Chapter One – Casper
“Why does New York have to suck so bad?” I walk down the crowded street, wondering if anyone has heard of personal space. My iced coffee isn’t even iced anymore, and I have already started to sweat through the clothes I put on to face down one of my greatest fears.
“Because New York isn’t Maine, and you’re not home,” my mom’s voice echoes in the earbuds that I never leave home without. “Are you sure you’re up for this, Casper?”
“Yes, Mother.” I only call her that because she hates it. “Just kidding, I love you Momma,” I add on before she can verbally slap me through the phone. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Be safe out there. And remember, we’re here if you need us.”
“Don’t worry,” I assure her. “I’ll be home in a month, and we can get dinner when all this is settled.” Even saying the words hurts beyond belief. But my parents need me to be strong. I am the only one who can be.
“Love you, Casper. Forever.” She hangs up before I can say it back, and I can practically feel her heartbreak on the other end. What else can be expected from a woman who just lost one of the people she loves most in the world?
I manage to hold it together, too. Until I walk into the crowded and slightly overheated courthouse. First, they make me throw away my non-iced coffee. Then things take a turn for the worse when the security guard’s wand gets way too close for comfort.
“Looking for gold?” I raise an eyebrow and wait for some sort of reaction from the brusque man in front of me. “I swear I’m not hiding anything in my pants and you guys already made me throw away the only thing keeping me cool today.” My pants are actually leggings and wouldn’t have room to hide a pencil, let alone a weapon.
Although, it isn’t his fault that he has to get up close and personal with every person coming into the building. I just take offense that his wand keeps creeping closer to my girly bits than it should.
Actually, I am so busy watching the wand and making sure that I don’t get prodded somewhere I shouldn’t, that I completely miss when he is done.
“You can go through there.” His gruff voice makes me jump. When I look up to see the gentle expression on his face, all my anger at the situation vanishes.
“I’m so sorry,” I explain needlessly, grabbing my bag from the table I’d had to set it on to be searched. “This has been the worst week of my life. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
He nods, motioning for me to go on. Blushing, I go quickly in the direction he said. I mean, he is working in a courthouse. So of course he sees people during the worst times of their lives.
Come on, Casper. Pull it together.
Trying to breathe, I repeat the same mental pep talk I’ve been giving myself quite a lot lately. Sadly, it is pretty much the only thing keeping me together. Ever since we’d gotten the call about Cassie. I drove three hours from a conference in Boston to New York City on zero sleep.
“Is this seat taken? Or can I sit here?”
I jump, my heart suddenly racing at the voice coming from right behind me. The dark-haired woman who is smiling at me while pointing to the bench I am sitting on looks apologetic when she sees the way she scared me.
I am not a complete dunce, though. Somehow, I manage to keep from screaming or slapping a hand to my chest like my grandmother used to do. Recovering quickly, or as quickly as I can possibly manage, I shake my head and move to the side.
“Yeah. No. I mean, yes you can sit here.”
She sits down without waiting for anything else, her large purse plopping into her lap loudly.
“I hope they hurry,” she says. “My husband doesn’t know that I’m here. And I don’t want him to find out. If he does, he’s gonna be pissed and make me start using a driver again.” She blows out a frustrated breath. “That man is wearing on my last nerve.”
My hands are clenched in my lap while I try not to have a panic attack from just being in the courtroom. Although here this woman is acting like it is nothing. All the people around us, crowded into the humid room like sardines. Just thinking about it has my palms sweating. My stupid heart decides it is the right time to start pounding so hard I can’t hear anything else the woman says. Until she puts her hands on my shoulders and her face is right next to mine.
“Breathe. Take a deep breath, or it’s not going to go away. Count with me.” She takes a deep breath. “One.” In. “Two.” Out. “Three.” In again.
After what feels like forever, the panic starts to subside. I realize that I’ve created a scene. It just makes the whole thing worse.
“My son, Laurence, doesn’t like crowds either,” she says with another bright smile. “My name is Sori. I take it you’re not used to the city. I used to love it, but as my son and stepdaughter are starting to grow up, I almost wish that we lived out of the city, ya know?”
