Autumn Buchanan has loved Judd all her life. Best friends since they were children, he's been fulfilling her rescue fantasies for years. But years ago, her dreams of more ended in blood and a nightmare that nearly cost them both their lives. Now she's ready to take the leap and profess all to the friend who's stood by her through thick and thin. But before she can make her confession, their nightmare returns and secrets are revealed that threaten the very fabric of their lifelong friendship.
*Please note, an earlier edition of this book was published as IF I DIDN'T CARE. The book has been rewritten and significantly changed.*
Release date: July 31, 2020
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 286
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Make You Feel My Love: A Small Town Romantic Suspense
Dear God, if I’d wanted to break up elementary school fights, I would’ve become a teacher.
Headed into the second leg of a double shift, Officer Judd Hamilton tried his best to clamp down on the irritation. He had, after all, volunteered to organize FountainFest safety for the police department. And if that meant keeping Jim Vernon and Neil Faber from coming to blows over who got to kick off the 1-mile Fun Run, then that’s what he’d do.
Beyond the two geezers, he caught a glimpse of his girlfriend, Mary Alice, smiling at him. Her group of third graders was obviously excited about the race but behaved themselves. Unlike these two. He really wished he could put the pair of them in time out.
Instead, he tried his best to channel the calm, reasonable tone he’d heard Mary Alice use on her class. “Look, gentleman, I respect the fact that you were both told you could fire the starter pistol. I know it’s a big honor—” for the three seconds it will take for everyone to forget you were ever there, “and neither of you wants to be disappointed, but let’s have a little bit of perspective and festival goodwill, okay?”
“I’m not giving up my place!” Jim bounced like a banty rooster.
Neil’s age-spotted hands curled to fists. “Why you old—”
Judd inserted himself bodily between them. “Y’all simmer down, or neither of you is doing anything.” His over-tired mind raced, looking for a solution that didn’t involve him plunking both of them in a cell for the duration of the festival. Somebody somewhere had to have some more blanks. “Look, if we can come up with a second starter pistol, you could both take the shot starting the race simultaneously. Equals. Is that acceptable?”
“I don’t know…” Jim waffled.
Recognizing an opening when he saw one, Judd pushed. “Wouldn’t it look good to the townspeople to see the presidents of the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs joint officiating?”
Neil crossed his arms, rocking back on orthopedic-sneakered feet. “Well, I suppose that might be okay.”
“As long as we both get to have our banners,” Jim insisted.
“One on each side of the starting line,” Judd promised.
“I can live with that,” Neil allowed.
“Good. Great. Y’all do that. Banners in place on those barricades, and y’all get in position. The race should be starting in fifteen minutes.”
Lord have mercy. Was all this extra crap really worth enduring for the chance to be Chief of Police?
Of course it was. Because being Chief wasn’t the end goal. It was just a means to an end.
He waited until the combatants scurried off to their respective civic groups, then radioed to find some blanks. Couldn’t very well have civilians firing actual shots, when town was crawling with pedestrians for the first annual Wishful FountainFest. Looking at the throngs of people, Judd couldn’t help but wish their city planner wasn’t quite so good at her job. The department didn’t have the manpower to adequately police this many people.
Should’ve called in some of the off-duty deputies from the county.
But the departmental budget couldn’t afford that either. Still, he’d seen at least two of the deputies in the crowd. Men he trusted, who could handle themselves. If anything went down, they’d lend a hand. Not that anything was likely to happen, but Judd had plenty of personal experience that made him less complacent than most.
As soon as the starter pistol situation was taken care of, Judd walked over to Mary Alice. Her sunny hair was pulled through the back of a FountainFest ball cap, and she was dressed to run in a t-shirt and shorts that showed off her toned legs. The sight gave him a bit of a jolt. He was so used to her conservative, elementary school attire, he often forgot what was underneath. Which was a terrifying sign of exactly how much he’d been working these last few months.
Need to rectify that.
