Sherry was rudely awakened by the weight of a forty-pound Australian Shepherd catapulting onto her bed. The dog danced over her chest and head in an attempt to see out the window. As Sherry tried to fight off the dog and the blankets she’d cocooned herself in, the distinctive sound of hoof beats echoed in the predawn light. Thankfully none of her neighbors lived close enough to see her parading around in her pajamas as she attempted to catch her two errant horses. She didn’t even want to think of the divots they’d torn from her perfectly manicured lawn in their mad romp across the dewy grass.
When it was light enough to see, she’d done a quick fence repair before racing through her morning routine and getting ready for work. Unfortunately her four year old son shared her strong dislike for mornings, and his reaction to being rushed had been a major meltdown. She felt like the world’s worst mother after twenty minutes of arguing with him. Before she’d dropped him off at daycare she’d taken the time to apologize to him. Now, not only did she still feel guilty about being bad mom, but she feared she was also late for work. She cranked up the radio and stepped on the gas.
Gretchen Wilson’s Redneck Woman blared out of Sherry’s radio. She glanced at the clock and reflexively stepped just a little harder on the gas pedal. As her truck swung around the corner of the two-lane highway she realized a Highway Patrol car was coming straight for her in the opposite lane. She hit the brakes as he hit the lights. Her heartbeat kicked up and adrenaline pumped through her veins as her gaze locked on the patrol car in her rearview mirror. Lights still flashing, the patrolman completed a skilled U-turn and pulled in behind her. She pulled over to the shoulder of the road.
Sherry sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly as she removed her driver’s license from her purse. This just wasn’t going to be her day. She rolled down the window then shut off the truck engine. Sherry didn’t look at the trooper when he approached her window. Instead she just held out her driver’s license. Sherry always had a thing for hands so she didn’t fail to notice the attractive, flat-tipped fingers that took her license.
“Good morning. Do you know why I stopped you today?” His cheerful greeting in a deep, rich voice set Sherry on edge. She bit her tongue to keep a snappy retort from escaping. A quick look at the man in uniform assured Sherry that the seductive voice matched an attractive face. Dark brown hair accented bedroom dark eyes in a classically handsome face. She had to be pulled over by a good-looking cop. Her day just kept getting worse. “I really wasn’t aware how fast I was going, so I’d say speeding?”
“What’s the hurry?”
“I’m sorry. I am late for work and not really paying attention to how fast I was going.”
“Is this your truck?” He glance slid over the big black Ford truck. From the style, it was only a year or two old. The truck held a fresh waxed shine, but the running boards and rocker panels were covered in a layer of dust telling him that she’d recently driven down a gravel road.
Sherry frowned. Who said women couldn’t drive trucks? The black three quarter–ton four wheel drive was her dream truck. She’d finally been able to afford it last year. “Yes,” she snapped, and then belatedly realized that it was probably a standard question.
If he noticed her defensive response he didn’t acknowledge it. “Okay, well, we’ll get you on your way fast. Stay here for a moment. I’ll be right back.”
She watched in her mirror as he walked away. She groaned. The man had nice hands, a sexy voice, and a gorgeous pair of legs. She’d been too long without a man if she was fantasizing about a highway patrolman. This was definitely not her day.
She fidgeted while she waited for him to return. Sherry watched him in her mirror as he climbed gracefully from the car and, despite his comment about getting her on her way fast, leisurely strolled to her window. He handed her license back to her. “When you came around the corner you were doing seventy. I clocked you at sixty-nine. That will save you a few dollars.”
“Thanks…I think.” Sherry took the ticket. She turned the key and started her truck. The officer hadn’t moved from her window.
“Sherry Ann, you drive safe now.” His deep voice sounded like a verbal caress. “Don’t forget your seatbelt.”
Sherry’s eyes flipped back to his. He smiled at her, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and then turned and walked away. Sherry flipped over the ticket and realized he could’ve tagged her with another sixty five dollars for not wearing her seatbelt. Sherry stretched and snapped her seatbelt before shifting the truck into gear and pulling back onto the road.
