Nate Cole stood at the top of the stairs that overlooked the public beach. A thin layer of fog enveloped the blazing orange sun as Charlie Pulaski’s daughter jogged below him. He admired her tall athletic body as she glided barefoot over the sand. Those legs had nearly taken her to the 2004 Summer Olympics as a long-distance runner.
He’d heard endless stories about her over the past year from nearly everyone in Conspiracy. And now, C.J. Pulaski had returned home with a slew of damning headlines nipping at her heels.
Some took pleasure in another’s downfall, but not Nate. He’d been under public scrutiny enough times to realize there was more to the story than what was touted in the headlines.
C.J. circled around and headed in his direction without breaking stride. Stopping next to a pair of discarded Nikes, she leaned forward bracing her hands on her knees. The wind whipped auburn hair into her face as she continued to suck in deep breaths of air.
Nate descended the wooden steps, his gaze locked on the woman he’d begun to believe was as much myth as flesh and blood. He didn’t need the skills he’d developed working for the L.A. Police Department to note the rigid set of her body indicated anger.
She grabbed a stick and jabbed it in the sand harder and harder, then she straightened and pitched it into the surf. She watched it a long moment, then hefted another stick after it. Scanning the shore, her gaze landed on her shoes.
She grabbed them and shouted, “Idiot! Moron! Fool!” then launched each one into the surf. A smile flittered across her lips as she watched the shiny white shoes bob and weave a moment before a wave crested and swept them away.
Arms raised as if she’d just scored a winning point, she spun in a circle.
Nate had experienced fury. He understood how emotional stress impacted the body mentally and physically. “Are you okay?”
She gasped and stumbled backward, her eyes locking on him. “You scared the daylights out of me.”
Those eyes, a mixture of melted caramel and warmed cocoa continued to stare back at him. Whoever said the eyes were the windows to the soul must have been staring into eyes just like hers. They spoke of disappointment, loss, but in the midst of all that turmoil, humor lurked.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I saw you were upset and wanted to make sure you were okay.”
C.J. leaned forward to read the badge pinned on his chest. Chief Cole. The same man her father and brothers talked about incessantly? The man who’d chucked a promising career with the LAPD to run a Podunk police department in northern California?
“Other than making a mess out of my life and getting myself fired, I’m doing okay. But as chief of police, I’m sure you’ve heard the whole story already.”
“Sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem.”
“Sometimes they’re worse. But I like your optimism, especially since I’m running a little short of it these days,” she said.
“It happens. Welcome home, Ms. Pulaski.”
C.J. studied the man who’d witnessed her childish display of temper. She’d made a helluva impression her first day home.
C.J. arched an inquisitive eyebrow at him. “You know my name.”
His blue gaze didn’t waver. “It’s a small town.”
“You want me to believe it was just a lucky guess, is that it?”
His smile made his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Something like that.”
There’d been a time when she’d believed in serendipity, but no more. Life, at least her life, didn’t operate that way any more. These days it consisted of neat, orderly facts.
“Sorry, I don’t buy it.”
His expression transformed into a mixture of exasperation and amusement. “I called in your license.”
C.J. glanced up at the SUV parked directly behind her car. “Well, it’s a relief to know I didn’t get my facts wrong this time.”
The instant the words slipped out she wanted to pull them back.
The man continued to stare at her, but his expression softened.
She turned away from his compassion and watched as a pelican dove into the surf, scooped a fish and flew into the dull gray horizon that could have been a metaphor for her life.
“Everyone makes mistakes.” His voice washed over her, momentarily soothing her pain.
She studied him a long moment. Tall and broad shouldered with a hint of arrogance to his stance. There was also a softness, a vulnerability in his deep blue eyes. Who or what had put that pain there? Intriguing. It made the reporter and the woman in her want to dig deeper to find out why. If only Ben had made her want to dig deeper maybe they would still be together.
Nate tipped his hat and walked away. After he left her, a tear slipped down her cheek, then another and another. The softly spoken words from a stranger had opened the floodgate to emotions she’d kept tightly controlled since the biggest story of her journalistic career broke alongside an article in a rival newspaper refuting her main source. She’d kept the pain, humiliation, and disillusionment deep inside, but now holding back those emotions wasn’t any more likely than preventing the fog from rolling in off the ocean.
Darkness had settled in when she pulled her flip flops from her bag and headed for the parking lot. The fog had thickened since she’d first arrived, so she could barely make out the police chief standing sentinel at the base of the stairs watching over her. Oh, she’d met his type before. A man who took his responsibilities seriously, to the point they were as indelibly etched into his psyche as the motto to serve and protect was engraved onto his badge.
