Jenna Macintosh glanced up from the trial transcript she was reading, but the prison gates she was monitoring from the warmth of her car remained steadfastly closed.
Typical. The Montana prison system didn’t care that Jenna’s client had been waiting for this moment for nearly three long years. The system moved at its own pace, and even though Jenna had been told that Lacey Gallagher would be released by eight, it was now nearly ten and there was no sign of her.
The windshield was starting to fog up, and Jenna cracked her window and cranked up the fan on the heater to try to clear it. Billings, Montana was supposed to be enjoying a whole thirty-five degrees today, but it felt far, far colder to her.
She brought her attention back to the transcript but got distracted thinking about the three hour drive ahead of her. If the prison delayed Lacey’s release much longer, there was a high risk Jenna would be driving through snow on the return journey once she’d delivered Lacey to her home town of Marietta. The thought made Jenna’s stomach tense, and she frowned down at the thick document in her hands. If worst came to worst, she could handle a bit of snow. She had good tires on her ten year old Volvo SUV, and she’d be travelling on major roads. It was stupid to get all sweaty about it.
And yet here she was, sweaty. That was the awesome thing about her subconscious – no matter how many times the rational part of her brain gave it a stern talking to, her subconscious went on its merry way regardless.
Movement caught the corner of her eye and she glanced up. The heavy-duty pedestrian gate was opening. Jenna reached for the glasses she needed if she wanted to see anything clearly at a distance, sliding them over her ears just as someone stepped outside. The woman’s shoulders were hunched against the cold, her long brown hair pulled back into a no-nonsense braid. She was holding a heavy-looking plastic carrier bag, and she glanced around uncertainly. Jenna tossed her paperwork to one side and hastily scrambled from her car.
“Lacey!” Jenna waved to attract the other woman’s attention, and Lacey’s head swiveled her way. After a small hesitation, Lacey started walking, and Jenna met her half way.
Up close, Lacey was very pale, her big, green eyes wide as she absorbed her first few minutes of freedom. Jenna had seen that look before on recently released inmates. For nearly three years, Lacey had dreamed of this moment, but now it was here, and all the problems she’d left on the outside – plus a whole host of new ones – were about to descend on her. Then there were all the things she’d have to get up to speed on, because the world hadn’t simply stood still while she’d been wearing prison khaki and living in a concrete and steel box. Taylor Swift had conquered the world. Gay marriage was legal, and marijuana was heading that way. The world had changed, while Lacey’s world had become so small and focused she’d almost disappeared.
Even though their relationship was a professional one, Jenna couldn’t stop herself from throwing her arms around Lacey and giving her a big hug. Ideally, Lacey’s older brother, Sawyer, would be here today, greeting Lacey on her first day of parole, but he hadn’t been able to get away from work, so Lacey was going to have to simply suck up having a hug forced on her by her lawyer.
“Hope you haven’t been waiting too long,” Lacey said, belatedly lifting her arms to return Jenna’s hug. “‘There was a situation in one of the pods and it slowed everything down.”
“I got some work done, no problems.” Jenna couldn’t stop herself from beaming at Lacey.
For over a year now, she’d been getting to know this quiet, smart, determined woman. After hearing about Lacey’s story via another client, Jenna had taken the time to look into Lacey’s case, and it had quickly become evident that Lacey was the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. Ever since then, Jenna had been advocating for Lacey in any way she could, going through her court records looking for grounds to have her conviction overturned, keeping Lacey up to speed on her parole application.
And now, here they were – day one of the rest of Lacey’s life.
“You want to grab something to eat? Maybe some real coffee? There’s a Starbucks nearby.”
Lacey’s wide mouth tipped up at the corners, slowly becoming a full smile.
“Is it too early for a pumpkin spice latte?”
“Are you kidding? I’ve been mainlining those puppies for weeks. Come on.”
They got into the car, Lacey stowing her bag of personal belongings on the back seat.
“Thanks for the new clothes. I really appreciate you ordering them for me,” Lacey said.
Jenna had bought a few things for Lacey from one of the prison-approved clothing catalogues, wanting Lacey to feel confident on her first day out in the world.
“You’ve got clothes and things at your brother’s place, right?” Jenna asked as she reversed out of the parking spot.
