Paxton Cates was not in a good mood. When his phone rang at three fifty-six in the morning and he heard the voice on the other end of the line, he’d been tempted to hang up—but he knew there’d be hell to pay with his mother if he did. Which was why he was walking into the Climax Police Department at five forty-five a.m.
The new rookie cop he’d met in court the week before stood ramrod straight behind the front desk. He stopped and shook his hand. “Officer Davis. Are you the one who brought Ms. Joyner in?”
“Yes, sir. I made the collar.”
Paxton squinted one eye at him. “Right. What is she being charged with?”
Davis picked up a clipboard and handed it across the desk to him. “It’s kind of a long list. It’s probably easier if you just read the charges yourself.”
Huh. Captain America here made her sound like a hardened criminal. He took the clipboard from Davis, who seemed a bit too jazzed about the arrest. If he was looking for an adrenaline fix from fighting crime, he was in for a disappointment in Climax. Paxton nodded and moved toward the holding cell in the back. Officer Rojas was leaning against the bars of the cell, laughing with the prisoner.
“Rafe.” He nodded at him. “I’d like a few minutes with Ms. Joyner.”
“Sure thing, Paxton.” Rafe straightened away from the bars and winked in at her. “I’ll be back.”
Paxton grabbed a straight-backed wooden chair from along the wall and moved it to sit directly in front of the cell. He relaxed back and stared at his high school nemesis, Jolene Joyner. Jojo. Jo. The girl who’d found a way to annoy him almost every day in high school as if she’d put it on her to-do list. The sweet smile she’d graced Rafe with disappeared and her gaze narrowed at him through the bars. She still looked like the perky, hot cheerleader she’d been in high school. The black jeans and shirt she wore only highlighted her long, wavy blond hair. Not bleached; more like sun-streaked honey. And she had those big gray eyes she used to suck guys in and hypnotize them. He’d avoided that sad fate his whole life—he wasn’t going to fall for it now.
“Paxton.” She lifted her stubborn little chin at him. “What took so long? I called you almost two hours ago.”
“Jolene. Two hours? Really? Well, let’s see.” He stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles. “I had to shower. And eat breakfast. I was going to scramble a couple of eggs to save time, but then I decided I really wanted pancakes. I make a mean pancake. I even heated up the maple syrup to pour over them. And then I had to drive here.”
“You live ten minutes away.”
“I made coffee. French press. That takes a little longer to get it just right.” He needed to let Jo know she couldn’t run him around like she did one of her adoring boyfriends. No sir. She’d had guys wrapped around her little finger for years. She broke a nail and the boyfriend du jour came running. Paxton wanted it clear she couldn’t wrap him up like that. “I had a Redbox movie to turn in or I would’ve been charged for another day. Please. Zombie Stewardesses was good, but not that good.”
“Oh, good. Are you sure you didn’t have a library book you could have dropped off at the night drop? We wouldn’t want you to have to pay an overdue fine.”
He didn’t bother to stop his grin. “Actually, princess, I dropped that off too.”
“Don’t call me that.”
That’s right. She’d always hated it when he did that, hadn’t she? Guess he’d forgotten. He let his gaze wander over her, meandering down and up the long length of her and watched her bristle like an angry kitten. They’d met in preschool when he’d cut off one of her pigtails. She’d burst into sloppy tears and he’d had to spend recess in the time-out chair. Instant enemies. The older they got, the less they got along.
Between college, law school, and a stint with an established law firm in D.C., he’d been away for over ten years. When he’d come back two years ago, they’d both discovered absence hadn’t made the heart grow fonder for either of them. Mostly they just gave each other a wide berth. “So, Jolene. It’s good to hear from you. How are things? How’s old . . . dang, what’s his name? Jason? John? Jeremy! How’s Jeremy doing?”
“Jeremy? I wouldn’t know. We broke up two years ago and he moved to Florida. Don’t you ever talk to your mother?”