She should have been upset he watched over her as if she was a helpless ten-year-old, but strangely she wasn’t. A shocking realization for a woman as fiercely independent as she proclaimed herself to be.
She studied him for a long moment. When this man took a stance, he would be as immovable as one of the ancient redwoods that dotted the highway along the coast.
She climbed the stairs to her car with as much dignity as she could muster, which wasn’t much these days, opened her car door and was about to slide inside when her gaze strayed back to the water. But it wasn’t the ocean that drew her attention. It was the man with those Pacific blue eyes that pinned her where she stood. This was a man that a woman could lean on in a time of need.
As C.J. left the police chief behind, she headed for her new home rather than face her father and brothers. Their love was a certainty she’d never doubted, but her father, in particular, smothered her with his caring and concern.
She drove past the city limits sign and realized nothing had changed in the year she’d been away. The population remained a static two thousand, four hundred and fifty-one.
While there were aspects of small-town life she didn’t miss, she couldn’t deny this town and her family had been the one anchor she’d always counted on. They’d celebrated the highs of her life and comforted her during the lows, including her mother’s death when she was eleven. But would they continue to stand behind her now?
She cruised along Main Street, her headlights slicing through the dense fog. Blue and green awnings shaded entrances and windows and wrought iron street lamps lit up the brick sidewalks, giving it a feel reminiscent of a New England coastal town.
Turning onto a tree-lined street, she headed for her new home—Colleen’s home, actually. A year ago her lifelong friend had scraped together the money to buy her dream house, but the only way Colleen could afford the old Victorian was to rent out half of it. And the instant she’d learned C.J. had accepted a job at the local newspaper, she’d offered to rent her the side she’d converted into an apartment. Colleen lived in the other half with her daughter, Becca, and her mother, Genevieve.
Even more enticing, the house sat on an isolated bluff on the ocean with the nearest neighbor a half a mile away. A perfect location for C.J. to lick her wounds and bolster her battered self-esteem.
She pulled into the driveway and the creamy tones of fresh yellow and white paint glowed against the misty gray fog. Impatiens lined the walkway and azaleas surrounded the porch, their brilliant blooms spent for the season.
Climbing the steps, C.J. unlocked the door. Little had changed since her last visit when Colleen had shown off her pride and joy. Clearly, most of her time and money had been spent on the exterior, but that was fine with C.J. since Colleen had given her the green light to finish the inside to her taste. Tackling the remaining renovations on her rental would keep her from brooding.
C.J. went back out to her car and lugged her computer upstairs to the spare bedroom she’d use as an office while she continued to dig for proof Congressman Steven Moline accepted a bribe from a San Francisco contractor. Her career with the Daily Sun might be a lost cause, but she wouldn’t rest until she nailed Moline and restored her credibility.
She set down the computer and opened the window. Breathing in the salty sea breeze, the tension that had been her constant companion since she’d learned her source didn’t exist slowly melted away. One minute she’d been an up-and-coming investigative reporter, and the next she’d learned her friend and mentor had set her up by giving her false information.
Sighing, she made another trek to her car to unload more of her belongings. She’d just stepped onto the porch when Colleen’s door opened.
“C.J.” Colleen grabbed her and squeezed her tight. “Oh, I’ve missed you. I’m so glad you’re here.”
C.J. pressed her head to Colleen’s and inhaled, her world suddenly back on solid ground. “I’ve missed you, too. I’m so glad you still had this available.”
“It’s almost as if the house wanted you.”
C.J. laughed, something she hadn’t done in a while and it felt good. “Well, I don’t know if that’s the case, but I’m sure glad to be here.” She linked arms with Colleen. “So tell me how you’ve been.”
“Later. Let’s get you moved in before the fog gets any thicker.” Together they went down the porch steps to her car.
A 1955 International pickup, pulled in behind her car. The door creaked open and Genevieve, Colleen’s mother and C.J.’s surrogate mother, jumped to the ground, her spry, sixty-year-old body landing with ease.
“You made it.” Genevieve wrapped her thin arms around C.J. and squeezed. C.J. gasped. For a tiny woman, Genevieve was strong.
“I did.” C.J. inhaled the mix of paint and a hint of some flowery perfume that she always associated with Genevieve McVey Yang, the Chinese/Scottish proprietor of Ye Olde Hardware store. While she might work in a man’s world, Genevieve insisted she was still a woman and wore perfume to remind herself of that fact.
