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When she looked back on it, she should have hung up on him. In fact, as soon as she saw his number come up on the screen, she should have tossed her cell phone out the window.
But she hadn’t.
No. Of course not. A sucker for punishment, Cam Spears—no, strike that. Cam Riley—now was as good a time as any to go back to her maiden name—picked up her cell phone, steered her SUV with one hand and actually tried to have a conversation with her two-timing, philandering, no-good, son-of-a-bitch ex-husband. Well, he wasn’t her ex yet. But he would be, soon. Hopefully very soon.
“What do you want?” It wasn’t the politest way to answer the phone, but there was no way Ryan actually deserved anything resembling manners from her anyway.
“I’m returning your call, Cam.” He sighed in that way that might as well have said, “I’m far too important to deal with whatever it is you have to say.”
Cam swallowed hard in a vain effort to control the wave of emotions that made her want to simultaneously scream obscenities and break down sobbing from frustration. “Right,” she said as calmly as she could manage. After all, he was right. She had called him. “I wanted to talk to you about…” She glanced in the passenger seat at her teenage daughter. True to form, Morgan had her earbuds in, eyes closed and arms crossed. She was either sleeping or contemplating how much she hated her mother. Either way, she wasn’t listening. “I wanted to talk to you about Morgan,” she continued. “I’m hoping that a fresh start in a new town and a new school will be just what she needs to get her grades up and her attitude sorted out. And since no one knows her, she won’t have to worry about the—”
“Right. Okay.” Cam tried to ignore the distracted tone in his voice.
“I’ve been really worried about her attitude lately. I mean, it’s really gotten worse since the…”
Cam swallowed hard and nodded. It wasn’t that she was upset about the separation. Not in the way people probably expected her to be, but she was still having trouble wrapping her head around the fact that despite years of looking the other way, trying to make things work, and sacrificing her own needs and wants in favor of keeping their marriage together, it had all been for naught. The reality of what that actually meant for her and her daughter hadn’t fully sunk in yet.
“Right,” she said. “Anyway, I’m getting concerned that maybe she’s—”
“I’m sure you can handle it, Cam.”
Cam swerved slightly to the right before she corrected the steering wheel. “Pardon?”
The sigh again. “Come on, Cam. Honestly, why are you bothering me with this right now?”
“Bothering you?” She swallowed hard and struggled to keep her emotions in check. “Because she’s your daughter, Ryan. We may be getting a divorce, but that doesn’t change things with Morgan. We agreed to co-parent.”
“About what exactly?”
“Well, things are kind of new between me and Chastity right now and with you moving out of town…Well, I think it might be easier if you could just handle things while Morgan is with you and when she’s with me, I’ll handle things. Ya know?”
There was no way he’d just said that. “Pardon?”
“It would be different if you stayed in town, Cam.”
Stayed? There was no way she could have stayed in Seattle. Not after what he’d done. Which was basically outing his affair all over local television. As the co-anchors for the local evening news, Ryan and his new, much younger co-host, Chastity Newberry had been openly flirting on-air for months. Every time Cam mentioned it, Ryan brushed it off. But Cam wasn’t stupid, she’d known about Ryan’s indiscretions for years. He’d always been discrete about them, and considering the love between them had died long before, Cam hadn’t cared. Not really. Besides, he took good care of them, and there was no point stirring things up and blowing up their lives, just because they didn’t love each other.
The ostrich approach had worked out well for Cam, too. At least until the weatherman, on the six o’clock news, with the entire greater Seattle area watching—including everyone they knew—made an offhanded comment about the happy new couple. There wasn’t a sandbox deep enough for Cam to bury her head into after that.
She’d been humiliated in front of everyone. When Ryan came home, and told her he was in love with Chastity, and he wanted a divorce, Cam knew there was only one place for her to go.
