“Why does New York have to suck so bad?” I walked down the crowded street, wondering if anyone had heard of personal space. My iced coffee wasn’t even iced anymore, and I had already started to sweat through the clothes I’d put on to face down one of my greatest fears. Public speaking.

“Because New York isn’t Maine, and you’re not home.” My mom’s voice echoed in the earbuds that I never left home without. “Are you sure you’re up for this, Casper?”

“Yes, Mother.” I only called her that because she hated it. “Just kidding, I love you Momma.” I added on before she could 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 assured her. “I’ll be home in a month, and we can get dinner when all this is settled.” Even saying the words hurt beyond belief. But my parents needed me to be strong. I was the only one who could be. 

“Love you, Casper. Forever.” She hung up before I could say it back, and I could practically feel her heartbreak on the other end. What else could be expected from a woman who just lost one of the people she loved most in the world?

I managed to hold it together, too. Until I walked into the crowded and slightly overheated courthouse. First, they made me throw away my non-iced coffee. Then things took a turn for the worse when the security guard’s wand got way too close for comfort. 

“Looking for gold?” I raised an eyebrow and waited 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 were actually leggings and wouldn’t have room to hide a pencil, let alone a weapon. 

Although, it wasn’t his fault that he had to get up close and personal with every person coming into the building. I just took offense that his wand kept creeping closer to my girly bits than it should. 

Actually, I was so busy watching the wand and making sure that I didn’t get prodded somewhere I shouldn’t, that I completely missed when he was done. 

“You can go through there.” His gruff voice made me jump. When I looked up to see the gentle expression on his face, all my anger at the situation vanished. 

“I’m so sorry,” I explained 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 nodded, motioning for me to go on. Blushing, I went quickly in the direction he had said. I mean, he was working in a courthouse. So of course he’d see people during the worst times of their lives. 

Come on Casper. Pull it together.

Trying to breathe, I repeated the same mental pep talk I’d been giving myself quite a lot lately. Sadly, it was pretty much the only thing keeping me together. Ever since we’d gotten the call about Cassie. I had driven three hours from a conference in Boston to New York City on zero sleep. 

“Is this seat taken?”

I jumped, heart suddenly racing at the voice coming from right behind me. The dark-haired woman who was smiling at me while pointing to the bench I was sitting on looked apologetic when she saw the way she had scared me. 

I wasn’t a complete dunce, though. Somehow I managed to keep from screaming or slapping a hand to my chest like my grandmother used to do. Recovering quickly, or as quickly as I could possibly manage, I shook my head and moved to the side. 

“Yeah.” 

She sat down without waiting for anything else, her large purse plopping into her lap loudly. 

“I hope they hurry,” she said. “My husband doesn’t know that I’m here. And I don’t want him to find out, otherwise he’s going to make me start using a driver again.” She blew a frustrated breath. “That man is wearing on my last nerve.”

My hands were clenched in my lap while I tried not to have a panic attack from just being in the courtroom. Although here this woman was acting like it was nothing. All the people around us, crowded into the humid room like sardines. Just thinking about it had my palms sweating. My stupid heart decided it was the right time to start pounding so hard I couldn’t hear anything else the woman said. Until she put her hands on my shoulders and her face was right next to mine. 

“Breathe. Take a deep breath, or it’s not going to go away. Count with me.” She took a deep breath. “One.” In. “Two.” Out. “Three.” In again. 

After what felt like forever, the panic started to subside. I realized that I’d created a scene. It just made the whole thing worse.

“My son, Lorenzo, doesn’t like crowds either.” She said with another bright smile. “My name is Soraya. I take it you’re not used to the city. I used to love it, but as my son and step-daughter are starting to grow up, I almost wish that we lived out of the city, ya know?” 

Soraya pulled a piece of candy out of her purse and offered it, which I gladly took. Rule number one in my family: absolutely never turn down chocolate.

She was talking so fast it was almost impossible to keep up, but I was thankful for her. Especially when more people filtered in and the doors closed behind them. 

Realizing too late that I’d taken her chocolate without introducing myself, I decided to cut her off the next time she opened her mouth. 

“My name’s Casper.” I told her quietly. “Casper Townsend. And you’re right. I’m not from the city. I’m only here for a month.”

Soraya grimaced, 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 had my palms sweating almost immediately, but I couldn’t let her see. Instead, I did my best to swallow the panic down and offered a small smile. Although, it probably looked like I was constipated. “I double parked in an ambulance loading zone at the hospital.”