C.J.’s gaze moved to the cab of the truck where Becca sat in the glow of the dome light. Her cream-colored skin, almond-shaped eyes and gleaming black hair were a near match to Colleen’s. The fifteen-year-old didn’t move under her scrutiny, and the silent reproach in her eyes told C.J. all had not been forgiven. Becca’s hero had fallen from grace, and much as it relieved C.J. to come down off that pedestal, the change in their relationship had taken a chip of her heart that she doubted would ever be replaced.
“Your father and brothers thought you’d stop by the restaurant and have a bite to eat before coming here.” It was impossible to miss the reprimand in Genevieve’s softly spoken words.
“I’ll go over once I’ve settled in and have a late dinner with them.”
Genevieve patted her shoulder. “He means well, C.J., he really does.”
Colleen wagged a finger at Genevieve. “Mom, we discussed this. You promised you wouldn’t pressure her.”
“I’m not pressuring her. I’m just saying Charlie and the boys are eager to see her.”
Before Colleen could respond, C.J. cut in. “I know they are, but I can’t allow anyone to run roughshod over me now that I’ve moved back to Conspiracy—even if it’s only temporary.”
“No, you can’t, but avoiding him isn’t the solution, either.”
“I’m not avoiding him, I’m merely postponing our meeting for a few hours.”
Genevieve arched a penciled eyebrow. “Avoiding, postponing, it comes down to the same thing.”
C.J. didn’t deny the truth of her words. “He’s not an easy man to stand up to.”
A twinkle lit Genevieve’s hazel eyes. “I’ve never heard a truer statement. The two of you have been butting heads ever since you learned the word no, and that was your first word I might add, much to your mother’s distress. She knew from that point on, she’d given birth to another headstrong female just like herself.”
C.J. grabbed a suitcase from her car and set it on the ground. “How is it you make a character flaw sound like an attribute?”
Genevieve fluffed her hair. “Your mother always said it was one of my finer gifts.”
Talking about her mother always put an ache in C.J.’s heart. And seeing Colleen and Genevieve together, reminded her of what’d she missed.
Colleen called to her daughter. “Becca come over here and say hello to C.J.”
The truck door creaked as Becca got out. “I have homework.”
Genevieve gave her granddaughter a sharp look. “You’ve got time to say hello to your godmother.”
“I don’t, Givvy. I need to get it done because the band is practicing on the beach tonight.”
Givvy was the nickname Becca had given her grandmother as a toddler. No matter how hard Colleen and Genevieve worked with her, she’d refused to call Genevieve anything else. That same precocious toddler had turned into an incredibly gifted student and musician as well as an unforgiving teenager. C.J. would have to work hard to recapture the trust she’d lost. As much as it pained her to have the strain between them, she admired the courage it took for Becca to stand up for her beliefs, a trait C.J. hadn’t developed until well into adulthood.
The sharp rise of Colleen’s eyebrows gave way to her disapproval of her daughter’s behavior. “You have time to welcome C.J. home.”
Becca turned. “Hey, C.J.” The warmth of her smile was missing. Its absence left C.J.’s world off kilter.
The teenager wiggled her fingers at her mother and grandmother, then went inside.
Colleen watched her until the door closed, then turned back to C.J. “I’m sorry. I’ll talk to her about her behavior.”
C.J. shook her head. “She’s entitled to her feelings. I let her down. I have to earn back her respect.”
Colleen had always had the uncanny ability of reading her innermost thoughts and sliced through her carefully erected barriers. “That may be, but it wouldn’t hurt Becca one bit to learn some compassion.”
C.J. watched a light come on inside the house, and she shivered as the soothing breeze that had enveloped her earlier suddenly felt like a blast of cold winter air. “Compassion comes in limited doses when you’ve been let down by your idol.” Having ridden both sides of that fence, it was a fact C.J. knew better than most.
“It’s time she learned you have human frailties just like the rest of us.”
While she knew Colleen was right, deep down a part of her wished she could have remained a teenaged girl’s idol.
The sun angled low in the sky when Nate arrived home from work. He went inside the arts and crafts bungalow he’d bought immediately after his arrival in Conspiracy. While he loved the house, he’d have lived in a shack to own this view of the ocean.
Changing into his running clothes, he took the narrow path that skirted the steep canyon to the shoreline. As he ran down the beach, he pushed his body as hard as he’d seen C.J. Pulaski do three nights before on another strip of sand. He understood the anger and the guilt that drove a person to punish herself through physical exertion so that maybe, for just a few minutes, she could forget the past.