Sherry arrived at work a half hour late. Fortunately Sherry’s boss was easygoing and laughed when Sherry explained her ticket. Before long news of Sherry’s ticket had spread and the other office employees teased her. Jane, the administrative assistant to the CFO, came up to her. “What’s this I hear about you flirting with a highway patrolman?”
“I didn’t!” Sherry exclaimed, but as the older woman continued to look at her Sherry felt her cheeks growing warm. “But I should’ve! He was hot!”
Jane started laughing, and Sherry joined her. Jane pressed for more, but Sherry refused to tell the older woman anything beyond the fact that he was tall, dark, and handsome. She certainly wasn’t going to reveal that simply looking at the man gave her a sensation of butterflies in her stomach. She assumed she’d never see him again anyway. There was no sense dreaming of something she couldn’t have. Sherry continued on her workday, too busy to think about the handsome cop.
Three months later…..
Despite the date on the calendar that said it was early fall, summer hadn’t yet relinquished its hold on the weather. Temperatures hovered in the seventies. Sherry loved days like this. The bright sunshine beckoned while she worked. Thankful they were done with their busy season, she took a half day of vacation and snuck out of work early. She now cruised along the two-lane road with the wind from the open window whipping through her hair. She planned to make good use of the couple free hours she had before she needed to pick her son up from daycare.
A big red dump truck driving several cars ahead of her suddenly swerved and braked hard before abruptly pulling over to the side of the road. The two cars in front of Sherry hit their brakes as they continued past the truck.
A female truck driver swung down from the cab of the big truck. Cautious of the cars behind her Sherry slowed down and moved over half a lane as she continued past the truck. She spotted a flopping, dying mother duck on the side of the road. A half dozen ducklings were scattered along the highway in both directions. Sherry used the next road to turn around to see if she could help the truck driver. When Sherry arrived the woman had found a bucket and was attempting to scoop up the frightened and scattered ducklings.
“Can I help?”
“The guy in front of me didn’t even slow down. He just blew right through them!” With frantic movements the woman waded through the knee-deep grass in her heavy work boots searching for the remaining ducklings.
Sherry spotted a duckling hiding in the grass. Quickly she snatched it up and dumped it into the woman’s bucket. The yellow ducklings peeped and scrambled at the sides of the bucket in a panic to escape their rescuers. The woman valiantly tried to cover the bucket with her hands to keep the ducklings from leaping out. Seeing the dilemma and the potential of losing the ducklings they rescued, Sherry ran back to her truck for the spare blanket Jacob, her son, kept in the truck.
As she crossed the road back to the dump truck she looked up to see a patrol car pull in behind the dump truck. She couldn’t help but watch the driver as he climbed from the car. It was the same highway patrolman who’d pulled her over this spring! Law enforcement officers always made Sherry nervous, but after her run in with this one she’d kept a cautious eye out for them. Sherry handed the other woman the blanket to use over the bucket.
“What seems to be the problem?” A deep voice asked at her shoulder.
The voice caused goose bumps over Sherry’s flesh. Glancing over her shoulder, she stifled a groan. She registered his good looks instantly. She tried to ignore his broad chest and the way his pants outlined the long muscles in his legs. His eyes, which she remembered as being dark, were hidden behind reflective sunglasses. She listened as the woman told her story.
“How many have you found?” She asked the woman with bucket. Maybe if she was lucky the trooper wouldn’t recognize her. Sherry tried to keep her eyes and thoughts on the ducklings.
“I have four. I know there were at least six of them and one might have made it to the other side of the road.”
“I’ll check the other side,” the man offered and headed across the highway.
“Thank you for your help.” Close up, Sherry could see that the woman was older than her lean body in designer jeans and a spaghetti tank top first led her to believe.
“I can’t believe no one else stopped.”
“I know what you mean. Of course-there’s him.” The blond woman nodded towards the patrolman who was crossing the road with a fragile looking duckling cupped in his big hands. He cautiously set the little duckling in the bucket with his siblings.
“That’s too bad. It’s a tough road to cross.” He said shaking his head at the poor dead mama duck.
“Now I just have to figure out what to do with them.” Emily lifted the edge of the blanket to peer at the ducks in the bucket.