Lacey’s gaze was fixed on the high prisons walls and it took her a moment to snap-to and respond. “Yeah. I think so. I didn’t think to ask.” She glanced down at herself. “I hope my winter coats still fit. I porked up a bit. Then again, maybe the extra layer of fat will keep me warm.”
Gaining weight in prison was a common complaint – prison food was notorious for being high in heavily processed carbs.
“Are there places you can pick up gear locally in Marietta, or should we try to find you a coat before we head down there?” Jenna asked.
The thought of the forecast snowstorm tickled at the back of her brain again, but she pushed it away. Making sure Lacey had the best possible start in her new life was more important than the echo of bad memories.
“Marietta’s not exactly a one-horse town,” Lacey said, giving her an amused look. “We have electricity and running water and all the mod cons.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I’ve just never been there. It could be one of those places with nothing but feed stores and flannel shirts and men who chew tobacco and whittle.”
Lacey’s smile flashed again. “Careful, city girl. That hole you’re digging just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
They continued to talk and joke about nothing much during the short drive to Starbucks, where Jenna ordered two venti pumpkin spice lattes before they hit the road.
It wasn’t until they were on the outskirts of Billings that it occurred to Jenna that Lacey might like to call her brother to let him know all was well and she was on her way. Grabbing her phone from the center console, she handed it to Lacey.
“Feel free to call your brother or anyone else if you like.”
Lacey stared at the phone for a beat before setting it back in the console.
“Thanks, but we’ll be there soon enough.”
Jenna glanced at her, but Lacey’s face was turned toward the window, hiding her expression. Jenna knew Sawyer Gallagher had visited his sister regularly, and she’d assumed they had a good, close relationship. But maybe she’d misread the situation entirely.
God knew, she was no expert in navigating the murky undercurrents of family life. In fact, it was almost laughable that she even felt the urge to try. What was that old saying about getting your own house in order first?
“I really appreciate you doing this for me today,” Lacey said.
“It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s six hours of driving, round trip.”
“Yeah, but it’s better than being in the office.”
She could feel Lacey studying her, and Jenna took her attention off the road for a second to glance at her passenger. A small frown wrinkled Lacey’s forehead and she looked troubled.
“What’s wrong?” Jenna asked.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but one of the things I promised myself in prison was that I would never not ask the difficult, important question just because it might make someone feel uncomfortable, and I’ve been wanting to ask you this for a while now.”
“Why do I suddenly feel nervous?” Jenna joked.
“Why are you helping me like this? Why did you take on my case?”
Jenna shifted her grip on the steering wheel as she tried to decide how honest she should be with her answer. Then she gave a mental shrug. If Lacey could ask the important, difficult question, the least Jenna could do was answer it.
“A lot of the time, being a lawyer sucks,” Jenna said. “Especially working in criminal law. Defending people who are most likely guilty, dealing with the worst parts of humanity day in, day out, seeing crappy judgments and unfair verdicts… If I wanted to, I could get pretty depressed about the state of humanity just by reading through my in-tray. So I made a decision a few years back – whenever I find a case where I feel I can make a real difference in someone’s life, I do my best to get involved.”
Jenna could feel heat stealing into her face as she finished speaking. She’d never articulated the motivation behind her pro bono work so baldly before, and she winced inwardly at how…worthy she sounded. She wasn’t worthy. She was overworked, more than a little anal retentive, and a born worrier. She had no social life to speak of, and she was pretty sure that her office nickname of GAJ – an acronym for Go Ask Jenna – was not an affectionate one, given her penchant for perfectionism when it came to paperwork and documentation.
In short, she was a conscientious lawyer, not a brilliant one, and the volunteer cases she took on were as much about making it possible for her to continue to stomach her career choice as they were about assisting people like Lacey.
“So you really think you can help me?” Lacey asked.
Jenna blinked, nonplussed by the simplicity of the question.
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t have taken you on if I didn’t.”
“I thought maybe your firm had a pro bono quota or something like that.”
Jenna snorted out her nose. “No. I’m pretty sure my partners would prefer it if I concentrated on clocking up more billable hours.”
“Then I guess I owe you even more.”
