Just a Little Bit Guilty

Just a Little Bit Guilty

Deborah Smith

$11.95 December 2009
ISBN 978-0-9843256-4-1

Classic Romance From New York Times Bestselling Author Deborah Smith

Our PriceUS$11.95
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Synopsis | Excerpt

  • Originally published as Cupid's Verdict, by Deborah Smith writing as Jackie Leigh, 1986, Berkley Books, New York.
  • This new edition has been revised and updated

A pretty but tough Atlanta judge. A handsome good ol' boy farmer. When Jake Coltrane rescues Vivian Costas from muggers on a dark city street, he falls in love at first punch. She's tracking bad guys while disguised as a bag lady, and she whacks Jake with her purse. Vivian instantly adores the sexy but gentlemanly farmer, who's restoring a run-down city apartment building he inherited. But he's moving back to his farm soon, and she doesn't see how their very different lives can merge. She's been hurt before and tries to keep her distance. But Jake is irresistible. Can she follow her heart, take a risk, and not feel just a little bit guilty?



The sound reached his ears in the frosty night air at the precise moment the elderly woman's lethal shoulder bag connected with his denim-clad upper thigh, barely missing a part of his anatomy he prized highly. He gasped as pain shot down his leg.

"You pack a wallop for a little old bag lady," Jake Coltrane complained in a deep drawl. "Darlin', I'm only tryin' to help you."

She stumbled on the icy Atlanta sidewalk, obviously dazed, but kept swinging. Jake held his shotgun out of her arm's flailing arc and tried to close in for a grip on her. Under his heavy flannel shirt, his shoulder also ached fiercely from his encounter with whatever was heavy and sharp-edged inside her faded cloth shoulder bag.

"Ma'am, I'm not one of the muggers. They've run off. I've got half a mind to run off myself, if you whack me again."

"Get back, ass wipe," she mumbled, rabbit punching the air with one fist.

For an old lady, she had a mouth on her. She looks like a fuzzed-up Bantam hen in all those scarves and coats. He circled her, pawing at her gently. He nearly stumbled over the two blue tick hounds who hung on his heels, growling.

"Hush, Chester. Hush, Phoebe. Chester, get out of my way. Granny's gettin' more addled by the second."

The tiny bag lady made a low, squealing sound of defiance and swung again. Jake dodged the blow. She hissed. "Back off, I've got a Taser," she said. She staggered. The run-down heels on her ancient leather shoes slipped on the ice, and she sat down hard on the crumbling cement. Her ankle-length coat top coat flew up. In the stark glow of a security light Jake caught a glimpse of slender black leggings on curvaceous legs above furry white ski boots. He frowned. How many homeless old women looked like back-up singers for Bjork under their coats? And how many bag ladies had a swing like a bouncer at a rave? She scrambled to her feet again, slapping at the hand he extended and weaving back and forth unsteadily.

"Ma'am," he persisted. "I know you've been knocked in the head and you're scared pretty bad, but just quit swingin' at me. I'm not trying to punk you or rob you or ... or whatever. I came out here to chase those dudes off and help you."

All he could see of her face was a pair of lustrous dark eyes. They gazed woozily at him from below a purple-felt skull cap. Her lower face was hidden behind a lime-green scarf wrapped several times around her head. She blinked slowly then stopped like a wobbling Weeble, her knees bumping each other, the weight of her heavy bag throwing her off-balance. She weakly lifted one gloved hand and pointed at him with menace as he inched forward.

"You ... better be ... for real," she murmured thickly, an instant before she fainted across his outstretched arms.

She was at least a foot shorter than him, and more bulky than heavy. Jake carried her easily to his battered red pickup truck, parked just a few feet away on the oak-lined street, and deposited her on the passenger side. She moaned and rested her head on the truck's cold vinyl seat. With gentle, work-scarred fingers, Jake tried to pull the scarf away from her face and unbutton her coat, but she pawed his hand away.

"Keep your groping little ... groping little mitts to yourself, mister," she warned, her voice muffled and her eyes groggy. "You may be ... may be huge ... but if you think I won't try to Taser you right in the..."