“I know the University has a wildlife rescue facility. You could call them. It looks like you’re heading the wrong direction though. If they wouldn’t accept them or you can’t get the ducklings down there maybe they could tell you how to care for them.” Sherry had a friend who worked for a veterinary hospital and knew they referred a lot of similar cases down there.
“I need to be back at the pit by three o’clock. I’ve got an operator waiting on me.”
“I can have dispatch give the University a call and find out what they say,” the patrolman offered.
“That would be great!” The woman’s face broke into a smile that lit her rather plain features. “I’m glad he stopped,” she said as she peered once again into her bucket of chirping, frightened ducklings as if to assure herself that they were okay.
“I am too as long as he doesn’t remember me. He gave me a speeding ticket a couple of months ago.” Sherry laughed self-consciously.
Emily gave her a sympathetic look. They chatted about the area for a couple of minutes before the highway patrolman returned. Sherry noticed for the first time the gold nameplate on his chest that read EJ Cutter. He smiled warmly at both of them, and Sherry half wished he’d remove his sunglasses to see if the smile actually reached his eyes.
“Okay. They close at 6:00 and depending upon your situation I don’t know what time you’d be able to make it down there. They did offer me some instructions on care if you’re interested.”
“I have a ten and twelve year old at home that would love the chance.”
EJ Cutter outlined the care and feeding instructions for the woman. Sherry listened with one ear and kept trying to avoid staring at the handsome cop.
“Thanks for your help, both of you. Wish me luck.”
Sherry wished the woman good luck and turned to leave. She realized the patrolman had removed his sunglasses and was watching her with intense dark eyes. “Sherry Ann,” he drawled, “don’t forget to buckle up.” He winked at her before sliding his glasses back on his face.
Embarrassed that he had remembered her, Sherry spun around quickly and tried to avoid running to her truck. “Thanks for the reminder,” she called back over her shoulder. She couldn’t believe he remembered her name! The quivery feeling that raced through her body had her fighting to keep the truck’s speed to the speed limit as she drove toward home. There was just something about this man that set her on edge. Quite determined she’d never see him again she put him out of her mind.
EJ wasn’t sure what had made him wink at her. When he’d spotted the dump truck and pulled up behind it he never dreamed he’d be rescuing ducks. He’d learned over the years not to be surprised at anything; however nothing had prepared him for the sight of the Good Samaritan who’d also stopped.
EJ had a good memory for faces and people, but he his memory of this woman from months ago was extremely vivid. EJ didn’t know what made her stand out so much. It wasn’t her looks. She was pretty enough with a swath of chestnut hair and an athletic body dressed in blue jeans and a fitted t-shirt, but he’d come across far prettier women in his time on the force, women who flaunted their looks and dressed to enhance it.
She’d avoided looking at him, making it very clear to him that she recognized him as well. He always remained professional at stops until today when he chose to tease her. Her mere presence confused him, and he’d wanted to see if she became as flustered as he felt. He wondered if this woman triggered something in him that might allow him to start dating again. He’d definitely need a different approach. He hadn’t tried charming anyone in years. He shrugged it off. He just wasn’t ready and surely he’d never see the woman again.
Three months later….
Several inches of slushy snow had fallen during the night and had continued to pile up all morning. Sherry and her closest friend, Marie, had considered canceling their monthly lunch date, but decided to risk it since the opportunity came so rarely. While they ate the weather outside had worsened to near blizzard conditions. When they stepped out of the restaurant the cold sucked their breath away. Snowflakes, driven by the wind, stung their cheeks as they made their way to Marie’s truck. On the way back to Sherry’s office they began to doubt their choice of days for a lunch.
Normally a Minnesotan snowstorm excited Sherry who looked forward to blowing through fresh powder on her snowmobile, but the treacherous drive back to Sherry’s office made her anxious to get home to her son. She still had a half a day of work left and prayed the company president would let them out early. Marie attempted to chat, but Sherry wasn’t fooled. Marie’s white knuckled grip on the steering wheel told a different story. Coming around a long corner it occurred to Sherry that they were rapidly gaining on a little Geo Metro in front of them. The Geo’s taillights were encrusted with snow making the brake lights invisible.