In Nate’s case, no such luck. Richard continued to haunt him two years after his death. A death Nate could have prevented. A death that never should have happened.
As the brisk wind blew off the ocean, he wondered if he’d still be working for the LAPD if his partner hadn’t died.
He reached the rocky breakwater and stopped. Watching the sunset had been the one constant that had eased the tightness in his chest the past two years.
He turned around and started running again, pushing himself harder. He reached the end of the beach and paused to swipe at the perspiration dripping off his forehead before he began a second lap.
“I hope I’m not intruding.”
The voice that had echoed in his head for the three days had him drawing in a sharp breath edged with desire. Nate peered over at the trail where C.J. stood, those long, lean legs encased in a pair of plain gray running pants. Somehow she made the ordinary look extraordinary and why he’d made a concerted effort to avoid her. She was a temptation he couldn’t give into.
“No, not at all.”
C.J. crossed over to him. “Rough day, Chief?”
Nate braced his hands on his knees as he sucked in air. “Nothing standout.”
Her brow quirked as she stared down at him. “Could have fooled me. That’s the kind of running I do when I’m looking for punishment.”
Nate studied her a long moment, once again consumed with the past, with the night Richard died and how after he’d turned in his badge he’d spent the next month running.
He slammed the door on those thoughts. “More like driving away old memories.”
The empathy that shone in her eyes comforted him in a way that watching a dozen sunsets would never accomplish.
“I’ve got a few of those myself that I try to run off every now and again.”
Richard’s face rose up yet again. “Does it ever work?”
“No, but I keep hoping this time will be the one that does. How about you? Any success?”
“No, just an assortment of aches and pains for the next day or so.”
C.J.’s lips curved into a sympathetic smile. “Well, that’s a limited success in my opinion.”
“How do you figure?”
“If I’m sore, I’m thinking about something other than bad memories.” She knelt down to tighten her shoelaces, then stood. “So, are you up for another battering?”
Nate never turned down a challenge. “Whenever you are.”
“Excellent.” Laughing, she elbowed him. He stumbled backward and she took off.
Nate regained his footing and chased after her. She was fast, but he’d set a few track records of his own in high school, mostly sprints, though he could hold his own long distance.
He caught up with her about halfway down the beach, his legs burning from the effort, but he enjoyed the chase. Actually, he enjoyed the view as much as the chase. The woman had a pair of legs that he could spend hours studying and a damned cute rear end, too. Watching her run was poetry in motion.
They reached the breakwater and stopped to catch their breaths. Nate bent over, sucking in lungfuls of air. From the corner of his eye, he studied her as she rose up on her tiptoes, stretching her arms above her head.
“Enjoying the view, Chief?”
Caught red-handed, he gave her a short, simple and succinct yes.
“I like a man who doesn’t mince words.” Her eyes sparkled with amusement as she tightened her ponytail. “Last one to the other end has to buy the winner a beer.”
Ready for her tactics this time, Nate took off, gaining a strong lead. As his feet pounded the packed sand, he wondered what his life would have been like if he’d had a family like C.J.’s. Even as a single parent, Charlie Pulaski still managed to be a good father to his children, while Nate had had two parents and both had failed miserably.
Nate caught a flash of gray in the corner of his eye as C.J. caught up with him. He pushed himself harder, but C.J. stayed with him, and they ended the race in a tie.
“Not bad.” Nate said between gulps of air.
Her eyes glistened in the growing darkness. “Double or nothing?”
“Another time. I’m not crazy about running in the dark.” He’d been running in darkness for far too long and needed to bring some light into his life.
C.J. looked at the sky, then the beach. “Yeah, and the tide is coming in, too. I guess a rain check is in order.”
Nate studied her a long moment, then slowly nodded in agreement.
“See you around, Chief.” She spun around and headed up the path.
“Hey, what about the beer?”
She turned back to look at him, a smile inching up her lips. “It was a tie, remember?”
“So what does that mean?”
She tossed him a cheeky grin. “It means, we fend for ourselves.” She trotted up the path with ease as if they hadn’t just sprinted a quarter a mile down the beach and back.
He watched those long legs until they disappeared from sight. Danger lights flashed in his head. This was the kind of woman that could make him forget a childhood filled with constant fighting that had turned him off marriage permanently.
Still, he couldn’t help but think this woman could give him a run for his money in more ways than one.