Sabrina rushed forward and shouted, "Kennadi."
Her daughter smiled and jumped out of the car. "Hi, Mommy." She held up a little red box with a bow on it. "Surprise!"
"What is it? Is she okay?" Abby asked her.
"For some reason, she's with a police officer."
"Oh, my God," she whispered.
Sabrina dropped down on her knees and pulled her close. Kennadi reared back. "Look, Mommy. I bought you something for Valentine's Day."
Sabrina touched her face, fingered her ponytail, and inspected her from head to toe. "I was so worried about you. Where have you been?"
With a smile on her face and a chocolate smudge on the corner of her mouth, she said, "I went to the bakery across the street."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "What? You shouldn't have done that. You disappeared, and Abby didn't know where you were. We were both so worried."
Kennadi's caramel-colored little face switched from happy to sad. "I'm sorry. I wanted it to be a surprise."
Not wanting to put a damper on her gift, but needing to let her know what she did was wrong, she responded, "Thank you so much, sweetheart. But you scared Mommy to death. Did you walk over there all by yourself?"
The corners of her mouth tilted upward. "Uh huh. And I even looked both ways before I crossed the street. Just like you taught me."
Abby asked the police officer, "How did you find her?"
Sabrina was so focused on her child that she hadn't taken much notice of the police officer standing behind her daughter.
"I was in the store when she came in, so I decided to bring her back. I figured you'd be looking for her by now."
Sabrina looked up and then up again. This guy, with his shaved head and near-perfect stature, was the stuff heroes were made of on the covers of the romance novels she read. At least six-two, he looked as if he'd been specifically chosen and decadently placed in a rich pool of milk chocolate by God himself.
Abby, unaware of the tension rolling through Sabrina's body, said, "Well, that's good. I'm so relieved. We were so worried about her. I'll go inside and get her bag."
Sabrina needed to snap out of it. One minute she was about to go stark raving mad with worry about her daughter, the next she couldn't take her eyes off the officer who'd brought her safely back. "Thanks, Abby. And thank you so much, Officer...?"
"Hughes. Allen Hughes."
She liked his voice. And his eyes, which were a deep shade of brown, almost black, were mesmerizing. "I thought..." She shook her head from side to side. "Well, never mind what I thought." She stooped back down to look at Kennadi. "I'm just glad you're okay."
"I'm fine. Officer Allen helped me pay for your surprise, too."
"Oh, no. I couldn't let you do that," she croaked, inwardly wincing at the choked sound of her own voice.
He tilted his head to the side and smiled. "It's no problem. Besides, if you pay me back, then it wouldn't be a gift, now would it?"
"I guess not."
Kennadi tugged at her sleeve. "Open it, Mommy. Open it."
Sabrina untied the bow, then opened the box and lifted out the tissue paper.
"Try one. It tastes really good."
As she pushed the paper aside, she grinned. "Chocolate."
"They sure are, sweetie." She cupped her daughter's cheek. "Well, since there are three pieces, why don't we all eat one?"
"I already had one. The lady at the store let me try one before we bought them. Just share one with Officer Allen."
"Okay." She lifted the box up, and he grinned as he took one out.
After she took a bite, she told him, "I don't think I can say thank you enough for finding her, and for this," she said, lifting the box up. "I really appreciate it."
He ate his in one bite. "No problem. Just part of the job. Plus, she seems like a really good kid."
The sudden surge of love for her daughter made her beam as she responded, "Yes, she is." Sabrina leaned down until she was face-to-face with Kennadi, and then she tweaked her daughter on the nose. "Except for today. Don't you ever do that again, do you hear me?"
Kennadi's cheeks flushed and her hazel eyes, so like her father's, sparkled with excitement. "Yes, ma'am. You like your present, don't you, Mommy?"
"Yes, I do, and it was very sweet of you to get it for me, but no more crossing streets without an adult. Okay?"
Kennadi nodded. "I promise."
"You and your husband raised a very well-mannered little girl," Officer Hughes said.
Sabrina tensed, not quite sure how to respond. "Well, um..." What could she say? I had a husband, but we're not together because drugs were more important to him than his family. No. She wouldn't respond that way. She couldn't hang her dirty laundry out there like that.
"Mommy and Daddy aren't together anymore."