"Darlin', I'm not goin' to hurt you," he assured her. "I'm gonna drive you over to Grady's ER, okay? You stay quiet while I put my dogs up and get my coat. Be right back."

He shook a finger at her, but her eyes had already closed. Jake took the opportunity to look closely, bending forward. He sniffed tentatively. Her clothes smelled musty, but he also noted a scent of light, expensive perfume. Huh. Probably a knock-off store brand she stole off some street vendor.

He frowned harder. What he could see of her face above the scarf had no distinct age lines. And she had the thickest, blackest lashes.

Those inky lashes fluttered up, revealing pain and fear and confusion. "What's your name, douche bag?"

Jake patted her bulky, shapeless lap, hoping he was hitting some neutral area, like a knee. She must have a mild concussion. "I'm Jake Coltrane. I own that run-down old apartment building we were in front of."

She blinked. "Where am I?"

A thread of true anxiety weaved its way into Jake's mind. She must be hurt worse than he'd thought. He patted her leg or lap or whatever was under her layers of dingy clothes. "You're with me, darlin'. And that means you're safe."

"Not likely," she whispered. But her eyes shut again.

Jake rushed his dogs inside the apartment building, locked them in his rooms, then raced back outside. His bag lady still sat with her eyes shut, unmoving.

He drove like hell, punching nine-one-one on his cell phone as he drove. The trip to Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital took only fifteen minutes through the shadowy city streets, since it was near midnight on a weekday. During the ride, the bag lady huddled in the far corner of the passenger side, her eyes shut and her arms crossed over her dirty beige coat.

"What's your name?" Jake asked as he swung the truck next to the curb across from Grady's emergency entrance. He switched off the ignition and flipped his tractor cap onto the dash. "I'll need to tell them inside. Here they come, darlin'. They're bringing a stretcher for you."

All he received for his trouble was a pained grunt, so he gingerly reached over and opened her floppy bag. It had fallen onto the floor next to the stick shift.

"Let's see if I can find something with your name on it ... good Lord!" The weapon that had nearly poked a hole in him twice was a thick volume of the Georgia Criminal Code. Jake pulled it out slowly and whistled under his breath. Where this little old character had gotten it, he couldn't imagine. Maybe she'd robbed a lawyer.

She wavered upright and tried to shove his hands away from her bag. "That's personal."

"Easy darlin', easy," Jake replied. He wrapped one broad-knuckled hand gently around both of her wrists and held her captive while he continued to delve into her belongings. "I've got to find some ID for you."

But all he found was a dollar in change and a new-looking set of Prius keys on a key ring. He stared at the keys with his mouth open. She slumped limply against the door, her eyes shut tight in pain. "Don't feel ... so ... good, Jake," she mumbled. "Nauseated."

He went into immediate action, climbing out of the truck and running to the passenger side. She shoved her door open and rolled out before he could reach her. Her feet hit pavement that was slick with the oil and gas stains of the orange-striped ambulances that parked there regularly. She slid and he grabbed her, swinging her up into his arms as if she were a child. Her head rolled against his shoulder.

"Put me down, Tarzan," she croaked. "I'm Vivian, not Jane."

"So it's Vivian," he answered softly, kicking the door shut with the toe of his work boot. "Well, Vivian, you've got more spunk than a spring heifer. Let's get you to a doctor."

"Thank you," she whispered.

He worked his way between a row of ambulances and carried her through heavy double doors into a scene straight out of a Tim Burton movie version of hell. Police suspect with bloody faces were handcuffed to chairs against institutional-green walls. People moaned and screamed and cursed. Atlanta police officers nonchalantly guided drug dealers and hookers up the halls.

Jake paused inside the door, his face grim. He'd never seen anything like this at Doc Murtha's office in his Tennessee hometown. Not even on the Saturday night following the fall carnival.

"Whoo-whee!" a scrawny man called from one corner. "It's Jed Clampett! And Granny!"