“Sure I do. We just don’t talk about you.” Well, enough fun. He sat up and reached to the table behind him for the clipboard with her arrest paperwork. The first thing he saw made him smile. “No way. Your name is Jolene Jolene Joyner? I wish I’d known that back in middle school.”
He heard her huff of breath and grinned up at her.
“Mama was a big Dolly Parton fan. Laugh all you want, Paxton. You can’t tell anyone about my name on account of the attorney-client privilege.”
“Damn, Jolene Jolene, I could have had a lot of fun with that.”
She made some noise that sounded like a junkyard dog about to attack. “Would you mind getting back to my charges, please?”
“Okay, okay. Let me guess . . . Officer Davis pulled you over for speeding, saw all the previous speeding tickets on your record, probably an unpaid one too, couldn’t be charmed by your big eyes or moved by your tears, and arrested your cute little behind. How’d I do?”
“Uuhhh. Not quite.” A delicate pink flushed her cheeks and she bit down on her lower lip. She’d probably practiced that in front of the mirror a million times to get it to look that sexy.
Paxton jerked his gaze away from her mouth and down to the clipboard and skimmed further down the form. “What the hell, Jolene?”
“He totally made some of those charges up.”
“Which ones?” He pinned her with his gaze before reading them off. “Trespassing, breaking and entering, burglary? Why would you break into the animal shelter, Jo?”
She turned her head to stare at the cinder-block wall in front of her. “It’s a long story.”
“Do tell.” He waited a beat, but when she remained silent—for the first time ever, to his knowledge—he went back to reading the charges. “Aggravating a police officer, resisting arrest, and bribery. Bribery, Jo? Seriously?”
“No! I told you he made some charges up. All I said was I was sure we could clear everything up with a friendly talk over doughnuts. When he accused me of trying to bribe him, I only brought up money and sex as examples of what a real bribe would be. Just check his tape—it’ll prove I’m telling the truth. He just doesn’t like me, is all.” Jo’s lower lip pushed out before she pressed her lips together.
“Money and sex? Why were you even talking to him?” What was he saying? Jo would talk the ears off an elephant. He ran his hand over his face, taking a deep breath before glancing back at her. “He didn’t like you? Gee, what could you possibly have done? I mean, other than break the law.”
“I might have referred to him as Barney Fife. I mean, possibly.” Jo’s gaze flicked up at him and quickly away before she stood up from the cot attached to the wall and paced in the small cell. “And there was that whole awkward part where I sort of head-butted his nose, which hurt me more than him, I’m pretty sure. The doughnut offer—a totally polite gesture on my part. Other than those little things . . . I don’t know why he didn’t like me. Normally I’m a very likable person. Please, Paxton, you’ve got to help me fix this. I’ve never not been . . .”
“Perfect? Look, this really isn’t my specialty anymore, but I’ve got a friend who—” He stopped talking as a thought hit him, and he felt a little bit like the Grinch when he decided to steal Christmas from Whoville. Because Jo was right. Outside of him, everyone did like her. Jolene Joyner had a perfect reputation. Until last night, but he could spin that no problem. “On second thought, I’ve got a proposition for you.”
She stopped pacing and tilted her head at him. “What?”
“You know I’m vice president of the Climax Judicial District Bar Association—”
“I had no idea.”
“I’m planning on running for president, but it’s been strongly suggested to me that I’d be a shoo-in if I was in a stable, committed relationship.” Coming back to Climax had been the next step toward his ultimate goal of becoming a judge. He’d been working on his political and community connections, but being a bachelor, he was left off the invite list on many of the local social gatherings that seemed to cater to couples. Jolene could be his way in.
“And to think you acted like I was the crazy one. I am not flying to Vegas with you for some quickie marriage at the drive-through Chapel of Elvis.”
“Good lord, no. I’ll help you deal with your arrest and charges and you just have to pretend to be in a relationship with me for six months. Tops.”
