ONEThis’ll put hair on your chest,” Sheriff Goat Jones said, handing Stella a little spice jar. His legs were so long that his knees brushed against hers under the old pine table, causing a feathery quiver to flutter through her body.
“Hot … pepper flakes,” Stella Hardesty read, squinting at the label as she accepted the uncapped jar. Her reading glasses were home on the bedside table. She wasn’t planning on needing them tonight. She’d had her eye on the sheriff for just about as long as he’d lived in Prosper, and she figured she had his fine form just about memorized.
“Yeah. Really, go ahead.” Goat gestured at the steaming plate of chicken and dumplings, silky sauce pooling next to bright green beans tossed with slivered almonds. “Whenever dinner seems like it needs a little something extra, that does the trick. Gets the eyes to smartin’, you know?”
Stella nodded, but she didn’t know, not really. Her dead husband, Ollie, had never cooked so much as a can of franks and beans, though he’d spent the twenty-six years of their marriage complaining about her cooking. A man in an apron was still a novelty to Stella, but she thought she might be able to get used to it.
Three years, six months, and three days after Ollie died, here she was having dinner with a man who cooked, cleaned, didn’t pick his teeth, and had never hit a woman in his life. Things could hardly get any better, so why was she so nervous?
Stella hadn’t reached the half-century mark without seeing a little of the world. She had been to Kansas City. She’d eaten in a damn four-star restaurant. She knew which fork to pick up when, and she could fake her way through a wine list, and it had been several decades since she’d felt obliged to leave her plate clean.
But closing her fingers around the little bottle, brushing the sheriff’s broad-knuckled, strong fingers with her own, she more or less forgot how to make words into sentences and found herself shaking the jar in rhythm with her own pounding heart, all the while unable to look away from those blue-blue eyes, which even in candlelight spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e in spades.
“Damn, Stella. … I guess you like it hot,” Goat said, watching the pile of pepper flakes accumulate on top of her chicken.
Stella felt the blood rush to her face and set the jar down on the table with a thud. Goat had been having that effect on her since the first time she laid eyes on him, but the difference nowadays was that instead of giving her a rosy glow, blushing turned the network of scars on her face bright pink.
It had been three months since her last case sent her to the hospital with a couple of bullet wounds and sixty-eight stitches—most of them in her face—but the other guys had fared far worse. Three fewer scumbags polluted Sawyer County, Missouri—four, if you counted the wife-beating husband of Stella’s client Chrissy Shaw, who’d practically died of sheer stupidity. Well, that and a Kansas City mobster in a bad mood.
Stella had healed up mostly fine, and even managed to drop fifteen pounds from eating hospital food, and just last week Sheriff Goat Jones had invited her to dinner to celebrate her return to health.
All of which was great. Except for one little tiny problem: though Goat had done some creative fact-spinning on her behalf to ensure that all the potentially incriminating loose ends were tied up after her bloody bout of justice-wreaking, the fact remained that he was a shield-wearing, rights-reading, example-setting enforcer of the law, which put him just about exact opposite Stella where it mattered.
Stella dealt in matters of crime and punishment, too. Only her methods weren’t exactly endorsed by the Police Union. Her brand of justice was doled out in secret, in back alleys and secluded shacks, in the dead of night, far away from any citizens who might be startled by the screams of the latest woman-abusing cretin who was having his attitude adjusted.
Because that woman was Stella Hardesty, who’d taken her own husband out with a wrench those three and a half years ago—and who never intended to let another woman get smacked around if she could help it.
And usually, Stella could help it. Could help the woman who heard about her in a whispered conversation, who tucked her name away in a far corner of her mind, until the day came when things finally got so bad that there were no other options. When the courts failed, when the restraining order didn’t manage to restrain anything, when the man who promised he’d never do it again at ten o’clock forgot his promise by midnight. When a beaten woman finally picked herself up the floor and washed off the blood and took inventory of the latest bruises and something snapped and she decided this time was the last time—when that day came, she knew where to go, and who to see: Stella was ready for the job.
“So…” Goat lowered his fork to his plate and regarded her expectantly.