“You know I couldn’t stay.” The words came out too soft, almost sad. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Besides,” she said with a much stronger voice. “This isn’t about me. It’s about Morgan. I need you to—”
“You don’t need anything from me. I’ll always be there to love and support her and she knows that, but I can’t get involved in your little parenting dramas right now. Besides, my lawyer doesn’t think it’s a good idea for us to be communicating. Not until the divorce is final.”
Divorce. He made it sound so simple. So cold and clinical. As if fifteen years of marriage could be erased with a few pieces of paper. She didn’t want to care, but she did because the truth was, even though she hadn’t been in love with Ryan for a long time—maybe ever—there had still be a lot of positive in their relationship. A lot of good times, happy times and special memories. That couldn’t just be wiped out with a few signatures on a piece of paper. Could it?
She ignored the feelings that tried to bubble up and tried to get back to the point. “Ryan, you’re only going to see her once a month. That’s hardly—”
“About that,” he interrupted her. “I don’t think that’s very practical for me and with Morgan getting settled into a new school and everything. Maybe if we did one weekend every two months instead?”
“I’ll have my lawyer contact yours.”
“Wait.” Cam struggled to wrap her mind around what he was saying. He didn’t want to see their daughter? For everything she might have thought about Ryan as a husband, she never would have guessed that he’d be a bad father. “I don’t—”
“Distracted driving is against the law, Mom.”
Cam’s head swung around to see Morgan staring at her with her lips pressed together and attitude radiating from her pores. She was awake? How much had she heard?
“I’m not driving—”
“Yes you are.”
“Cam, are you driving right now?”
“And there’s a sign over there that says distracted driving is against the law in Montana.”
“I know it is, but…” She had bigger problems than holding a phone to her ear. How much had Morgan heard her say? “Morgan, you shouldn’t have heard—”
“What?” Ryan barked in her ear. “Is she right there? Did Morgan hear you talking? Dammit, Cam. You should know better than—”
“Cam. I can’t believe you’d be so irresponsible.”
“Me? I shouldn’t be so irresponsible?” She yelled into the phone, no longer caring what Morgan overheard, at least for the moment. “Are you kidding me right now?”
“Mom, you should put your phone down.”
With voices coming at her from all sides and her stupid emotions threatening to get completely out of control, Cam could hardly think. She definitely couldn’t concentrate on the road, let alone what anyone was actually saying. That’s why when the siren sounded behind her, her first reaction was to slam on the brakes, followed by a loud, “Shit!” when she saw the flashing lights of the police car in her rearview mirror.
“Cam, what is—”
She ended the call, cut off Ryan’s voice, and held the offending phone in her hand as though it were going to explode. She looked to Morgan for backup, but her daughter just shook her head and rolled her eyes.
Cam watched through the mirror as the officer stepped out of his car.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.” Cam shook her head before she realized what she’d just said. As a positive example, she was doing a lousy job lately. To put it mildly. “Oh, Morgan. I’m sorry I swore. I shouldn’t have used obscenities just because I was stressed out.”
“Whatever.” Morgan shrugged with indifference, but the satisfied smirk on her face gave her away. “I told you you should have put the phone down.” She put her earbud back in and looked out the window.
* * * * *
There were a lot of things Officer Evan Anderson could ignore. Parking a little too close to the stop sign to run in and grab a coffee at Daisy’s Diner, sneaking up a few miles over the speed limit right at the edge of town where, in his opinion, fifteen miles was ridiculously slow anyway, jaywalking across Main Street to say hello to a neighbor. These were all things Evan had no problem ignoring.
Driving erratically while talking on a cell phone was not one of those things. Distracted driving was dangerous and there was no way Evan was going to let it happen. Not in his town. Especially from someone with out-of-state plates.
With his lights flashing, he left his cruiser on the side of the road and made his way to the black SUV. Evan knew all the cars in Timber Creek, and most of the visiting family and friends too, and he certainly hadn’t seen such a flashy-looking Expedition around town with Washington plates before. Whoever it was who thought they could drive like an asshole in his town were about to get sorted out. He may not have respected Timber Creek the way he should have when he was still young and stupid, but that had changed. A lot. These days he took pride in protecting his hometown and making sure others respected it as much as he did.