“Marie!” Sherry called out in warning as the little car in front of them started sliding as it braked too hard to avoid the car ahead of it that was hidden from them in a cloud of whirling snow. Marie tried to swerve around the Geo. Her tire caught the shoulder of the road, swinging the truck sideways. Marie tried to correct it, but they only whipped hard in the opposite direction as she over corrected.
The truck careened off the road and headlong into a tree. The tree stopped their forward momentum but the side hill they were on sent the rear of the truck sliding downward. When it stopped abruptly after connecting with another tree, Sherry cracked her head on the side window.
Marie struggled with her airbag. “Are you okay?”
Sherry groggily lifted her head. Raising a hand to her aching head, she pulled it away bloody. “I guess,” she said as she put her hand back over the cut to stem the flow of blood. She didn’t want to excite Marie. “How about you?”
As the two of them tried to group their thoughts someone knocked on Marie’s window. Marie rolled down the window. A young man wearing a concerned expression on his face stood outside the window. “I was right behind you when you went in. Are you okay?”
“We think so.”
“You might want to shut off your engine.”
Only then did they become aware of the sound from the struggling, damaged engine. When Marie turned the key, Sherry noticed Marie’s hand was shaking. It was no wonder. That had been scary.
“I called 911 just in case. Are you sure you’re both okay?”
“Just shaky.” Marie giggled.
Sherry knew shock must have been setting in for Marie. “Just a small cut I think.” Sherry was relaxed enough now to pull down the mirror to see her bleeding forehead.
“Here’s the highway patrol now.” The man said gesturing to the maroon car with the flashing lights that pulled up behind his SUV.
“Do you need an ambulance?”
Sherry’s stomach fluttered even as she recognized the now familiar voice of the man who caused her a few nervous breaths every time she saw a state patrol car. “No,” she said firmly.
“I don’t think so," Marie said. The man who was standing at Marie’s window stepped aside to give the patrolman access to the vehicle.
He opened Marie’s door. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Marie tried to move for the first time. “Actually, my foot hurts.”
Okay. Don’t move. I’d rather the paramedics take a look. And you?”
Sherry watched EJ’s eyes widened visibly as he recognized her. What was the coincidence of seeing this man three times in the past nine months? “I think I’m mostly okay.”
“Hold on. Don’t try to move.”
A siren could be heard coming closer. Cutter stepped off to thank and dismiss the passerby after getting his account of the accident. The paramedics rushed through the snow and then carried Marie from the truck to the ambulance.
EJ climbed into the driver’s seat of the truck. He couldn’t believe he was seeing this woman again. “Hi,” he said. Sherry’s luminous blue eyes which appeared overly large on her white face snapped to his. Her eyes searched his face, but EJ wasn’t exactly sure what she saw.
“Are you okay, Sherry Ann?” He pulled a pristine white handkerchief from his jacket pocket and slowly removing her hand he pressed the cloth to her head. “We’ll have them check you out. Amazing! You’re even wearing your seatbelt.”
She wore a dazed expression. She didn’t say anything as he quickly released her seatbelt. “If you’re sure you’re okay you can slide across the seat.”
Irresistibly long eyelashes framed brown eyes that weren’t as dark as they appeared. Upon closer inspection she could see flecks of green and gold through them. “Really, I’m fine.” Fortified, she started into motion sliding her body across the bench seat. As quickly as she started she stopped. The distance between the two of them closed too quickly. Clearing his throat, EJ realized the problem. He quickly slid his big body out of the truck. One of the paramedics stepped forward as EJ stepped out.
Sherry sat on the edge of the ambulance as one of the paramedics cleaned the wound on her head. The second paramedic addressed Marie’s foot in the interior of the vehicle. Sherry’s gaze strayed to EJ Cutter as he paced off the accident scene and supervised the arrival of the tow truck.
Sherry overheard the paramedic tell Marie that she would need x-rays. The paramedic treating Sherry’s wound suggested she should continue to the hospital with them. While the cut wasn’t large and had stopped bleeding, the concern was the bump on her head.