Soraya whistled. “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 opened, this time in the very front of the room. A judge entered wearing the black robes and everything, very official looking. He was an older, stern-looking man, but he looked like he could be my grandfather instead of a judge. Although, the judges at home never bothered with formalities like robes. The last time I’d 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 interrupted. “I have plans for my weekend, and they don’t include staying here any longer than necessary.” He held a hand out, and the bailiff that I’d missed completely handed him a pile of papers. 

“Soraya Morgan.” The judge sounded surprised. “Why are you on my docket?”

Soraya blushed as she stood up, but not before grabbing a present out of her bag and shooting me a devious smile.

“Judge Carter, I am soooo sorry. Graham 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 glared at her. “Can I assume that you’ve already handled that?”

“Oh yes.” Soraya nodded 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 Graham is signed up to sponsor their benefit this year as well.” I saw her flush all the way up the back of her tan neck. “It was the least we could do.” 

Soraya started walking toward the massive oak bench, where Judge Carter was holding a gavel and pointing it at her with one eyebrow raised. When the bailiff moved to stop her, the judge waved him off and held out a hand for the present.

“What’s that?” He narrowed 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 could make sure that Graham doesn’t find out, I would be eternally grateful.” She coughed 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 was talking was almost hysterical, but I couldn’t blame her. 

I’d hate having to use a driver, too. Also my wanting to be independent is partly why I found myself in traffic court. There was no way I could afford everything I was 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 caught me off guard. “I won’t tell him. But your fine is tripled. I assume you’ll be taking care of it today.”

“Definitely.” Soraya was nodding fervently and not complaining at all. “Thank you so much Judge Carter.” When she stopped, the judge kept talking.

“Let your driver take you next time, Mrs. Morgan. You’re dismissed.” His gavel striking the wooden surface of the bench echoed through the room. 

Soraya was 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 explained. “But I can’t have Graham finding out about this ticket. Seriously. You’d be surprised how many times he gives me shit about my driving.”

She was utterly adorable. Like one of my students when they knew they had done something wrong. They were doing their absolute best to make up for it, because they didn’t want me to call their parents. 

Names were called, and people went up to speak with Judge Carter one after another. He was fair, but stern, from what I could tell. Still that didn’t make it any easier to think about contesting my ticket. I knew I had screwed up, I really did. That wasn’t the problem. I just hoped that he’d let me explain what was happening and why I’d done it. Even as I sat there thinking about it though, I couldn’t stop the panic and my need to run from filtering in. 

I was so caught up in my thoughts that I didn’t even notice Soraya start to panic next to me. She reached out and grabbed my hand. 

“Please don’t tell him that I got a ticket.” 

Confused, I looked around, expecting to see the mysterious husband that she’d mentioned. However, there was no one that fit the bill. The only newcomer looked like he had just stepped out of a magazine. He looked bored out of his mind, until his eyes fell on Soraya. Then, I watched as a switch practically flipped and his grimace turned into a mischievous smile. One that if I saw it in my class, I’d immediately get suspicious. 

When he got closer, I had to make sure that my mouth wasn’t hanging open, because he was freaking gorgeous. Green eyes so bright they practically melted my panties right there on the spot, and just a hint of a five o’clock shadow. Oh, I was a massive sucker for green eyes. Though his hair is what gave him away. My brother and his friends all had the same look, every time they came home. Knowing he was in the military just made my current situation worse. When he sat down on the other side of Soraya, I practically sighed. And just like that, I knew I was in trouble. 

“What are you doing in traffic court, Soraya?” His voice was perfect, too. Which just made it worse, because he hadn’t once looked in her direction.

“Go away Cole,” Soraya bit out through the corner of her mouth. “I’m here for my friend, Casper.” 

Right as she said my name, the bailiff did the same thing from the front of the room. “Casper Townsend.”

“Good luck.” Soraya squeezed my hand again, and then let go as I stood up on wooden legs. I’d completely forgotten that she was even holding my hand. 

Having everyone’s attention completely on me now was unnerving. Especially when the man who’d sat next to Soraya, Cole, shot one glance in my direction and then dismissed me completely. My mortification was complete, and I licked my lips as I walked stiffly up to the designated area. I was trying to remember to breathe, and managing it pretty well, I thought. Until I looked up at Judge Carter and everything went fuzzy for a second. 