Sori pulls a piece of candy out of her purse and offers it, which I gladly take. Rule number one in my family: absolutely never turn down chocolate.
She is talking so fast it is almost impossible to keep up, but I am thankful for her. Especially when more people filter in and the doors close behind them.
Realizing too late that I’ve taken her chocolate without introducing myself, I decide to cut her off the next time she opens her mouth.
“My name’s Casper,” I tell her quietly. “Casper Townsend. And you’re right. I’m not from the city. I’m only here for a month.”
Sori grimaces before patting my hand like a mother would her child. “I feel so bad for you. Here visiting, and you get stuck in traffic court. What did you do?”
The unintentional reminder of Cassie has my palms sweating almost immediately, but I can’t let her see. Instead, I do my best to swallow down the panic and offer a small smile. Although, it probably looks like I am constipated. “I double-parked in an ambulance loading zone at the hospital.”
Sori whistles. “Damn, girl. You’ve got balls. I wouldn’t do that, even though I’ve got a get out of jail free card.”
Another door opens, this time in the very front of the room. A judge enters wearing the black robes and everything, very official-looking. He is an older, stern-looking man, but he looks like he could be my grandfather instead of a judge. Although, the judges at home never bother with formalities like robes. The last time I actually had to go to court, I think the judge was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of flip-flops when he went through the docket.
“Let’s get this over with,” the judge interrupts. “I have plans for my weekend, and they don’t include staying here any longer than necessary.” He holds out a hand, and the bailiff that I’ve missed completely hands him a pile of papers.
“Sori Morgan.” The judge sounds surprised. “Why are you on my docket?”
Sori blushes as she stands up, but not before grabbing a present out of her bag and shooting me a devious smile.
“Judge Carter, I am soooo sorry. Emmett got me a new car for my birthday. Instead of doing the smart thing and letting the driver take me to work, I thought I’d be smart and do it myself. Except I parked too close to a fire hydrant.”
Judge Carter glares at her. “Can I assume that you’ve already handled that?”
“Oh yes.” Sori nods furiously, her smile slightly wobbly. “I donated to the New York Fallen Firefighter Foundation, the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children Fund, and Emmett is signed up to sponsor their benefit this year as well.” I see her flush all the way up the back of her tan neck. “It was the least we could do.”
Sori starts walking toward the massive oak bench, where Judge Carter is holding a gavel and pointing it at her with one eyebrow raised. When the bailiff moves to stop her, the judge waves him off and holds out a hand for the present.
“What’s that?” He narrows his eyes at the plain brown package.
“It’s tickets to the Broadway show your wife mentioned wanting to see. And I swear, I don’t mind paying the fine. But if you can make sure that Emmett doesn’t find out, I will be eternally grateful.” She coughs gently. “If he finds out I got another ticket, he’ll give me no choice but to use a driver. And I like my independence.” The overly saccharine way she is talking is almost hysterical, but I can’t blame her.
I’d hate having to use a driver, too. Also, my wanting to be independent is partly why I find myself in traffic court. There is no way I can afford everything I am currently paying for and a two-thousand-dollar fine. Yeah, the piece of paper attached to my car window had just about given me a heart attack. Which would have worked in my favor since I was double-parked in an area reserved for ambulances alone, and they’d be able to get me emergency care.
A beleaguered sigh coming from Judge Carter catches me off guard. “I won’t tell him. But your fine is tripled. I assume you’ll be taking care of it today.”
“Definitely.” Sori is nodding fervently and not complaining at all. “Thank you so much, Judge Carter.” When she stops, the judge keeps talking.
“Let your driver take you next time, Mrs. Morgan. You’re dismissed.” His gavel striking the wooden surface of the bench echoes through the room.
Sori is sitting next to me again in a matter of seconds, looking far more relieved than before she’d gone up there.
“Judge Carter’s really nice,” she explains. “But I can’t have Emmett finding out about this ticket. Seriously. You’d be surprised how many times he gives me shit about my driving.”
She is utterly adorable. Like one of my students when they know they have done something wrong. They are doing their absolute best to make up for it, because they don’t want me to call their parents.