He scratched down the license plate number before he made his way to the driver’s side and rapped on the tinted window with the back of his hand. Evan began to talk the second the window moved down. “License and registration. Do you know why I pulled you over—”
The words died on his lips as the driver came into view. It was easy to see the woman behind the wheel was frazzled. Likely because she’d just been pulled over. But that’s not what caught his attention, froze the words on his lips and caused his heart to do a weird double flip in his chest. No, it was the familiar blonde hair—a little darker now—the profile of the nose he’d recognize anywhere because there had once been a time when he’d kissed the tip of it every single day, and then—when she turned to face him—her eyes.
She was back? How was it even possible? He couldn’t formulate a thought. Nothing coherent anyway and definitely nothing that would be remotely appropriate.
Fortunately, Cam spoke first. “Evan? Is that you?”
He blinked and swallowed hard forcing himself to call on his army training to remain as stoic as possible and not let a damn thing show on his face. There was no doubt he was failing miserably, but it was better than nothing. “Cam?”
She smiled, but it didn’t come close to reaching her eyes. “Yeah. It’s been awhile. I can’t believe you’re a…well, you’re a…”
“Cop?” He relaxed a little seeing that she too was just as shocked. For fifteen years he’d dreamed about seeing her again. He’d fantasized about what it would be like to talk to her, to hold her, to—no. That clearly wasn’t going to happen. It was still a traffic stop after all.
Although writing a ticket was the furthest thing from his mind. “You didn’t know?” he asked and then instantly regretted it. Why should she know what he was doing now? She’d left town right after graduation in search of what she used to call a future. He’d loved her more than life itself but even as an eighteen-year-old kid, he knew he was way too much of a screw-up to give her the future she deserved, so he’d let her go. Leaving him brokenhearted. She moved on a long time ago. Without so much as a backward glance.
So why was she back?
Cam shook her head. “No. I didn’t know. But I think it’s great.” There was that not quite smile again. The longing to see the warm smile he remembered so well hit him with a ferocity he didn’t expect. “I’m really sorry if I was driving too fast, or…” She glanced down at her cell phone that sat incriminatingly in her lap. “Morgan told me not to, but I was just in the middle of a conversation, and I know it was wrong, but I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry. I mean, I know you’ll have to give me a ticket and all, but—”
“Morgan?” For the first time, he noticed the teenager sitting in the passenger seat. He’d been so focused on Cam he hadn’t seen past her.
“Hey.” The girl waved sarcastically, no doubt very much aware of his preoccupation.
“My daughter. Morgan.”
Daughter? She had a daughter. Of course she did. She was probably happily married with the family she always wanted and the life she’d talked about. Cam would have everything she always wanted. She deserved it and it was all he ever wanted for her. But if that was true, why was there a flash of pain at the idea that it was somebody else who’d given it to her?
“Nice to meet you, Morgan.”
Cam’s face turned red and she flapped her hands around a little, distracting him. “Here I am, not even back in town for five minutes and I’m already causing trouble.”
“You’re not causing trouble.” He flipped his notebook closed and tucked it away in his pocket. There was no way he was going to write Cam a ticket. “What brings you back to town anyway?” He instantly regretted the question. Not because he didn’t want to know. He did. Badly. Her parents moved to Arizona years ago, and as far as he knew, she hadn’t been back since high school. Why now? That’s what he really wanted to ask her, but when her mouth pressed into a thin line and she looked down at her lap for just a second before she looked up again, this time somehow sadder than before, he regretted asking anything at all because the Cam he once knew slipped a little farther away.
“It was time,” was all she said in response. “And we really should get going. If you wouldn’t mind finishing up with my…”
“Oh.” He shook his head and gave her a grin. “I’m going to let you off with a warning today. Keep your phone in your purse, okay?”