The table in front of me offered a little reprieve when I leaned against it to take a few deep breaths.

“Breathe,” Soraya called out quietly. How I heard her across the room, I didn’t freaking know. Somehow her words made it through my head, over the sound of my racing heart, and I did. 

The bailiff said something to the judge about my ticket. I assumed it was the details of what happened, but I couldn’t quite focus on him. I was too busy recovering from the mini panic attack that had taken over. 

“Ms. Townsend.” 

I looked up to see the judge staring down at me dispassionately. “You’re here to contest your parking ticket.”

“N-no, Your Honor.” I swallowed. “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 was a snort. “Pretty girls always get out of tickets.” I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was coming from. Cole. The man next to Soraya. Even when I got angry at the fact that he thought I was trying to get out of a ticket, which I was, he had no right to assume I was using my looks to do so. 

“You parked illegally in an ambulance bay,” Judge Carter said disapprovingly. “What possible reason could you have for doing that?”

Sandpaper. My throat was coated in sandpaper, and there was nothing for me to drink to make it better. I swallowed, grimacing at the way it burnt, but I had to tell him. 

“My sister,” I croaked. “My sister was in a car accident, and at the time that it happened, I was in Boston 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 three hours away. Instead of the usual ten it would have taken to get here from Maine. They needed us here, at the hospital with her.” I broke 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 had changed, but I couldn’t see the expression on his face through my tears. 

“I didn’t make it in time.” Sobbing, I kept 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 didn’t want to say the words. I couldn’t say the words. Just like I couldn’t save Cassie, and I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing down my face in what had to be the most embarrassing situation ever. 

A small tap on my shoulder had me whipping my head around. Only to see those unnerving green eyes staring at me with a handkerchief held out. “Here.” He pressed it into my hand and then walked away without looking back. 

Numbly, I took it and tried to wipe the tears from my face. It bought me a few seconds, at least, before I had to turn back to face the judge. At this point I was pretty certain the judge wouldn’t lower the fine at all. 

“Ms. Townsend,” Judge Carter said 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 glanced to the side, and I swear he sniffled. “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 looked 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 couldn’t speak, couldn’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 had 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 managed to say, remembering the manners that I’d grown up with. “I really, really appreciate it.”

Before I could step down, Judge Carter cleared his throat. I looked 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 blushed, a spectacular shade of red climbing his cheeks as he said it, and I couldn’t help the small laugh that came out. 

“My students love that series, sir.”

Everything was fine after that, until I got back to my seat to see that Cole was sitting in my spot, and the only other place open was his former seat. Which I took with a huff, and tried not to glare at him. 

“I’m so sorry,” Soraya whispered. “He just sat there.” 

“Thank you.” I whispered over her head to the man who was finally looking at me. 

Actually, he wasn’t really looking at me. He was looking at my hand, which was clenching his handkerchief. I’d intended to ask for an address that way I could wash it and send it back. Handkerchiefs were expensive and there was no way I was going to hand back one that was wet with my tears and snot. 

Immediately, I knew I’d never been more embarrassed in my entire life. Seriously. He was that attractive. Dumbly, and even though it wasn’t my original plan in the slightest, I held out the snot-covered cloth for him to take.

“I don’t want it back.” He furrowed his brow, like he was thinking about saying something else, only to think better of it. 

Of course I had to make myself look like a fool in front of him. Completely and utterly mortified, I pulled my hand back and turned to face the front of the room. I only had to sit through another few minutes of wanting to run away before I could finally leave. Thankfully I would never have to see Cole or Soraya again. Although, Soraya was a complete sweetheart and I wouldn’t mind seeing her again. 

Everything was finally returning to normal, and I was almost out of the woods, until Judge Carter stood up and dismissed everyone. 

“Can we go now?” Cole didn’t sound the least bit amused that Soraya was waiting for me at the door a few moments later. 

“No.” I heard her berate him while I was 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 tried to hide my surprise at her words. Though honestly, it seemed like something she’d do and I’d only known her for an hour. 

“Hey,” I said hesitantly. It was more than obvious that Cole thought I was interrupting their private conversation, but they were literally standing in front of the only doors to get outside. 

“Great.” Soraya grabbed my arm. “See you later, Cole.” 

She walked out without looking back. I, on the other hand, did look back. Although the glare he sent my way when he saw my eyes had a shiver racing down my spine. I just couldn’t tell if it was in fear or excitement.