Sherry adamantly refused. She needed to pick up Jacob from daycare. The paramedics pushed the possibility of a concussion and that she shouldn’t stay alone. Sherry listened to their instructions but refused the hospital attempt. The Highway Patrolman had come to check on them and ask Marie where she wanted her truck towed. He frowned when he heard Sherry refusing to go to the hospital.
“I just need a ride to my truck. I need to pick up my son from daycare.”
“Is there someone else you could call?”
“I can give you a ride to your truck.”
“Great.” Sherry hopped from the ambulance with more energy than she felt. “Marie, I’ll call Troy for you and tell him where to pick you up. Is that okay that I leave you?”
Marie knew Sherry was anxious to pick up Jacob and get home in this weather. “I’ll be fine. Can you call my dad too?”
EJ placed his hand under Sherry’s elbow and led her through the slushy snow to his car. Despite her thick jacket and his gloves Sherry could feel the gentle strength in his fingers as she escorted her to the car and opened the door. Sherry slid into the warm dry interior. As the heat hit her, she began to shiver. The cold from outside had seeped into her bones.
EJ climbed into the driver’s seat. Glancing at the pale face of the woman next to him he seriously wondered if he’d done the right thing by agreeing to take her back to her own vehicle. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”
“Positive.” There was no weakness in her voice. “That little bump on the head isn’t going to stop me. My truck is just up the road…right before you get to 169.”
EJ frowned. “That sounds like its right next to the hospital.”
“Close enough.” Sherry, afraid of the patrolman’s reaction, shot him a quick glance. He just shook his head and chuckled.
“Are you ready then?” he asked as he fastened his seatbelt.
“Yep.” She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. She opened them when she realized they weren’t moving. He pointedly looked at her. It took a second for Sherry to realize he was waiting on her to buckle her seatbelt. Sheepishly she reached for it and snapped it.
The snow continued down with a vengeance, but the patrolman handled the slippery road with expertise. With humor, EJ turned into an office-building parking lot that was directly across from the hospital. Once parked, EJ turned to the woman beside him. “Are you going to head straight home?”
“First I’ve got to call Marie’s husband. Then I’m going to tell my boss I’m going home.” Sherry thanked him for the ride and climbed from the car. The snow swirled around in the entryway of the building as she waded through the several inches that had dropped while she’d been at lunch. She was to the door when a long arm reached past her to pull it open. She glanced over her shoulder in surprise. “You don’t have to come with me.”
EJ tried not to smile. This woman didn’t do anything easily and going home was probably not the highest on her list of priorities. “Sure I do. I want you to go home safely.”
Sherry shrugged and walked in through the open door as if being escorted by an attractive, dark haired patrolman was an every day occurrence. The receptionist glanced up in surprise, her attention drawn like a bullet to the stark white bandage on Sherry’s forehead.
Sherry gave Connie, the receptionist, an apologetic glance but didn’t stop to explain. Sherry’s goal was to make her phone calls and leave. Sherry had to walk through the middle of the accounting department to reach her office. Heads turned to follow her as her khaki pants, soaked to the knees from wading through the snow, left droplets of melting snow on the carpet.
When Sherry entered her office she found her boss seated at her desk. “Oh good. You’re here. I was leaving you a note-” His voice trailed off as he actually looked at her and spotted the dark stream of blood down her tan colored thigh length jacket. “What happened?” Jay stood up and almost defensively faced off the cop behind his number one employee.
Sherry rolled her eyes. Chilled to the bone, with her head pounding a steady tattoo, she didn’t feel like standing between her boss and a too controlling patrolman. Both tall and athletically built men they seemed to square off and sum each other up.
“I went to lunch with a friend, and we were involved in an accident. The roads are really getting nasty out there. Would you mind if I took the rest of the afternoon off?” She placed a surprisingly unsteady hand to the bandage on her head.
Jay seemed to start out of his silent confrontation with the officer. “No, you go home. Drive carefully.”
“Thank you. I just need to call my friend’s husband.”
“Of course. Is everything okay?”