“Kyle, pull your shorts up. Does anybody have to go to the bathroom before we get started?”
“Everything under control here?” Judd asked.
She looked up, blue eyes twinkling. “As in control as it ever is.”
“At least they’re better behaved than the race officials,” he observed.
“You get whatever that was sorted?” Her gaze slipped past his shoulder. “Danielle, stop picking your nose.”
“Barely. Race will be starting in just a bit.” A jaw-splitting yawn interrupted the statement.
She gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze. “Hang in there. Once this double is over, you’ll be off for four whole days.”
“Thank God.” The prospect of eight straight on a horizontal surface was more appealing than Venus herself.
With a quick glance at her charges, Mary Alice stepped into him, rising on her toes. Judd still had to lean down so she could whisper in his ear. “Maybe after you’ve slept, we could spend some quality time together. Do a little catching up.”
He hummed a noncommittal noise, wondering why he couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm about getting reacquainted with those legs of hers. It was the double shift. Had to be. A flash of red hair distracted him from the suggestion of what they could do with some of that quality time.
Autumn Buchanan, his oldest, dearest friend, cut through the crowd with Boudreaux, Judd’s massive bloodhound-mastiff mix, trotting beside her on a leash. While he’d been on nights the last week, she’d been dogsitting. Livia Applewhite, the children’s librarian and one of her closest girlfriends, trailed in her wake. Judd straightened, eyes zeroing in on the number pinned to Autumn’s chest.
“Good morning, y’all!” She immediately launched into cheery greetings to the children she and Livia knew from the library, introducing them to Boudreaux. The dog sat, patiently enduring the kids’ adoration, his big tail slowly sweeping the sidewalk.
“Are y’all looking forward to the race?” Livia asked.
As she drew the children into excited conversation, Autumn stepped forward, extending the to-go cup in her hand. “I come on a mission of mercy. A Zombie Killer from The Grind. Extra shot of caramel, just how you like it. Figured you’d be dragging about now. Plus, Boudreaux’s missing his daddy.”
Judd automatically took the cup in one hand, and gave his dog a head rub with the other, but he couldn’t tear his eyes off of Autumn. “Thanks. What are you wearing?”
She glanced down at her shorts and fitted tank top, which displayed miles of lean, toned legs and arms that he forced himself to ignore. “I realize you’re on a double, but if you’re so tired you don’t recognize running gear, I’m not sure you should be on duty.”
“I’m talking about the race number.”
She deliberately widened her green eyes at him. “It’s called participation.”
“You’re not running.” With a struggle, he managed to make it a question rather than an order.
“I am, actually. Livia, Riley, and I are doing it together.”
Frustration whipped through him. “You aren’t supposed to exert yourself. Dr. Webb said—”
“That exercise is good for my heart.”
“He meant yoga or swimming.” Hadn’t he? Nice non-competitive stuff that wouldn’t get her heart rate or blood pressure up. Nothing that might aggravate her heart condition.
“It’s a one mile fun run, not a triathlon. Besides, Boudreaux is looking forward to some exercise. Aren’t you, boy?” She scratched behind his ears, and Boudreaux pressed into her touch, eyes rolling back in bliss.
Missing his daddy, my ass.
“Boudreaux’s idea of exercise is walking from the sofa down to the end of my dock.”
“Which should be proof enough that I won’t be over exerting myself. Stop worrying, Grandpa.”
That was like ordering him not to breathe. He couldn’t just turn off twenty-five years of protective instincts. Not when he could still so clearly see her lying in that hospital bed, hooked up to half a dozen monitors and machines.
Someone’s voice boomed over a bullhorn. “Everybody participating in the Fun Run please take your position behind the starting line. The race will begin in five minutes.”
Livia craned her neck to look over the crowd. “We should go find Riley.”
“Gotta go.” Autumn was already turning away before he could think of any other rational arguments against her running in this race. “Drink the coffee, Judd. You’ll feel better. Bye, Mary Alice!”