Embarrassed, Sabrina squeaked out, "Kennadi." She gave her a fierce hug, turned her around, and patted her on the back. "Why don't you go inside and get your backpack from Abby so she won't have to come all the way out here."
"Tell Officer Hughes goodbye and thank him."
Kennadi turned before she walked through the door and waved. "Goodbye, Officer Allen, and thank you for helping me buy Mommy's Valentine's present."
He returned her wave. "You're welcome, Kennadi." Then he focused his attention on her. "So, I see you're a student, too."
Almost forgotten, she tugged her backpack up on her shoulder. "Oh, yeah. I just got out of class."
"Where do you go to school?"
"Pulaski Tech. Kennadi comes here every day after school and then I pick her up."
"Well, I patrol this area, so I'll keep an eye out for her. Make sure she doesn't take any other unsupervised trips to the bakery without permission," he offered with a grin that threatened to make Sabrina's toes curl.
"Thank you. I don't know what made her do that. She knows she's not to go anywhere by herself."
He shrugged. "Well, she wanted it to be a surprise, so she probably planned it and waited for the perfect opportunity; when her teacher wasn't in the room."
"I guess so. I never knew she was so sneaky."
His grin sent a shiver through her, and it had nothing to do with how cold it was outside. Lord, this man could get her motor running with just a little smile. "Kids will amaze you."
"Don't I know it?"
Sabrina stared up at him for an awkward moment. She never thought she was a sucker for a man in uniform, but something about his dark blue suit, the gun belt wrapped around his narrow waist, and the badge on his chest just did something to her.
"I got my bag, Mommy," Kennadi said, running full speed out the door.
"Okay then, I guess it's time for us to go."
Quickly, she bent down, pulled Kennadi's hat over her head, and zipped up her coat. It was a short walk to their apartment, but it was still cold outside, and she couldn't afford for either one of them to catch a cold. After she did the same to herself, she turned to Officer Hughes. "Thank you again."
She hated to see him go, but as attractive as he was, he wasn't for her. No man on earth wanted a ready-made family, no matter how nice he seemed. Besides, between school, Kennadi, and her new job, she didn't have time for a relationship. Not that he wanted one anyway. "Goodbye."
She watched him as he got in his patrol car. Sabrina clasped Kennadi's hand tightly as they walked down the sidewalk and turned right, past the arts center. She loved the old building, especially since they remodeled it. The russet brick and tall white columns; the beautiful landscaping and the water fountain out front. Amazing was the only word to describe it.
"You need a lift?"
Shocked, she turned to see Officer Hughes pull up beside them. "Um, no. We don't live that far away. We can walk."
How nice of him to offer, but she didn't want him to feel obligated, even though he was a cop.
"It's no trouble."
"Come on, Mommy. It's cold," Kennadi said, making up Sabrina's mind.
"Well, then. If you're sure it's okay."
"Sure. Hop on in."
She opened the back door, ushered Kennadi inside first, then got in and shut the door.'
"Where am I going?"
"Sixteen-twenty Sherman," Sabrina told him as she buckled Kennadi's seat belt, then her own.
"So, where do you go to school, Kennadi?" he asked as he glanced in his rearview mirror and pulled out into the street.
"Rockefeller Elementary School. I'm in first grade."
"Do you like school?"
"What's your favorite subject?" he asked quickly, his lips twitching.
"Which is why the after-school program at the art center is perfect for her," Sabrina added. "It allows her to get out all that creative energy."
He probably saw her as pitiable. She didn't have a car. She almost lost her daughter and, when he saw the building she lived in, it would be even worse. It wasn't a slum, but it was old and small. However, under the circumstances, it was the best she could do.
"What is her mom studying in school?"
"Cool. I don't think I've ever met a respiratory therapist before," he replied as he turned onto her street.
"Well, I'm not one yet."
He glanced at her. "You will be, though. I can tell."
He pulled up in front of her building and put the car in park. "Here we are."
"Thanks. I appreciate it," she said and hurriedly unbuckled both of their seatbelts, eager to put their unexpected meeting behind her.
"I'll see you around, I guess."
"I hope so."
When she reached the front of her building, she turned just in time to see him wave. Maybe she'd run into him again. He worked in the area, and so did she. Plus, she did volunteer that Kennadi was at the art center every day. He'd know she'd be there after school. Of course, that didn't mean anything. She was quite sure he wouldn't seek her out. She just wasn't that lucky when it came to men.