Stella smiled wildly, casting about for something clever to say. It was ridiculous; never, during the many times their paths had crossed in a professional capacity, had she had any trouble talking to the man. Even when she was trying to keep him from figuring out exactly what the hell she was up to. Which, now that she thought about it, described nearly all their conversations.
“Seems like it’s raining even harder,” she settled on, immediately regretting it. Jeez—she couldn’t come up with anything better than that? They’d already discussed the tornado that had come blowing through town earlier in the day. That had seen them through the appetizer—how she’d heard on the radio on the way over that it was a four on the EF scale, enough to pull up trees and toss around cars. In fact, the announcer reported that the twister had taken out some utility sheds and a snack shack out at the fairgrounds.
They didn’t use the EF scale back when she was little. Stella didn’t know what the tornado that killed her uncle Horace had been rated. But the memories from that night stayed fresh—the waiting, the sounds of the winds beating at the house above them … the terrible heaviness of her father’s tread on the stairs when he finally returned.
“You okay there, Dusty?” Goat said, peering at her closely.
Stella took a breath. The memories still made her catch her breath, made her heart beat a little faster.
“I’m fine. Just … I wonder if there’s gonna be another one coming through.”
“Well, there might,” Goat said. “They didn’t downgrade from the Tornado Warning to a Watch yet—least, not before I turned the scanner off. They got a wall cloud over in Ogden County, looked to be going almost thirty miles an hour northeast. Guy on the radio said they had a report of a waterspout over the lake, down by Calhixie Cove—that was right before you got here.”
Stella’s eyes flicked over to the scanner on the kitchen counter. It was a sleek, compact thing, a far cry from the clunky NOAA weather radio her daddy owned when she was a little girl. Buster Collier turned it on the minute the sky darkened, and listened to the storm reports like other men followed the Cardinals. How many times had her mother scolded her father to turn off the radio when she put dinner on the table? That was her dad, though—especially after Uncle Horace was killed. It was like he couldn’t bear not knowing, like if he turned away from the radio, the storm might rage out of control and snatch away something else dear to him.
Goat’s little house was built snug and tight, but she could still hear the winds whistling outside, the crackle of twigs blown up against the windows.
“So another one’s coming our way,” she said softly. That happened sometimes; they called it a swarm. “I surely don’t like tornadoes.”
“Is that right? A tough gal like you, Dusty?” Goat’s grin quirked up, teasing, but then he seemed to sense her apprehension and the smile faded. He set his fork and knife down and reached across the table for her hand, folding it in his, squeezing gently, and a strange thing happened: on top of the hot-hot gotta-get-me-some-of-that charge that generally accompanied every interaction with Goat, Stella felt something else, an unexpectedly tender something that for some reason caused her eyes to get all teary and her heart to lurch dangerously.
It was almost like … like he was offering her safety.
And safe was something she’d vowed never to take for granted again, something she had decided she’d rather live without than ever be lulled into a false sense of security. Trust was a door Stella had shut forever.
But Goat’s eyes in the candlelight were deep as an indigo ocean, and his fingers stroking hers were warm and strong and rough from hard work. “I mean, just because, you know, they’re such a pain …,” she stammered. “Power failures and trees getting knocked down and all that, you know?”
“I kind of like tornadoes,” Goat said. His voice, always deep and drawly, seemed to have gone a couple notches lower. “All that crazy energy? Like a front-row seat to the end of the world or something.”
That’s what it had been for Horace, all right. … Daddy’s little brother, good with the ladies. They said he was better looking than Daddy, though Stella knew better. Horace loved to tie flies, but he hated to fish. Came for Sunday suppers, but never quite managed to get up in time for church. Brought Stella licorice and challenged her to watermelon-seed-spitting contests …
Stella realized Goat was waiting for her to say something, but nothing came to mind. Hell, she was quite a head case tonight. She’d thought about canceling, but she’d been looking forward to tonight—so she snapped off the radio once they announced the twister had blazed its path through town without injuring anyone, then gritted her teeth and driven over in the pouring rain, trying to keep her heartbeat under control.
Still, maybe a date was a bad idea. Her body might have recovered from the whole killing-spree thing, but it looked like her emotions might need a little more time in the airing cupboard before she took them on the road.