Beside him, Mary Alice lifted her hand in a wave. “She’ll be fine.”
Judd grunted a response and scanned the course to see what medical personnel were on duty, in case something went wrong. The First Aid tent was about thirty yards away, on one corner of the town green. They were more expecting scraped knees and sprains, but a defibrillator would be there. And he had his own EMT training to fall back on in an emergency.
None of it made him feel any better, but short of bodily stopping her from participating, it was the best he could do. Not that she’d had any incidents in years, and her last check-up with her cardiologist, three months before, had given her an all clear.
Judd blinked, realizing Mary Alice had been talking to him. “Sorry. What?”
A flicker of exasperation passed over her pretty face. “I asked if you’d be up in time tomorrow for us to go to your family’s Sunday brunch?”
“Yeah, sure. Mom’s been fussing she hasn’t seen me.” It’d be good to see his family. Plus, he needed to firm up plans to go shopping with Autumn for his brothers’ birthday. No one was better at coming up with the best gag gifts for the twins than she was.
“No one outside the department has seen you since you went on nights a month ago.”
“Part of the job.” He shrugged. “Race is about to start. Y’all have fun and be careful.”
He bent to give her an absent kiss and hit her cheek when she turned at the last moment.
Okay, so she was annoyed. He’d work on smoothing that over once this shift was done and he’d slept. He headed further up the street, judging the best spot to keep an eye out for Autumn. Just in case. The race course ran the length of the green, down Main Street, onto Franklin Street before looping back on Market Street to finish on the opposite side of the green. If she had issues, it would be on the tail end of the course. He positioned himself on the far corner of the green at Main and Spring Streets to watch the start.
At 6’3”, Judd could see over most of the crowd, so when the starter pistols went off—in tandem, thank God—he kept an eagle eye on the surge of people flowing down Main Street. With her bright flash of hair, Autumn was easy to pick out. She, Riley, and Livia were in a tight cluster, with Boudreaux trotting ahead. None of them was going faster than a jog. He could tell Autumn was even talking and laughing as they went. The tightness in his chest eased a fraction.
Mitch Campbell, one of Judd’s poker buddies, stepped up to the curb to watch the girls. “I don’t think Boudreaux quite knows what to think about all these people.”
“We both know he’d follow Autumn anywhere.”
“Didn’t know she was running.”
“Neither did I,” Judd grumbled. But at least she was being smart about it. No outright sprinting. And honestly, Autumn was never reckless with her health. She just seemed to worry about it a lot less than he did.
“Not sure you can call what they’re doing running,” Mitch observed as they disappeared from view.
Judd turned to make his way to the opposite corner, across from Sweet Magnolias Bakery, aware of Mitch falling into step beside him.
“Man, you look like warmed over death this morning.”
“Thanks for that. Coffee hasn’t kicked in.” He drained it on the walk, feeling a rush of gratitude that Autumn had thought of it. With all his herding of people this morning, there hadn’t been time to go by The Daily Grind himself.
“You gonna make it to poker night next week, now you’re finally off nights?”
“That’s the plan. But I’ve gotta work on digging myself out of the doghouse with Mary Alice. I’ve been working my ass off and neglecting her lately.” Longer than lately, if he was honest with himself.
“Man, buy her something shiny. Never met a woman who couldn’t be appeased with jewelry and flowers.”
“Jewelry’s never been my style.”
“Even better,” Mitch declared, thumping him on the back. “She won’t expect it and it’ll be a surprise.”
“You sure?” Didn’t gifts of jewelry come with certain expectations?
“Absolutely. Go by Sanderson’s and ask Rosanna about the doghouse special. She’s got a good selection of options.”
Judd spared Mitch a glance. “You sound like you have a lot of experience with this.”
“Well, I’m still friends with all my exes.”