“You owe me nothing, because I haven’t done anything yet. When I do, you can go nuts, but until then, pace yourself,” Jenna said, smiling to let Lacey know she was only kidding.
Lacey made an unsatisfied sound, but the frown faded from her face. Jenna reached out and punched on the radio.
“Be warned. If anything from Destiny’s Child comes on, I’m going to sing, and it’s won’t be pretty,” Jenna said.
“I feel the same way about Britney Spears,” Lacey said.
Lacey had never struck Jenna as a pop princess kind of a woman. She shot Lacey a look and caught the sly curl at the corner of her mouth.
“Almost had me,” Jenna admitted.
“Please. Do I look like a Britney fan? Now, Mariah Carey…”
The sky remained clear for the bulk of the three hour drive. They stopped once for lunch – burgers and coffee in a truck stop – and were only running an hour behind Jenna’s mental schedule when they hit the main street of Marietta, Montana. Jenna looked around with interest, noting the charming shop fronts. Christmas decorations hung from the street lamps, oversized bows and shiny, golden bells mixed in with wreaths decked out with candy canes.
“Turn left here,” Lacey said.
Lacey continued to give instructions for the next few minutes, navigating them out of town. Soon they were heading toward a well-wooded area that Lacey told her backed onto the national forest.
She didn’t need to tell Jenna when they’d arrived at the farm. A huge, weather-beaten wooden sign was staked out on the side of the road with a big white arrow pointing left and the words Gallagher’s Christmas Tree Farm picked out in red.
Jenna realized that Lacey had shifted forward in her seat – not quite to the edge, but close enough.
Jenna gave her a reassuring smile. “Almost there.”
“Yep,” Lacey said.
Jenna turned onto the side road, then turned again when she came upon yet another sign for the Gallagher’s farm. The sealed road became gravel for a couple of hundred feet, then opened up into a sizeable parking area patronized by half a dozen cars. To one side was a rustic-looking log cabin, complete with cute little attic windows peeking out of the roofline, and to the other was a timber barn decked out in Christmas bunting and flashing fairy lights. A couple of forty-gallon drums sat in front of the barn, the haphazard holes punched in their sides revealing fires burning within.
Cut Christmas trees were piled against one side of the barn, while others were dotted around, displayed upright thanks to half wine barrels that had been drilled centrally to create a sturdy stand. An elderly couple waited near the barn, while the rest of the customers walked amongst the trees, looking for the perfect specimen.
Lacey was truly on the edge of her seat now and Jenna braked to a stop.
“Why don’t you go ahead and find your brother, and I’ll park the car,” she suggested.
The last thing Lacey and her brother needed was an interloper witnessing their reunion.
“Thanks,” Lacey said, the gruffness in her voice hinting at the strong emotion she was combatting.
Jenna waited until Lacey had climbed out of the car and moved away before carefully guiding the Volvo into one of the remaining parking spaces. A glance in the rear view mirror revealed Lacey walking past the barn and weaving her way through the trees, clearly looking for someone. A tall, dark-haired figure was working with a piece of machinery, feeding trees into it. His face was a blur at this distance, but Jenna could see the tension in Lacey’s stance as she approached her brother.
Very deliberately, Jenna looked away, reaching for her phone. She didn’t want to watch someone else’s homecoming. It was way, way too close to the bone, especially at this time of year.
Instead, she did what she always did when she was unsettled or emotional – she called up the email app on her phone, and concentrated on work.
Sawyer Gallagher looked up from the tree he was passing through the baler to scan the lot, something he’d been doing regularly for the past couple of hours as he anticipated his sister’s arrival. This time, his vigilance was rewarded by the sight of Lacey walking toward him.
His sister was home. She was free. She was safe.
The rush of relief that hit him was so profound he had to reach out a hand to steady himself on the tree baler.
Finally, it was over. There would be no more fighting off dread every time the phone rang out of polite hours, and he would never again have to trek into Billings and go through the time-consuming process of being cleared to visit an inmate. Most importantly, he would no longer have to watch the light in his sister’s eyes harden and, finally, dull until all he could see inside her was the dogged determination to endure and survive.