She hadn’t thought about Uncle Horace in years. And what was with the tears? She’d survived worse—way worse than a wayward little memory—without cracking like this. It was downright embarrassing.
Goat’s dining room suddenly seemed a little too small. She blinked a couple times and pulled her hand away from under Goat’s. Maybe she did want him bad, but she didn’t need his pity, or sympathy, or whatever the hell it was that was causing him to turn on the charm.
He sighed and tapped his fingers on the table. “Look, Dusty, you know what you need?”
Stella shook her head, helping herself to an oversize sip from her wine glass.
“You need a little meat on those bones. You’re looking awful skinny. Come on, now, try the chicken. It was my mom’s recipe.”
Stella couldn’t help it—she sat up a little straighter and inhaled a nice big breath that set off her bosoms to their best advantage. Skinny wasn’t a word she’d heard directed her way in a long time. Even shed of those fifteen hospital pounds, she was still on the generous side of womanly.
Well—some fellas liked that.
Maybe it would be possible to get this evening back on track after all. She gave Goat her best there’s-more-of-me-where-this-comes-from smile. “Why, thank you, Goat.”
“So—come on, just a bite.” Goat’s grin tilted to one side of that broad, sexy mouth.
“Um.” Stella picked up her knife and fork and carefully cut a dainty bite of chicken and slipped it in her mouth. Immediately a capsaicin-packing burst of heat rocketed across her lips and tongue, and Stella flapped her hands and mewled in pain, swallowing the mouthful and praying that it wouldn’t set her gut on fire. She grabbed her water glass and took a powerful swig, letting the water overflow out the corners of her lips and down her cheeks.
When she finally opened her eyes, gasping for breath, she saw that Goat was laughing.
He was covering it up pretty well, trying to keep a serious expression on his face, but his muscular shoulders were quaking with mirth, and his eyes were all crinkly with amusement.
“Darlin’, a little dab of that hot pepper’ll probably do the trick next time,” he finally said.
Stella glared and finished off her water. She set the glass down hard on Goat’s dining room table, making the candles jump and skitter in their brass holders. “I’ll try to remember that.”
“You’ve got a…” Goat reached out and carefully brushed at her lower lip, his fingertip caressing the tender spot above her chin in a way that caused a little shiver to shoot up from her toes to somewhere along her spine, leaving sparklers lit up all along the way. “A flake, I think.”
He showed her the tip of his finger, and sure enough there was a tiny little speck of pepper stuck to it. Stella picked up her napkin and dabbed daintily at her mouth.
“Oh,” she said. “Thanks.”
She set her napkin back on her lap and Goat kept his gaze fixed on her face and damn if she didn’t find herself staring back, and then a few seconds or maybe it was a few hours went by, Stella couldn’t be sure, and he slowly reached for her hand again, right there on the smooth pine surface of the dining room table, and this time Stella let him, and she had time to remark to herself on just how big Goat’s hand was compared to hers as he ran his thumb slowly over the sensitive skin on the inside of her wrist—and then the doorbell rang.
It rang again, three quick blasts, and Goat released her hand and she managed, barely, not to cuss out loud.
“Excuse me,” he said softly, and pushed his chair back. At least the man had the decency to sound disappointed.
He unfolded himself from the table, all six-foot-four of hard-muscled law enforcement pride of Sawyer County, and as he went to the door, Stella took the opportunity to scrape as much of the hot pepper off her chicken as she could, burying it in a little pool of sauce with her fork.
The ringing had turned to pounding by the time Goat got the door opened, and the rush of the wind and rain splatting against the house drowned out whatever the visitor had to say, though Stella could make out a high and rather desperate-sounding voice.
Stella turned in her chair just in time to see Goat stagger back and send the door banging against the wall.
“What the hell are you doing here, Brandy?” he demanded.
A generous five feet of womanly curves clattered into the house on ridiculously high heels and stood shaking a fuchsia umbrella out on the hardwood floor, touching bloodred-tipped fingers to a complicated platinum-blonde updo.
“I declare, Goat Jones,” she said. “That’s a fine way to greet your wife.”