I don’t know how to be...”
She couldn’t say
but he seemed to get it.
“Who asked you to be Vicki? Not me. I’ve never asked you to be anyone but yourself.”
“Here you are, though, following me home.”
“Because I don’t want you to get hurt.”
She leaned into the car and touched his cheek. He stared up at her and she kissed him softly and quickly.
“I’m not Vicki. I realized the other day at the school that I don’t fit. I don’t know how to talk to those women. I know how to outrun and outfight some of the toughest people in our society, but I can’t talk about slow-cooker recipes.”
“I didn’t ask you to be anyone other than who you are.”
“No, you didn’t. This is about me and who I think I need to be. I can’t fill her shoes.”
“Let me give you a ride home. Please.”
His calm voice took her by surprise. She’d expected anger or an argument, something other than this calm, rational person watching her.
She walked around and got in the car. Her heart raced, not because of the run. She held her right arm and breathed through the pain that shot up her shoulder, but it was nothing compared to the pain ripping into her heart.
“Mia, find out who you are. I think you’ll like the person inside you. I know I do.”
Doubt. She closed her eyes. When she opened them Slade was pulling into the driveway.
“I brought you something.” His voice was still calm.
She looked at him and then at her house. She started to ask him what he’d brought and then she saw. The woman standing on her front porch wore a peasant skirt and a long flowing top. She had brown hair and glasses. A guitar case leaned against the side of the house.
“Yes. I found her for you. I checked out her story and then I bought her a plane ticket. I picked her up in Tulsa this afternoon.”
“Slade.” It hurt to say his name because she wanted to be the person he could love.
“Go, Mia. Don’t say anything else. I think you’ve thrown enough at me for one night. I’m not sure who you think I am, but I do know who you are and I know what I want. Maybe someday you’ll realize that what I want is you, and only you. I don’t want you to be someone else. I’m not trying to replace Vicki.”
“I don’t know if I can be who you need me to be.”
He reached across her and opened the car door. “Your sister is waiting.”
Mia leaned and kissed his cheek. He sighed and shook his head.
“Thank you, Slade.”
He nodded, but he didn’t answer. Mia got out and as she walked up the sidewalk to face her sister for the first time in twenty years, Slade’s car backed out of the drive.
“Mia?” Breezy stepped forward, her smile growing.
“Breezy. I’ve been looking for you.”
“Slade told me.”
“I want to know everything.” Mia held her sister’s hand. “We have a lot of time to make up for.”
“I know.” Breezy looked around. “And it looks like we’ve lived pretty different lives.”
“Has your life been...”
Breezy smiled an easy smile. “My life has been fine. Maybe not like this, and I don’t have a cowboy cop in love with me, but my life has been good.”
They hugged and tears trickled down Mia’s cheeks. She brushed them away, but more fell. She had her sister back. She shouldn’t cry over that because it was the best gift anyone had ever given her. As they walked into the house she glanced toward the intersection at the end of her street and watched the patrol car pull onto the main road. She finally had her sister but she worried that maybe she’d just lost the one man she’d ever loved.
* * *
Slade sat down in a corner booth at Vera’s. He picked up the menu, leaned back and ran a shaky hand through his hair. Man, what a day. He opened the menu more for something to do than to pick something. He knew what he wanted.
No, this was about supper right now, not the woman who knew how to turn his life inside out and upside down. Chaos. That’s what she was.
“Hey, cowboy, what are you doing eating alone?” Vera, the owner of the Mad Cow, sat down across from him and pulled out the order pad she carried in her apron. “My goodness, you look worse than a hundred dollars of old money.”
“Thanks, Vera, I feel about that good.”
“Saw you drive by earlier with a pretty girl. I didn’t recognize her.”
“It was a surprise for Mia.”
“Well...” Vera looked shocked and then pulled it together. “Now I guess it would surprise Mia if she saw you running around with that young woman.”
“It was Mia’s sister.”
“I’ve seen her sisters, and that young lady wasn’t one of them.”
“Her biological sister.”