Hard on the heels of his relief came an unexpected rush of anger so primal and visceral the heat of it scorched through him like a blowtorch. He exhaled on a rush, sideswiped by his own emotional response. And then he got it—for so long it had been about the trial, and then Lacey’s safety. But she was home now, which meant he could cease worrying about what might happen and simply be furious with her for the way she’d messed up her life.
And she had messed it up, spectacularly. His sister had made so many bad decisions, been so willfully blind… He’d warned her, but she’d gone her own way anyway, and it had broken their parents’ heart and destroyed Lacey’s future.
When Lacey stopped in front of him, Sawyer didn’t know which was stronger – the urge to hug her or the urge to shake her until her teeth rattled in her head. Caught between the two impulses, he simply stared at her, taking in her pallor and the new fullness to her face while he fought for a grip on his runaway emotions.
“Was beginning to think they hadn’t let you out,” he said after a long beat.
“There was some stuff going down at the prison,” Lacey said.
She glanced at the ground, averting her face momentarily, and he knew he’d wounded her with his tepid welcome. It was too late to go in for the big welcome home hug now, though. The moment had passed, and his chest still burned with the unexpected force of his anger.
“How did the big pick-ups go?” Lacey asked.
He’d had a number of Scout troops through this morning, picking up their annual allotments for local fundraising drives. Between him and Henry, one of his full-timers, they’d loaded up nearly a hundred trees.
“They went. Sorry I couldn’t reschedule them.”
The original plan had been for him to collect Lacey from prison, but her release date had been moved several times, finally landing on a day that he simply couldn’t be absent from the business.
“It’s nearly Christmas. I get it,” Lacey said with a shrug.
They’d both grown up around the family’s Christmas tree farm, and were familiar with the intense workload of selling season.
“Your room’s all ready and there’s plenty of food in the fridge if you’re hungry. I won’t be able to stop for long, not today,” Sawyer said.
During the few minutes they’d been talking, two more cars had pulled into the parking lot, and a slim woman with bright auburn hair and glasses was hovering near one of the oil drums, warming her hands while she waited for someone to come serve her.
“I’ve had lunch already. I’ll just get a coffee for Jenna, then I can pitch in and help out,” Lacey offered.
“You don’t have to jump right in,” he said.
Even though an extra pair of hands would be a gift from heaven right now, his sister had just spent three years inside, having her every movement monitored and corralled. Lacey deserved a couple of days to decompress, at the very least.
“I want to get back into things. I want to work,” Lacey said, her tone uncompromising.
He was about to respond when she turned and waved at the auburn-haired woman waiting by the oil drum.
“Jenna. Come meet my brother,” Lacey called.
Sawyer took a closer look at the woman who’d taken on his sister’s case as Jenna moved toward them. He’d exchanged a couple of emails with Lacey’s new lawyer when it had become clear he wouldn’t be able to collect Lacey today and he’d gotten the impression from them that she was an older woman.
But this woman wasn’t old, not by a long shot.
She was tall and slim-hipped, her long legs clad in black tailored trousers. On top she wore a matching black blazer with a crisp white shirt buttoned to her neck, the lot covered by a hip-length, navy peacoat that wasn’t doing enough to protect her from the crisp weather if her crossed-arm posture was anything to go by.
She had very fair skin, which he figured went with the red hair, and a neat little nose. When she stopped in front of him, he found himself looking into a pair of pale, almost translucent green eyes. He could see bright intelligence behind them, as well as a good measure of professional reserve.
“Jenna, this is Sawyer, my brother,” Lacey said.
Jenna’s smile was polite as she offered him her hand. “Good to meet you, Sawyer.”
Her slender hand disappeared within his, and suddenly he was acutely aware of the fact that he hadn’t had a haircut for six months and that his I’m-too-busy-to-shave beard probably made him look like a crazed axe murderer. Then there was the fact that there were sap-stains on his jeans, scuff marks on his metal-toed boots, and duct tape criss-crossed on one shoulder of his puffer jacket, covering the slash he’d scored last week wrestling with a recalcitrant Douglas fir.
“You, too,” he said, quickly averting his gaze from her face. It was that, or get lost staring into her striking eyes.
“You want a coffee?” Lacey said to Jenna.