Autumn came into view, moving with the same unhurried jog she’d had at the start. Boudreaux trotted obediently beside her, periodically looking up at her in complete adoration. Her cheeks were flushed from exertion, but not alarmingly so. She was okay, exactly as she’d said she’d be. The tension in his muscles drained out, and Judd could practically hear her in his head, See there, Grandpa.
Turning back to Mitch, he picked up the thread of conversation. “But they’re exes.”
“Only because I got out before any of them got too serious. Talk to Rosanna. She won’t steer you wrong.”
What the hell? It couldn’t hurt.
* * *
“We need a plan of attack.”
Autumn looked with affectionate forbearance across the table at her best friend and thought of how many times in the past twenty-five years he’d said exactly that. “It’s shopping for birthday presents, Judd, not a war.”
“Same difference. There are people.” His sharp blue eyes narrowed on the word.
She smiled into her coffee. “You’re just grumpy because you haven’t recovered from FountainFest and all those extra shifts you’ve been pulling.”
“Hell yes. Ergo, I want to get through this whole process as quickly as possible.” He inhaled a quarter of his tall stack of pancakes in about three bites, as if to prove the point.
“We could have done this sooner if you weren’t working all the time,” she chided.
“Couldn’t be helped. Chief Curry’s been leaning on me pretty heavy lately.”
“Which is exactly what you wanted.”
Judd shrugged. “I figured the decision about the replacement Chief would’ve been made by now. Nobody thought this would drag on for over a year. Either way, this is the time we’ve got, and gag gifts must be procured. It’s tradition.”
Curmudgeon or not, Judd Hamilton was reliable as the rising sun. Since the pair of them were old enough to ride their bikes downtown, they’d established an annual tradition of finding the best possible gag gifts for his twin brothers. As she’d been an honorary Hamilton for more than a decade, she took great pleasure in punking Leo and Eli.
As they polished off their breakfast and Judd wrote out a list of stops like he was planning a tactical assault, Mama Pearl brought their check. Autumn started to reach for it, but Judd’s hand shot out and snagged it.
“What are you doing?”
He was already digging out his wallet. “Buying breakfast.”
Autumn bristled. “I can buy my own breakfast.”
“You’ve been working on half-time hours since spring. I’ve been working overtime. I’m buying breakfast.”
“Don’t be an ass.”
“I’m an ass for buying my oldest friend breakfast?” He fixed her with that cop stare that was meant to intimidate but instead heated things that had no business heating.
Autumn shifted in her seat, crossing her legs to get more comfortable and bumping his instead. A zing of awareness shot from her kneecap further north, and she repressed the urge to curse, focusing instead on keeping every nuance of her expression dialed to annoyed rather than attracted. God knew, she had plenty of practice.
Before she could come up with an answer that wasn’t some shade of “I don’t need you to take care of me”—which would just piss him off—Mama Pearl came back.
She gave a hmmph that conveyed a wealth of opinion over their stalemate before handing Autumn a thick envelope. “Omar sent this out. You won the pool on Tucker and Corinne.”
Judd tossed down his napkin. “Of course you did. How many does this make?”
“Seventeen,” Autumn said sweetly, plucking the check from his hand and pulling three fives from the envelope to pass back to Mama Pearl.
He stared at her. “Seriously?”
“What can I say? I’m lucky when it comes to betting on love.” Which was an enormous crock of shit. She’d never been brave enough to gamble with him. Until today.
“She is the reigning champion,” Mama Pearl confirmed, before ambling off to get her change.
“What’s your secret?” Judd asked.
“Why is it you’re so good at picking who’s going to end up with who and when?”
He absolutely wouldn’t like the answer to that. Reminding Judd that she was adept at reading people’s body language because she’d grown up in a household where understanding that meant the difference between surviving her father’s crazy pseudo-religious delusions and getting the belt—or worse—would ruin the mood of the day. He’d gotten her out years ago. That was the important thing. Besides, it was a lot more fun using her skills for love instead of survival.
Now her brain was occupied with broaching a far more terrifying topic. How exactly did you tell your best friend you’re in love with him?