“You don’t have to…I mean, you have to. Give me a ticket I mean.” She stumbled awkwardly over her words and glanced over at her daughter, who watched the entire scene with veiled disinterest. “I’m trying to teach Morgan consequences, and that means that I need to accept mine, too.”
“I’m not giving you a ticket, Cam.”
“You have to.”
“No.” He chuckled a little. “I don’t. But I really would like the opportunity to catch up with you while you’re in town.” Once again her face shifted and he regretted his choice of words. Dammit. She probably thought he was letting her off the hook in exchange for a date.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Evan.” Her voice was tight. “But if that will be all, I really should get going.”
“That’s all.” He took a step back from the SUV. “It really was nice seeing you, Cam.”
In response, she put her window up, pulled away, and drove down the road. Just as she had all those years ago. Leaving Evan standing in the dust, wondering what the hell had just happened.
* * * * *
Evan. He was here. Of course he was here. It was his town. Why wouldn’t he be there? Why shouldn’t he?
Because he left.
He’d left her fifteen years ago.
But not before she left him.
Cam’s head hurt with the memories that hit her with a tsunami force the second she saw those familiar eyes. She reached up and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She didn’t have time for a headache. She didn’t have time for anything. Especially thinking about Evan and a past that couldn’t be changed.
“Who was that guy?”
Morgan. She needed to remember that just because Morgan stayed largely quiet didn’t mean she didn’t notice anything. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“Who do you think?” Morgan rolled her eyes. “The only guy we’ve seen in the last few hours who wasn’t pumping gas. The cop, Mom. Who is he? You know him?”
She shook her head because the truth was she didn’t know him. Not anymore.
“I used to,” she answered honestly. “But that was a long time ago.” A really long time ago and she didn’t have time to consider what Evan’s presence in Timber Creek would mean to her. Of course she’d known logically that he could be here, but Christy Thomas, her one friend who still lived in town, had never mentioned him. Likely out of concern for Cam and an unspoken understanding that Cam didn’t want to know. Not really. It wouldn’t do any good to revisit the past.
“I’m sure we’ll run into lots of people I used to know,” she said to Morgan, trying to keep her tone light and fun. Maybe if she made her return to her home town an adventure, her daughter would buy in. It was a long shot, but it couldn’t hurt to try. Lord knew she’d tried everything else to get Morgan engaged in life. She’d been chalking Morgan’s behavior up to typical teenage drama with the added stress of the divorce, but more and more, Cam was starting to think that wasn’t all there was to it.
“Whatever.” Morgan rolled her eyes and put her earbuds back in.
Cam tried not to sigh. There was no point starting something with her. They’d be out of the car soon enough and maybe it was best if Cam was left alone in her own thoughts and memories for the drive through town. It was always her favorite part about coming home when she was a little girl. Her parents would take her on countless trips throughout the United States, to exotic beaches, the castles of Europe, or even on her tenth birthday, to Disney World. But despite all her travels, Cam’s favorite part of traveling had always been coming home. Turning the bend to see the log sign proclaiming, “Timber Creek, Home of the Timber Times Festival,” had meant she was only minutes away from being in her room, sleeping in her own bed and seeing all her best friends: Christy, Drew, and Amber.
It’s not that she hadn’t liked traveling; she just never loved it the way her parents had. Sure, she appreciated having the opportunity to see the world and experience the things she had, but there was something about home that she couldn’t find anywhere else.
Just at it did all those years ago, a familiar sense of peace came over her as she drove down Main Street, which was completely the same and totally different all at the same time. It had taken her fifteen years, and the circumstances were less than ideal, but she was finally home.
She glanced at Morgan, who stared out the window, her lips pressed into a thin line. No doubt she’d complain about the lack of malls, the tiny streets, the small classrooms, and pretty much everything else about Timber Creek that was in direct opposition to Seattle. But that was okay. Cam could handle it because whether Morgan knew it or not, Timber Creek was going to heal them. It had to, because Cam was completely out of options.