Names are called, and people go up to speak with Judge Carter one after another. He is fair, but stern, from what I can tell. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to think about contesting my ticket. I know I screwed up, I really do. That isn’t the problem. I just hope that he’ll let me explain what was happening and why I did it. Even as I sit there thinking about it though, I can’t stop the panic and my need to run from filtering in.
I am so caught up in my thoughts that I don’t even notice Sori start to panic next to me. She reaches out and grabs my hand.
“Please don’t tell him that I got a ticket.”
Confused, I look around, expecting to see the mysterious husband that she mentioned. However, there is no one that fits the bill. The only newcomer looks like he has just stepped out of a magazine. He looks bored out of his mind, until his eyes fall on Sori. Then I watch as a switch practically flips and his grimace turns into a mischievous smile. One that if I saw it in my class, I’d immediately get suspicious.
When he gets closer, I have to make sure that my mouth isn’t hanging open, because he is freaking gorgeous. Green eyes so bright they practically melt my panties right there on the spot, and just a hint of a five o’clock shadow. Oh, I am a massive sucker for green eyes. Though his hair is what gives him away. My brother and his friends all have the same look every time they come home. Knowing he is in the military just makes my current situation worse. When he sits down on the other side of Sori, I practically sigh. And just like that, I know I am in trouble.
“What are you doing in traffic court, Sori?” His voice is perfect, too. Which just makes it worse, because he hasn’t once looked in her direction.
“Go away, Cole,” Sori bites out through the corner of her mouth. “I’m here for my friend, Casper.”
Right as she says my name, the bailiff does the same thing from the front of the room. “Casper Townsend.”
“Good luck.” Sori squeezes my hand again and then lets go as I stand up on wooden legs. I’d completely forgotten that she was even holding my hand.
Having everyone’s attention completely on me now is unnerving. Especially when the man who’d sat next to Sori, Cole, shoots one glance in my direction and then dismisses me completely. My mortification is complete, and I lick my lips as I walk stiffly up to the designated area. I am trying to remember to breathe, and managing it pretty well, I think. Until I look up at Judge Carter and everything goes fuzzy for a second.
The table in front of me offers a little reprieve when I lean against it to take a few deep breaths.
“Breathe,” Sori calls out quietly. How I heard her across the room, I don’t freaking know. Somehow her words make it through my head, over the sound of my racing heart, and I do.
The bailiff says something to the judge about my ticket. I assume it is the details of what happened, but I can’t quite focus on him. I am too busy recovering from the mini panic attack that has taken over.
I look up to see the judge staring down at me dispassionately. “You’re here to contest your parking ticket.”
“N-no, Your Honor.” I swallow. “I was in the wrong. I just hoped that I could explain what the circumstances were of the incident to you.”
From behind me, there is a snort. “Pretty girls always get out of tickets.” I don’t have to turn around to know who it is coming from. Cole. The man next to Sori. Even when I get angry at the fact that he thinks I am trying to get out of a ticket, which I am, he has no right to assume I am using my looks to do so.
“You parked illegally in an ambulance bay,” Judge Carter says disapprovingly. “What possible reason could you have for doing that?”
My throat is coated in sandpaper, and there is nothing for me to drink to make it better. There’s nothing to take away the aching sting of shame as I struggling to force the words out.
But I have to.
Not only don’t I have the money for the outrageous ticket, but it was an emergency.
I swallow, grimacing at the way the saliva burns, but I have to tell him.
“My sister,” I croak. “My sister was in a car accident, and at the time that it happened, I was just outside the city for a conference. See, I’m a teacher, and every year we have to take continuing education. This year, I was lucky that it was there. It was only an hour away.” My breath catches. “Instead of the usual ten it would have taken to get here from Maine. They needed us here, at the hospital with her.” I break down right then. Saying the words out loud for the first time and to a roomful of strangers, at that.
“Go on.” Judge Carter’s voice has changed, but I can’t see the expression on his face through my tears.
“I didn’t make it in time.” Sobbing, I keep going. “I thought I would make it in time. But I … I didn’t. And I parked there because I needed to get inside, to try and make it in time.”