“Maybe it’s all those romance novels. It’s made me extra sensitive to spotting the signs. And anyway, betting on love sure as hell beats editing dissertations for foreign students in terms of supplementing my income.”
His lips quirked in that rare devil-may-care grin that made her heart stutter. “You’ve actually made enough on this to supplement your income?”
It wasn’t the only supplement to her income, but it was the only one he needed to know about. She made a show of fanning the remaining cash in the envelope. “I just got handed all my shopping money. For the twins and for a splurge.”
“Then I guess we’d better go spend it.”
Per tradition, stop number one was the fountain in the middle of the town green. Constructed just after the Civil War, the fountain had earned some local notoriety over the past century and a half. It was, after all, why the town was named Wishful. Usually Autumn tossed in her coin and made a less selfish wish—there were plenty of other people who could use a little bit of magic. But if she was really going through with this, she needed all the help she could get. She’d even saved a silver dollar specially for the occasion. The coin lay against her sweaty palm. She stared down at the smooth surface of the water, trying to slow her heart and think of the right way to phrase the wish.
“You okay, Firefly?”
The childhood nickname pulled her back to the past, to the first time they’d stood here and the wish she’d made then. The casual stroke down her back kept her in the now.
“You know, when we were twelve and you brought me here that first time, I didn’t believe in wishes. Didn’t see the point. But you gave me a quarter and told me to make a wish anyway. For anything I wanted. Do you know what I wished for?”
She lifted her gaze to his face. “I wished for a new family. And you gave me yours. I can never repay you for that.”
“We’re not keeping a balance sheet, Autumn. It’s not something you owe us for.”
No. That had been a gift without price. And if she did this. If she changed things, his friendship wasn’t the only thing she risked.
Be brave. Be like the strong heroines you write about.
Eyes on his, she fisted the silver dollar and made her wish. I wish for the courage and strength of heart to do what needs to be done, say what needs to be said.
She didn’t look as she tossed the coin. Didn’t even glance over at the solid thunk in the water. She could only watch him. For twenty-five years, he’d been her strength, her shield, her confidant. And she was about to see if he’d be more.
“Judd, there’s something I need to—”
The sound of her name had the words clogging like a logjam in her throat as she turned to see who had such craptastic timing.
A history professor at Wachoxee County Community College, Mark Caulfield had been stopping in at the library once or twice a week for a couple of years. He was charming, erudite, and a little shy. Lanky, with a penchant for tweed—a less attractive Jude Law type. Livia had been making bets for months about when Mark would get up the nerve to ask Autumn out. He always seemed to stop just short of crossing the line from flirtation to action. Which was perfectly fine with Autumn. She enjoyed their flirtation, enjoyed the lack of pressure to actually commit to anything else. And here he was with flowers in his hand when she was about to confess her love to Judd.
Crap on a cracker.
“Good morning, lovely lady.” With a sheepish smile, he held a bouquet of bright yellow tulips out.
Autumn reached to take the flowers automatically, though a part of her instinctively recoiled. She couldn’t stop the flinch as her hand curled around the stems. “What’s this?”
“I saw these and they made me think of you. A little spot of sunshine. I went by the library to deliver them. Livia told me you were out shopping, so I took a chance that I could catch you.”
Autumn made a mental note to murder her friend. She forced a smile and focused on the gesture rather than the flowers themselves. There was no possible way Mark could’ve known she loathed yellow tulips. They’d been her mother’s favorite flower. “They’re lovely.”
She waited, watching splotches of color rise to Mark’s cheeks as he shifted from foot to foot. Please don’t let today be the day he finally asks.
Mark finally seemed to register Judd’s presence, which said a lot about the man’s focus on her, as Judd had been looming behind her like a guard dog since the moment Mark had shown up.
“Hi. Mark Caulfield.” He offered his hand.
Judd stepped forward to take it. “Judd Hamilton.”