“Marie hurt her ankle and was taken to the hospital but other than that…its fine.”
“Okay, well go home and rest.” Jay laid a kind hand on her shoulder before moving off to leave Sherry with Cutter as her only shadow.
Sherry made quick calls to Marie’s husband and her father. She tried not to alarm either of them. Both men were headed to the hospital by the time Sherry headed back out to her truck. Sherry had never been overly fond of cops, and this patrolman’s presence made her uneasy. Despite his good looks, he intimidated Sherry. “Don’t you have other people to rescue? I’m heading home now. See?”
“Remember to buckle up,” he ordered as he opened the door to his patrol car.
Relieved he was leaving, Sherry practically dived into her truck. She started the truck then turned the heat on full blast. She flipped on the windshield wipers, but they failed to move under the heavy layer of snow. Grabbing the brush from the floor, she slid out of the truck and collided with what felt like a brick wall.
Cutter’s hands came out to steady Sherry as she collided with his chest. Her blue eyes shot crystal sparks of irritation. Before she could say anything, Cutter stepped back putting space between them and plucked the brush from her numb fingers. Sherry stood around feeling helpless as he swiped the snow from her windows. He handed her the brush back and a card. “Call me and let me know you got home safe.”
Without a backwards glance he went to his car, opened the door, and folded his long body inside. Sherry watched him drive away. Pain ricocheted through her head as she shook it in confusion. Cautiously, so as not to rock her head, she climbed into her truck. The truck tires spun as she pulled out of the parking lot. Sherry reflexively snapped on her seat belt. She felt slightly relieved once she arrived at daycare and picked up Jacob. The snow didn’t seem to be slackening, and the farther south she drove the road conditions worsened by the blowing and drifting. Sherry got the horses closed up in their stalls for evening and made a light dinner for her and Jacob.
Sherry ignored Cutter’s orders to call him. She did call to check on Marie, and then laid Jacob down at eight o’clock. She didn’t honestly believe he’d fall asleep, but she turned on a video for him to watch and that kept him quiet. Jacob could tell she wasn’t feeling well. The little boy had been especially amiable all evening.
The day’s activity exhausted her, but Sherry knew that even if she lay down sleep would be slow in coming. Instead she ran a hot bath hoping it would take away the chill she still felt. Sherry shrugged out of her clothes quickly, scanning her body for bruises in the mirror. A large bruise marked her shoulder at the major point of impact from the seatbelt. Liberally dousing the water with bubble bath she breathed in the scent of strawberries. The bubbles tickled Sherry’s toes as she started to step into the bath. The phone rang. Sighing, Sherry grabbed a towel and padded, naked, from the bathroom.
As soon as she answered the phone a voice accused from the other side “You didn’t call.”
“Who-” Sherry stopped. She knew who it was. “How did you get my number?” Every story she’d heard and every movie she’d seen about police officers stalking citizens flooded her brain. She stamped down the momentary panic she felt.
“That’s not important. What is important is that you neglected to follow my instructions.”
“Look, I appreciate your concern, but… Do you do this to everyone who gets into an accident?” There was a long pause as if he was wondering how to answer her question.
“I’m sorry. I’m not attempting to harass you. You told me you had no one to call, so I assume no one is checking up on you either. I wasn’t sure I’d done the right thing by letting you go home alone. That’s the reason I asked you to call.”
“I’m perfectly fine. You did your duty, officer.”
“Good. How’s your head?”
“Tender,” she said honestly.
“I hope you’re relaxing. What are you doing now?”
Sherry looked down at herself. She had a phone clutched in one hand and a towel in the other with nothing in between. “Actually I need to get off the phone. I was just about to climb into the bath.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line, and Sherry felt elated. Apparently she’d taken him by surprise. “Uh-Sherry, you shouldn’t tell people you hardly know things like that over the phone.”
“Kind of like telling a child never to admit they are home alone? You’ve had me at a disadvantage since our first meeting. Why should it be any different now?”
“I’m sorry,” he croaked, attempting to put the imaginary picture of her naked body out of his head.
“Good night, Cutter.” Before EJ could protest the line went dead.