There’d be plenty of time later to show Morgan the sights of Timber Creek. Not that it would take long, but for now, all Cam wanted to do was get settled so she could start thinking about her next step. A step that would need to include a job and getting Morgan enrolled in school as soon as possible. The therapist she’d sent Morgan to before Ryan cut her benefits off had suggested building a strong, structured routine for Morgan as soon as possible. If she knew there was stability in her life, she’d be less likely to act out.
Stability. Ha. The very word made Cam want to laugh and then cry. There was definitely not a lot of stability to be found, but she’d do what she could.
She pulled the SUV up in front of Junky’s Auto shop, looked up and let her eyes take in the grungy windows of the apartment over the shop with a faded For Rent sign in the window.
When Cam had called Christy to tell her she was going to be returning to town, she was adamant about getting her own place, something “stable” and “structured” for Morgan. When her friend finally stopped trying to convince her to stay with her and her husband Mark, she told her about Junky’s apartment and because he was Christy’s cousin, Cam got it at a reduced rate. Although, now that she was looking at it, she couldn’t help but think it had something to do with the fact that the place likely hadn’t seen a broom or a rag in years. If ever. And that was only what she could ascertain from the outside.
“Why are we here?” Morgan stared at her. “Is the car broken now?”
There was nothing to do but put a brave face on. “Nope,” Cam said with as much forced cheerfulness as she could muster, which really wasn’t much. “This is our new home.”
Morgan’s face screwed up in disgust. “You can’t be serious. An auto shop?”
“No. The apartment above it.” She pushed the button cutting off the engine, and turned to gather up her purse. The sight of a police cruiser in her rearview mirror caught her eye, but by the time she turned around to confirm, it was gone. Evan. No doubt he was just making sure she was getting to wherever she was going safely.
Because he still cares about you.
She had no time for Evan or thoughts of Evan or anything at all to do with the past. That’s not why she came home. This time, the only thing Timber Creek was going to give her was her future.
“I’m sure it’s fantastic, Morgan.” Cam forced herself to switch gears. Hopefully the apartment wasn’t too bad. Even if it was, it wasn’t anything a bucket of soapy water and maybe a can of paint couldn’t fix. Nothing was going to bring Cam down, or deter her from starting fresh. Nothing.
“Whatever.” Morgan slid down in her seat, arms crossed firmly over her chest.
“Come on, kiddo.” She turned in the seat and placed her hand on Morgan’s arm. To her surprise, her daughter didn’t shrug her off. It was such a small thing, but when it came to dealing with Morgan lately, Cam would take whatever victories she could get, no matter how small. “I know it’s not ideal and it’s a little different than what we’re used to.”
“Okay, a lot.” Up until a few days ago, they’d been living in the only house Morgan had ever known, a three thousand-square foot mansion on the water in one of Seattle’s most prestigious neighborhoods. One of the perks of being married to the local news anchor. One of the only perks. Cam swallowed hard against the bile in her throat. It was a beautiful house, and she’d taken a lot of pride in making it a home over the years, but it would never be home again. Not anymore.
There was no point dwelling on things. She needed to focus. Besides, Morgan didn’t deserve to be drawn into any more drama than she already had been. Stable and secure. That’s what she needed to remember.
“Look, Morgan.” She squeezed her daughter’s arm gently. “I know it’s not much, and it’s not permanent, but it will be ours and we might actually have a lot of fun fixing it up just the way we want. We can paint it bright colors and maybe get some funky pillows and things. It’ll be fun. Promise me you’ll at least give it a chance.”
She stared into her daughter’s heavily eye-lined eyes, and hoped upon hope that something she said might be getting through to her. For a moment, she thought Morgan would close up again and shut her out, but then she nodded. “Okay.”
It wasn’t much, but it was all Cam needed. “Okay. Let’s go find Junky.” Her face split into a smile she definitely didn’t feel, and she jumped out of the car before Morgan could change her mind again.