Sawyer frowned. The cabin was not visitor-ready right now. He’d tidied up a little in honor of Lacey coming home, but she was his sister. He knew she wouldn’t give a crap about the pile of dishes in the sink, or the tower of magazines and newspapers on the coffee table, or the fact that the toilet seat was almost certainly up.
Jenna Macintosh would notice those things, though. It had only taken one glance into her clear, green eyes for him to know she paid attention to what was going on around her.
Lacey started herding Jenna across the parking lot before the other woman had a chance to respond to her question. He watched them for a few seconds, taking in the feminine sway to Jenna’s walk.
Shoving his hands into his coat pockets, he started after them, feeling more and more caught short with every second. His boot steps rang loudly as he climbed the stairs to the front porch behind the two women. Lacey led the way into the cabin, peeling off her jacket the moment she hit the warmth of the central heating. Jenna did the same, and Sawyer froze on the threshold as he got an eyeful of her backside.
Nice. Very nice.
He used his foot to nudge the door closed, and it slammed shut, causing both women to glance his way.
“Wind caught it,” he lied.
Lacey frowned slightly. Sawyer shrugged out of his patched jacket and brushed past her on his way into the kitchen.
“Probably need to brew a fresh pot of coffee,” he said.
“Oh, please don’t bother on my account. As long as it’s hot and full of caffeine, it’ll do the trick,” Jenna said.
Sawyer took the pot off the coffee maker and dumped its contents in the sink. No way was he feeding her hours-old, bitter coffee.
“You want something to eat?” Lacey asked, heading for the pantry.
“I’m fine. That burger from lunch is still sitting like a rock in my belly,” Jenna said.
“What about some cookies? We’ve got chocolate chip and – oh, my God, Sawyer. Did you make molasses cookies?” Lacey spun around to stare at him as he spooned fresh coffee into the filter. In her hands was a ceramic cookie jar that had been in the Gallagher family for generations.
He shrugged, uncomfortable with the fact she’d drawn attention to the small act of domesticity. He hadn’t known what else to do for someone fresh out of the big house, so he’d made a shed load of his sister’s favorite cookies late last night. No big deal.
“Thank you,” Lacey said, and he shrugged again.
He didn’t need to look in a mirror to know his face was red.
“You have to have one of these cookies, Jenna. They’re Grammy Gallagher’s secret recipe. Not that there’s much secret to the ingredients – sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Oh, and don’t forget the butter.”
Lacey shoveled a fistful of cookies onto a plate and set them on the counter in front of Jenna. Sawyer busied himself loading dirty dishes into the dishwasher. Not that it would make much of a difference; he’d already noted Jenna taking in the piled up dishes, pots and pans.
“Sawyer, have you thought about offering some of these to the customers?” Lacey asked suddenly.
He frowned. Why on earth would he want to trumpet the fact that he’d been baking, of all things, to the wider Marietta community?
“Uh, no,” he said.
“You should. Y’know, a special treat just before Thanksgiving. Half of them are probably just scoping out the trees at different farms before deciding where to buy from in December. Why don’t I go sweeten them up?”
Before he’d fully comprehended her intention, Lacey had emptied the cookie jar onto another plate and was heading for the door.
Which meant he was about to be left alone with Jenna of the All-Seeing Green Eyes and very nice backside.
He opened his mouth to protest, but Lacey was already halfway out the door. The sound of his jaw clicking shut was audible in the heavy silence, as was the rasp of sugar-dusted cookie against sugar-dusted cookie as Jenna dutifully took one from the plate.
“Do you, um, bake much, Sawyer?” she asked.
Sawyer shot her an incredulous look. Did he look like the kind of guy who baked on a regular basis?
He really hoped not.
“No,” he said.
The single word came out sounding more terse and gruff than he’d intended. Jenna’s mouth flattened out momentarily.
Man, he was making such a hash of this, but he felt completely off-balance. He hadn’t expected to feel so strongly about his sister’s release from prison, and he definitely hadn’t expected to be trapped in his kitchen with a woman as polished and subtly sexy as Jenna Macintosh. He felt…cornered. No, that wasn’t the right word. He felt as though someone had sprung a trap on him without warning.
What the trap was, he had no idea. He just knew that he felt at a distinct disadvantage and he didn’t like it.
End of Excerpt