“The best friend,” Judd supplied. His gaze swept Mark from head to toe and clearly found him lacking. Not that anyone who wasn’t well-versed in the microexpressions of Judd would notice.
“Ah,” Mark said.
The silence spun out. One beat, then two.
Ordinarily, Autumn would’ve jumped into the breach, tried to put Mark more at ease with the scripted niceties used by all women in the South. But she wanted—needed—him to go away. So she said nothing, employing the same tactics she knew Judd used in interrogation, hoping Mark would be so acutely uncomfortable, he’d lose his nerve.
“Well, I—you’re in the middle of something. I just wanted to give you the flowers. I’ll let you get back to your shopping now.”
“I guess I’ll see you when those interlibrary loans come in.”
“I’ll be sure to let you know,” she promised.
Mark gave a little wave and shrugged his messenger bag higher on his shoulder, heading back across the green.
Autumn turned back toward Judd. She felt the weight of his gaze—those eyes that always saw too much and not enough.
“Do you want me to take them?” He knew. Of course, he knew what these would mean to her. It was just one of the many reasons she loved him.
“No. They’re just…flowers. I can deal. Just…just tell me when he’s gone so I can find somewhere to dispose of them.”
Mark’s interruption had seriously thrown Autumn off her game. Because the moment to speak had passed, she didn’t resist when Judd took her arm. “C’mon. Let’s walk.”
“Let’s swing by Brides and Belles. I’ll give them to Babette. Someone might as well enjoy them.”
“Sure. I’ve got something to pick up in that area anyway.”
Dimly, Autumn wondered where, but was too rattled to ask. She’d find out soon enough.
She felt better once the flowers were out of her hands. Steadier. She joined Judd back out on the sidewalk. “Okay, List Master, where is our first stop? You said you had something to pick up over here.”
“This way.” He headed down the block. As she fell into step beside him, he said, “Hey what was it you were going to say earlier? Before we were interrupted. You seemed pretty serious.”
“I was. I…” Autumn trailed off, staring blankly at the display window he’d stopped in front of. “What are we doing here?”
“Oh, I’ve just got to run in and pick up something for Mary Alice.”
“Here?” They were standing outside Sanderson’s Jewelers.
“Yeah, I’ve got something on order. Want to come in and see?”
Autumn’s mind ground to a screeching halt, as everything she’d been about to say simply blanked. Judd Hamilton did not buy jewelry. At no point in their twenty-five years of friendship had he ever given something sparkly to one of his girlfriends. He’d never even gotten any cheesetastic jewelry for his mom on Mother’s Day. And he had something on order for Mary Alice.
There was only one thing it could possibly be.
Something burst inside her, a white hot nova of shock sweeping through her body, reverberating through her chest. For long seconds, she waited for the pain to take her to her knees. But there was no physical pain. She wasn’t dying this time, even though she was losing him now as surely as she’d nearly lost him years ago to a bullet meant for her. And for a moment she regretted that the surgeons had repaired her heart. Because that meant she had to live through this, watching him build a life with someone else, knowing she’d never even been in the running.
She drew on every shred of control she had to smile at him. Because she loved him and she wanted him to be happy.
“No. That’s what I wanted to tell you. I’m going to have to bail on our tradition. I’m supposed to meet Mitzi to help finish up a grant for the library. With all the budget cuts, I really can’t afford to tell her no, even though it’s technically my day off. There’s a deadline.” The lie rolled off her tongue with surprising ease.
His expression clouded. “Well shit. Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
“She just emailed me this morning, and I thought we could at least do breakfast. But I need to get on. You go ahead and finish your shopping. I’ll see you later, okay?”
Worry was written all over his face as he studied her.
Please. Please let me go right now.
Because she felt the weight of his gaze on her, she didn’t run, though every instinct urged her to flee. She kept her strides even and unhurried, though she was starting to shake. She kept her head held high, though she wanted to scream. She’d survived more than her fair share over the years. She’d find a way to survive this.
But as she passed the cursed fountain, she wondered how she’d survive it without him.
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