I don’t want to say the words. I can’t say the words. Just like I can’t save Cassie, and I can’t stop the tears from flowing down my face in what has to be the most embarrassing situation ever.
A small tap on my shoulder has me whipping my head around. Only to see those unnerving green eyes staring at me with a handkerchief held out. “Here.” He presses it into my hand and then walks away without looking back.
Numbly, I take it and try to wipe the tears from my face. It buys me a few seconds, at least, before I have to turn back to face the judge. At this point, I am pretty certain the judge won’t lower the fine at all.
“Ms. Townsend,” Judge Carter says deeply. “Those bays are for emergency vehicles only. But what I’m piecing together from your story is that you were in the midst of an emergency yourself.” He glances to the side, and I swear he sniffles. “Sometimes this position is hard. Obeying the letter of the law, versus the spirit of the law, is a decision that isn’t easy. If I were to give you this fine, in its entirety, I would be obeying the letter of the law. However, the spirit of the law demands that I let you go with a warning.” He looks down at the papers on his desk. “I’m dismissing this ticket, Ms. Townsend. Try to have the clarity of mind, if you’re ever in this position again, to park in an actual parking space.”
I can’t speak, can’t do much of anything except nod. I hadn’t expected that, not even in the slightest. I’ve never even contested a ticket before. If my father had known about any of it, he’d have told me not to do it either. People get tickets for a reason and that I should use it as a lesson. It’s the same story that has repeated itself my entire life. Dad started out as a cop and ended up as the chief of police for our small town.
“Thank you,” I finally manage to say, remembering the manners that I’d grown up with. “I really, really appreciate it.”
Before I can step down, Judge Carter clears his throat. I look up to see compassion written all over his face.
“To badly misquote one of my granddaughter’s books, ‘You can find happiness even when life around you is dark, if you just remember to turn on the light.’ I just hope that through this trying time, you’re able to remember that.” He blushes, a spectacular shade of red climbing his cheeks as he says it, and I can’t help the small laugh that comes out.
“My students love that series, sir.”
Everything is fine after that, until I get back to my seat to see that Cole is sitting in my spot, and the only other place open is his former seat, which I take with a huff and try not to glare at him.
“I’m so sorry,” Sori whispers. “He just sat there.”
“Thank you,” I whisper over her head to the man who is finally looking at me.
Actually, he isn’t really looking at me. He is looking at my hand, which is clenching his handkerchief. I’d intended to ask for an address, that way I can wash it and send it back. Handkerchiefs are expensive and there is no way I am going to hand back one that is wet with my tears and snot.
Immediately, I know I’d never been more embarrassed in my entire life. Seriously. He is that attractive. Dumbly, and even though it isn’t my original plan in the slightest, I hold out the snot-covered cloth for him to take.
“I don’t want it back.” He furrows his brow, like he is thinking about saying something else, only to think better of it.
Of course, I have to make myself look like a fool in front of him. Completely and utterly mortified, I pull my hand back and turn to face the front of the room. I only have to sit through another few minutes of wanting to run away before I can finally leave. Thankfully, I will never have to see Cole or Sori again. Although, Sori is a complete sweetheart and I wouldn’t mind seeing her again.
Everything is finally returning to normal, and I am almost out of the woods, until Judge Carter stands up and dismisses everyone.
“Can we go now?” Cole doesn’t sound the least bit amused that Sori is waiting for me at the door a few moments later.
“No.” I hear her berate him while I am walking up. “I don’t know what your plans are, but Casper and I are going to lunch. You can find your own way home.”
I try to hide my surprise at her words. Though honestly, it seems like something she’d do and I’ve only known her for an hour.
“Hey,” I say hesitantly. It is more than obvious that Cole thinks I am interrupting their private conversation, but they are literally standing in front of the only doors to get outside.
“Great.” Sori grabs my arm. “See you later, Cole.”
She walks out without looking back. I, on the other hand, do look back. Although the glare he sends my way when he sees my eyes has a shiver racing down my spine. I just can’t tell if it is in fear or excitement.