Jake gave him a silencing glare. His big shoulders flexed under his sheepskin coat as he looked down into the bag lady's half-shut eyes, seeing them in bright light for the first time. He inhaled sharply. They were a hickory-nut hazel, sprinkled with gold and edged in black. Those amazing lashes of hers made shadows on the youthful, olive-hued skin of her cheeks. Her head tucked into the cradle of his shoulder, she blinked up at him slowly, blankly, like a wounded doe.

"What you got there, man?"

Jake lifted startled eyes to find a huge police officer with a head full of short, inky dreads. At six-two, Jake wasn't accustomed to tilting his head back to meet another man's gaze. His jaw tightened as he assessed the distrust and dislike in the policeman's eyes. "I'll hang with her, man."

The officer jerked his thumb toward and empty stretcher. "Leave her, and I'll get a doc."

"No." Jake couldn't leave this wistful, pugnacious little woman alone in this hell hole.

"I'll get you a younger bitch, if you're that desperate!" a greasy-faced blond with a swollen eye chided. A chorus of guffaws rose around Jake. Jake slowly clenched his fists.

The officer shook his head and sighed. "Cool off, man. Let's see what we got here. Ol' mama, come on now, lemme get an identity on you." He reached over, tugged the scarf down around Vivian's chin, and gently turned her face toward him.

His mouth popped open. "Judge Costa!" he exclaimed. The officer pivoted and yelled across the admissions lobby. "Bill! It's the judge from municipal court! It's Vivian Costa."

"Why ... Officer Washington, I didn't ... know you cared," Vivian slurred.

"She's a what?" Jake echoed. "A judge?" Jake stared down at her newly uncovered face, and his heart did a slow pirouette of surprise at what he saw. After a second of suspended animation, in which he absorbed every feature from the black wings of her brows to the firm little chin beneath her luscious, serious mouth, Jake understood perfectly why he had jelly behind his kneecaps.

She was adorable Her face had a gentle, diamond shape. Her nose was short and slightly tilted, with a square, delicate tip. She had layered, feathery hair just long enough to brush the tops of her shoulders.

She was first prize at the livestock show.

* * * *

Vivian was dimly aware of Jake Coltrane's arms tightening around her, and of his long, warm sigh brushing her face. He really did make her feel safe, now that she was over her initial shock at his assistance. In fact, she'd never felt so safe in her life. Her mental image of this man was dim, but his voice, the warm leathery scent of his coat, and his steady, gentlemanly grasp overwhelmed her with a sense of comfort.

"Y'all clear the way for Judge Costa!" the policeman thundered.

With the officer as a human battering ram, Jake carried his charge through more double doors. He hardly noticed when busy medical personnel glanced up from a forest of patients, examining tables, and equipment. Still staring down at Vivian Costa, his blood rushing too loudly inside his ear drums, he bumped his knee on a trash can and stopped distractedly. Jake glanced up to see a middle-aged, dark-skinned woman in jeans and a white lab coat bustling towards them, shaking her finger at Washington.

"Barney Washington, what do you think you're doing?" she interrogated with a Latin accent.

"Dr. Hernandez, it's Judge Costa!" the officer protested, looking hurt.

"It's Vivian? No!" Jake watched as the doctor grasped Vivian's hand. "Hey, Judge, you are causing some trouble again, eh?"

"Eh," Vivian agreed weakly. "Maria? Is that you?"

"Yeah, sure is. Make a joke so I know you're alive."

"He saved me, Maria. Do you believe that? A stranger ... risked his hide ... to save me." She paused, and a wistful smile curved her lips. "Isn't he unbelievable?"

"Yeah, really." Jake found the doctor's sharp eyes on him as her fingers gauged Vivian's pulse. "You. Mister. Who are you, and what has happened?"

"She was mugged outside my apartment building," Jake said patiently. He realized the he was grinning down at Vivian Costa so widely that his mouth hurt. Her compliment made him feel strong and needed, and at this point in his lonely life, he particularly appreciated that. "Two guys hit her in the head. She's all fainty and disoriented. Though she lands a pretty good punch and she still claims she's got a Taser on her, somewhere."

"Ah! Sounds like a concussion." Dr. Hernandez waved for him to follow her and started across the crowded examination room toward a gurney in one corner.