“Goodness, that is a surprise. Slade, you’re one of a kind. Now what can I get you for supper, because I’m all out of smiles and you seem to be missing yours, considering you just gave a girl the gift of a lifetime.”
“Yeah, well, that’s how things go sometimes, Vera.”
“How about if your fried chicken is on the house tonight?”
He smiled at that. “Vera, you don’t have to.”
“I know, but I want to. You know, I like to take care of the local law. They take good care of me.”
The cowbells over the door chimed. Slade didn’t turn around, because it was Dawson and he’d know whoever it was walking into the diner. A few seconds later Jackson sat down across from him.
“Boy, you look like one hundred dollars...”
Slade raised a hand to stop him. “Don’t. Vera already told me. Nothing a good night’s rest won’t cure.”
“Let me buy your dinner.” Jackson picked up the menu. “Mia has already been on the phone with Mom. Seems we have a new Cooper and you’re responsible.”
“Don’t you have a wife and kids to eat dinner with?”
“They’re in Tulsa for the ballet. It’s a mother-daughter thing while Aunt Heather keeps the baby. I can guarantee you I’m glad it isn’t a father-daughter thing because I can do without ballet.”
“Lucky for you I have nothing but time.”
Jackson looked over the menu and when Vera wandered over he ordered a chef’s salad. Vera wrote it down, gave the two of them a curious look and left.
“How’d you find her?”
“A little digging, some police records and, bingo, Breezy. Don’t worry, a very small police record and nothing to send up any alarms over.”
“Where’s she been?”
“California. She and her grandmother were street musicians. Her grandmother died a couple of years ago. Since then Breezy has been on her own. She has no real education, but she’s smart. I think she’s been homeless part of the time.”
“You would think so, but she seems pretty happy.”
“That’s good. That makes you Mia’s hero.”
“I don’t think that’s exactly the case.”
Vera brought their food and for a second seemed like she might say something. She shook her head and refrained. Slade smiled as she walked away.
“Vera’s having a hard time not giving advice.” He reached for the pepper shaker.
“She probably wants to tell you that your cholesterol is going to be through the roof if you don’t have a salad once in a while.”
“My cholesterol levels are fine and I do eat salad. Thanks for the public service announcement.”
“I do have a brother who is a doctor.”
“Right. That makes you almost a professional.”
Jackson dug into his salad and Slade was glad to have his friend otherwise occupied for at least five minutes. When they finished eating, Slade would make a good excuse and escape.
Unfortunately, Jackson was as stubborn as his sister and everyone else in the Cooper family. Slade figured it had to be a learned trait, because they all had it, adopted and biological. That many kids in a family would cause a person to stand his ground.
“Slade, I don’t know what’s going on with you and my sister.”
“Well, Jackson, that makes two of us. And I don’t really need a lecture about keeping my distance and not hurting her. You threatened me about fifteen years ago, if I remember correctly. I took it to heart then because our friendship meant a lot to me. Right now, I don’t care to hear it.”
Jackson held both hands up in surrender and laughed a little. “Whoa, don’t go all John Wayne on me. I was just going to say, I wish you luck. She’s as mule-headed as they come and when she gets something in her mind, it’s hard for her to let go.”
“You don’t say.”
“If you need to talk or want advice...”
“No, I don’t think I do.” Slade pushed aside his plate and finished off his tea. “My mom has been in Grove with Caleb. I need to get home and check on them.”
“Right. And don’t worry, it’ll all work out.”
“Thanks, Dear Abby.”
Jackson picked up his tab and followed Slade to the register. “No problem, Lovelorn. I hope it works out for you.”
“Nice, real nice.”
Vera hurried to the register, wiping her hands on her apron as she walked. “Slade, I already told you, this is on me. Jackson, you need to learn to chew your food.”
“Thanks, Vera.” Slade waved and walked out the door, the cowbells clanking behind him.
He considered driving back up the street past Mia’s, but thought about how that would look, him cruising past like some lovesick teen. No, he’d head on home to Caleb because he didn’t need to live up to Jackson’s nickname of