“You and me? A couple? No one is going to buy that. I mean, we go together as well as Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club.”
“You know they kiss in the end, right?”
“Cats and dogs. Cheerleaders and baseball. Eggnog and tuna fish.”
“No one knows that but you and me. I bet you’ve never even told your mother, have you?”
“No. You know our moms are good friends. I didn’t want to start something awkward between them.”
“We can make it work for six months. Deal?”
She shot him what he used to call her princess-deigns-to acknowledge-the-peasants look back in high school. He hated that look.
“You know what . . . never mind. Let me go see about getting you out of here and the charges dropped.” He looked back down at the list. “They can’t prove the B and E or theft, so I’ll get those thrown out . . . what? What was that look for?”
Jo walked over to the cot and lifted the blanket to reveal a sleeping puppy.
“Christ, Jo.” Paxton shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, wishing he was anywhere else but standing in front of Jolene Joyner wanting to shake some sense into her. He stepped up to the bars where he spoke low enough for her ears alone. “What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know.” She slumped down onto the edge of the cot, opening her mouth to explain, but stopped and shook her head with a shrug.
Right. Why would she trust him when she didn’t much like him? He gripped the bars tighter before letting go and stepping back. “How is it they let you keep the dog with you? He’s evidence.”
“He doesn’t like men, so Barney, I mean Officer Davis, said I could keep him until the shelter opened and could come get him.” She reached out, softly petting the dog. “But Paxton, if you could work something out, I would really like to keep him. Please.”
“You know the legal system isn’t a big believer in finders keepers, right?” It was like the princess thought there were special rules just for her. “How did you get those bruises on your forearms and face?”
Glancing down at her arms with a curious look on her face, she ran a hand lightly over the purple smudges. “Huh. I guess that’s where Officer Davis grabbed me to pull me out. I sort of got stuck under the chain-link fence. He didn’t mean to hurt me. I bruise easily.”
She moved over to him, staring up at him through the bars, her eyes like soft storm clouds after a spring rain. “Yes?”
“Shut up.” He reached his hand through the bars and smoothed her hair, examining the soft purple smudges on her cheek and nose. “At least until I get you out of here. I’ll get the charges dropped with the excessive force used by the arresting officer; you’ll walk with a few hours of community service.”
“You’re that sure?”
“I’m that good.” He grinned when she rolled her eyes. “Hang tight. I’ll have you out soon.”
Picking up the clipboard from the chair, he nodded at her and turned to head out. A quick call to Judge Garvey, who’d be slipping his hearing aids on right about now, should speed things along and then he and Jolene “Jojo” Joyner could go back to ignoring each other.
Turning back, he raised an eyebrow when she stayed silent, staring at him.
“Thank you.” Her small hands trembled and twisted around the bars. “I’d help you if I could . . . I just—”
“Can’t. Right.” Paxton watched her fingers twitching in agitation. She might be saying no right now, but that hesitation told him he still had a chance to change her no to a yes. He could be pretty charming and convincing. Just never with Jo. He was up to the challenge. “No hard feelings here, but just so you know, I haven’t given up.”
* * *
Jolene sat in the county courthouse, attempting to look as calm and collected as possible. Under the circumstances, she thought she was doing an okay job of it, considering her stomach felt an awful lot like the time three summers back when she’d eaten bad shrimp. She inhaled and exhaled carefully in an attempt to rein in her galloping heart. How did you get yourself in this predicament, Jojo?
Totally rhetorical question. A person didn’t go from never getting in trouble—speeding tickets aside—for her whole life to being handcuffed, thrown in jail, and charged with a minimum of three misdemeanors and not know how it happened. Jo hadn’t acted on impulse since before middle school. In fact, since as far back as the fourth grade, Jo had lived her life according to the rules. Nothing she did in her life was done without careful consideration. Her actions were always deliberate and sensible. She’d learned to color inside the lines in all areas of her life. Until the phone call at two in the morning. Answering the phone wasn’t the problem. But her hasty, rushed response to it . . . That may be where she’d gone wrong.