"Thanks, man, for bringin' her in," Barney Washington allowed. "She's our patron saint. She really cares about people."

"You!" Dr. Hernandez bellowed at Jake. "You, redneck! No more chatting. Come here."

With a nod to Officer Washington, Jake strode over. He carefully draped Vivian's small body on the padded table, while Dr. Hernandez arranged a curtain to afford a little privacy.

"You have strong arms, Jake Coltrane," Vivian whispered weakly. "Gentle arms."

"You're mighty easy to hold, ma'am," he told her, his breath shallow and hard in his throat. He'd have fought a whole army of muggers on her behalf. "You're just like a little sweet baby deer I once caught..."

She pressed a gloved hand to her forehead, and her mouth grimaced in distress. "Too many cornpone references ... I ... my head ... please."

He slid his fingers under her sock cap and eased it off. Wavy hair the color and texture of chocolate-black silk flowed over his callused fingers as he massaged her scalp. She relaxed onto the gurney.

"Good," she sighed. "Makes the pain go away. Stay a ... while."

"Easy, darlin', nobody could pry me outta here," he assured her gruffly. He slipped his hand under her head and raised it for the pillow Dr. Hernandez placed underneath. Vivian turned her face into the antiseptic softness and sighed, her eyes closed again.

"Help or leave!" the doctor snapped.

Jake's big fingers fumbled at coats, scarves, and sweaters while the doctor ran practiced fingers over Vivian's scalp and peered into her eyes. Jake stopped, his stomach knotted, while the woman peeled her down to a University of Georgia sweatshirt and the black leggings.

You're a perfect little doll, Vivian Costa, Jake observed silently in continuing, breathless appreciation.

"Vivvy, you got a bump like Stone Mountain," Dr. Hernandez concluded, touching the right side of her head above one ear. "But your eyes aren't dilated, and you got some smarts, so I think we'll just order a couple of tests, watch you a while and let you go home. Are you still dizzy?"

"Only when I blink, dammit," Vivian mumbled. Jake took her hand and squeezed it. Vivian wanted to study him closely, to get a good look at this amazing man who showed such concern for her. But her head swam as she tried to focus, so she simply squeezed his huge hand back.

A nurse appeared with an ice bag, which Dr. Hernandez plopped into Jake's hand. "Redneck, you sit here--" she pulled up a dirty, green stool, and he settled his big body onto it--"and hold this bag on her bump." She put her arms akimbo and eyed him warily. "You got that?"

He gave her an exasperated look. His sharp-edged drawl warned that he was tired of being the object of her sarcasm. "I rescued her, ma'am. I got her here. I believe I can take care of the rest."

"Okay, okay." Dr. Hernandez's expression registered apology. "I'm sorry. Thanks." He smiled and shrugged. "Get her to talk more. Ask her things, and see if she makes sense."

With that, the doctor hurried off.

Like a man undertaking the most monumental duty of his life, Jake leaned over his ex-bag lady and followed the instructions Dr. Hernandez had just given.

* * * *

The scent of a big, warm, male body close to her face invaded Vivian's nose and swam through her dull thoughts, zapping them into alertness. The ice bag brought welcome relief to the throb in her head and settled her churning stomach.

Maybe I am still human, she thought, here eyes closed. She tried to remember everything that had happened to her on the street, but couldn't. She could only picture the shotgun-toting man who kept calling her darlin' like some sort of NASCAR driver or country-western singer. He was the owner of the sandpaper-tipped fingers now stroking her temple. The pillow was cool and smooth on one side of her face; those fingers were hot and deliciously textured on the other.

The arm that occasionally brushed her cheek was covered in soft material that smelled good, earthy, and wood-smoked. Vivian sighed at the odd effect all those sensations had on her pulse rate, and turned her face toward the ceiling. Warm, masculine breath, pleasant and musky, filled her senses.

Her eyes opened clear and wide.

Whatever she'd expected paled next to the breathtaking reality of the welcoming, worshiping, magnetic blue gaze of the man who came into focus above her.

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