You think, Jo? Maybe if she’d held it together and handled the situation calmly, she might have come up with another option. Shutting her eyes, she recalled what had led to the one impulsive act in her life: a promising student in need, the student’s punk boyfriend way too excited about breaking and entering, and the life of an innocent puppy. It had been an emotional perfect storm that battered her cautious, normally prudent decision-making process.
The fact that she’d had to call Paxton? Meant she’d hit bottom. Seriously, she and Paxton Cates hadn’t said two friendly words to each other since sometime in freshman year of high school. His voice, thick with disapproval a few hours earlier, still cut through her brain: what were you thinking?
Which to her mind was a dumb question because, pfft, of course she hadn’t thought it through. It had been ill-advised, half-baked, foolhardy, headlong, and probably about a million other compound words she could think up. And she was an English teacher, so she could think up a lot.
Paxton had donned a dark suit and a red power tie since his visit to the jail that morning, and the man wore a suit well. Perfectly fitted and stylish but not, she’d guess, the same expensive suits he wore when he represented clients in D.C. But then, compared to practicing law in D.C., it must be as different as driving a car behind eighty-year-old Beatrice Simon in a school zone versus driving in the Daytona 500.
The man had charm; he was a real sweet talker. Except for her, everyone liked Paxton Cates. He remembered little details, like when he asked Stu Baker, the court bailiff, about his daughter’s softball game. And he’d had Bettyjean Pruitt, the court stenographer, all but melting when he asked about her carpal tunnel. The opposing counsel was close to busting a gut when Paxton relayed some golfing story that involved shots of whiskey, a runaway golf cart, and the Silver Foxes golf tournament.
Watching him relaxed and chatting up the handful of people called into a rare Saturday court session wasn’t helping calm her down. The more Paxton laughed and joked with people, the tighter her insides coiled up like a spring, compressed and ready to explode out.
It was only when his warm, firm hand settled on her knee that she realized she’d been wiggling her foot so furiously her whole leg was shaking as if she was sitting on some vibrating chair.
“Relax, Jolene. You’ve put yourself in my hands, and not to brag or anything, but I’ve got very talented, capable hands.”
“If you’re trying to take my mind off being nervous with cute banter, please don’t bother.” The last thing she needed was his cute banter, although something about his touch and his deep voice in her ear steadied her nerves.
“Touchy, Jojo. Touchy. You don’t need to worry. I know for a fact Judge Garvey is in a hurry to get home to tend to his pumpkins this afternoon.”
“How would you know that?” She narrowed her eyes at him, studying his handsome face. Those summer leaf-green eyes that made you think you were the only interesting person in a room when they locked on you. As far back as she could remember, Paxton had liked to talk to people, and people liked to talk to him. And not just women either, so it wasn’t because of his good looks.
Yes, she admitted he was a very fine specimen. Heck, he was a Cates brother and had been blessed with some sexy DNA. Each one of them was tall and well put together, with dark brown hair and those disgustingly rugged jaws.
“He told me just last week about the new heirloom pumpkin varieties he’s growing this year. He added a Speckled Hound hybrid right next to his Polar Bear white pumpkin. He’s fixing to enter them in the county fair in September. If I recall, today’s the day he’s supposed to add compost to his garden, so trust me, the man wants this over quick.” He winked at her, flashing his dimple. “Here we go, princess.”
The door opened and the bailiff called, “All rise. Department One of the Climax County Court is now in session. Judge Garvey presiding. Please be seated.”
It was like a switch flipped and Paxton became a serious, sublimely professional corporate lawyer.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is case number CR 16-117, the People of North Carolina versus Jolene Joyner, on for arraignment.” The judge looked over at her table. “Mr. Cates, do you waive the reading of the indictment in its entirety?”
“We do, Your Honor. In fact, sir, in the matter of expediency, I move we dispose of this case today.”
“Let’s hear it, Mr. Cates.”
“Due to the fact that my client has a spotless record—”
“Your client had two unpaid speeding tickets as of six o’clock this morning.”
“Had, Your Honor. She discharged that debt, and my client is truly remorseful about them.”
Jo didn’t even need to fake a look of guilt. She really did feel awful about forgetting to pay them. Although she’d felt much worse about speeding in the first place. Either way, she looked remorseful when Judge Garvey’s steely gaze took her in.
“Due to the fact that my client was motivated purely by her kind heart to try to save the life of an innocent animal scheduled for euthanasia the next day, the animal shelter has agreed not to press charges in exchange for seventy-five community service hours.”
Why couldn’t Paxton have told her that while she was sitting here nervously waiting for the judge? Because he enjoyed seeing her suffer, that’s why. But what he’d said about her motive was true. Mostly true.
Paxton opened a file in front of him, selected a paper from the stack, and moved forward. “May I, Your Honor?”
The judge waved him forward with a two-fingered motion and Paxton handed him the paper. “Ms. Joyner, please approach the bench.”
Jo stood and walked on wobbly legs until she stood next to Paxton.
“Here is the signed and notarized statement of Mr. Bufford from the shelter and his notice of discontinuance.”
Judge Garvey glanced it over, then tilted his reading glasses down his nose to peer at Paxton. “Well, this looks in order, but I hesitate to set a precedent in my court room that all it takes to avoid charges is ‘a kind heart.’ Can you give me another reason why this is the appropriate punishment for Ms. Joyner?”
“Ms. Joyner is an established member of the community. She’s been Climax Citizen of the Year for two years running and was named the county’s teacher of the year three years ago. In her free time she coaches the girls’ varsity cheerleading squad, is a volunteer for the Suits for Success program, which provides interview and work clothing for the underprivileged, and has chaired the coat drive for the needy every year since she was a junior in high school.”
“I see Officer Davis dropped the aggravating a police officer, resisting arrest, and bribery charges.” Again Judge Garvey’s sharp gaze landed on Paxton. “Explain.”
“Well, once I showed the officer the photographs of the bruising to Ms. Joyner during his arrest, he agreed that in fact there was accidental contact on both sides, and as Ms. Joyner won’t be filing police brutality charges . . .”
“Thin ice, Mr. Cates.”
“Yet a fact that will wrap this up and get us all out of here that much sooner. It’s beautiful gardening weather.”
The judge harrumphed at that, but he couldn’t hide the gleam of anticipation in his eyes. “What about the bribery charge? A rather serious one, I might add.”
Jo bit her lip and twisted her fingers together under the judge’s dark glare. She totally had not offered Officer Davis a bribe. “Your Honor, I jus—eep!”
Paxton put his hand on her ass. On her ass. The judge couldn’t see, but it took every thought right from her head. She turned and frowned up at him. Who the heck did he think he was?
“Your Honor, Officer Davis is new to Climax. So when my client offered to discuss something over a Krispy Kreme, he had no idea it was standard operating procedure around these parts.”
“Sounds about right. Last charge to dismiss, aggravating an officer?”
“As soon as I explained that Ms. Joyner manages to aggravate me on a daily basis, that she can’t help it, it’s just part of who she is, he dropped that charge too.”
“The State agrees to drop the charges in lieu of seventy-five community service hours. Case dismissed.” Judge Garvey banged his gavel, bringing Jo some much-needed closure.
If she was lucky, this would close the chapter on Jolene Joyner, criminal, and she’d walk away with her good reputation still intact. She had Paxton to thank for that. He’d already refused her check, instead mentioning some in-kind payment to be named later. Like she didn’t know where he was heading with that. He had a reputation for being very persuasive and charming. She hadn’t fallen for it in all these years, so he could go ahead and throw everything he had at her.