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Behind The Shield
By Sheryl Lynn
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Back off, boyo. Today is not the day to bug him." Shaking her head, with an expression of dire warning, the dispatcher held the arm of the young officer.
Wanda spoke softly, but Chief Carson Cody heard. Annoyance prickled his scalp.
It irritated the devil out of him to witness the pity he saw on every face this morning. It started with Judy, the woman who came to his house three days a week to clean, cook and do the laundry. Instead of her usual chatter, Judy had greeted him with a cloud of worry in her eyes.
She acted as if she expected him to go berserk and start shooting up the town.
Folks stared when he drove the cruiser along Ruff's Main Street. Nobody waved or shouted a greeting. In the rearview mirror he caught quite a few heads bent together in whispered conversations. Even old Luke, the aged war veteran who hung around the courthouse, engaging passersby in arguments, looked away when Carson climbed the steps.
As he entered his office, Wanda said, "It's the anniversary of ... you know."
Carson took care not to slam the door.
Anniversary. Like some twisted antiholiday. All the town of Ruff needed were banners strung across Main Street. They could offer prizes for the first person who spotted Ruff's police chief cracking up.
He aimed his white Stetson for the hat rack, but paused.
Who was he trying to kid? He hadn't been right for a year. Today drove home how not right he was. For the past few weeks, as this anniversary approached, an unnerving, unbalanced sensation grew stronger, stripping the landscape of color, robbing his voice of inflection and his thoughts of coherency. He slept poorly. Food lost its flavor. He sleepwalked through his days, doing his job by rote. He settled the cowboy hat back on his head.
"I'm taking a personal day, Wanda," he said. "Pete can handle anything that comes up."
Behind oversize glasses sparkling with rhinestones, her eyes were grim, searching. "Okay, Chief."
He grew aware of stares. When he glanced around the big room crowded with desks and filing cabinets, everyone suddenly got busy. Keyboards clacked. Files rustled. Chair wheels squeaked. Even the window fans seemed to hum louder.
"I'm okay," he told the dispatcher.
"I know that." Her wide eyes called him a liar.
CARSON STOOD on the bank of Crossruff Creek. He didn't want to be here - he needed to be here. Water riffled over the rocky streambed. By mid-June the creek would be barely a whisper and the grasses, now so fragile green, would be tall and dry yellow. Cottonwood trees lined the creek. Gusts of wind turned the leaves inside out and silver. A hawk soared overhead in lazy circles. Fresh deer tracks wove through stands of scrubby oaks and piñon pines, and crisscrossed stretches of sand.
Too pretty a place for dying. He rubbed his eyes with the pads of his fingers.
Footsteps alerted him. He placed a hand on the butt of the .45 holstered on his hip. Skeeters darted across the water in an insect version of the Ice Capades.
A branch snapped. He couldn't muster enough energy to turn around to see who approached. The hawk's shadow passed the ground in front of him. He watched the bird fold its wings and dive.
"This is a real pretty place," a woman said. "Much too pretty for suicide."
He didn't recognize the voice, which was soft and low and cool as spring water. He turned his head enough to see the speaker. She rested a shoulder against the gnarled trunk of a cottonwood and folded her arms. She wore jeans with blown knees and a white T-shirt. Two black braids, gleaming as if oiled, hung over her shoulders. She was Indian, maybe, or Hispanic, but not Navajo. Her face struck a chord of memory, but he couldn't place it. It bothered him. He never forgot a face.
He touched fingers to the brim of his hat. "Pardon, ma'am, but I'm not suicidal."
"You have the look. Sorry."
Sorry he had the look? Sorry she'd mentioned it? He failed to rouse enough energy to really care what she meant.
Then it hit him who she was. A fist strangled his guts. His throat tightened so he thought he might choke. Such violence of emotion scared him. Maybe the townsfolk were right. Maybe he was about to crack.
"What are you doing here?"
Her eyebrows lifted at his churlish question. "I live here."
He stared unseeing at the water. He wasn't the easiest of men when it came to socializing, but his mother had taught him how to be polite even when provoked. That he wanted to yell at this woman, vent his rage and despair and grief, well, it was unsettling.
"I didn't mean to startle you," she said.
"I heard you coming."
Brave or foolish, or both, she pushed away from the cottonwood and stood next to him. She was tall, and her arms were finely muscled. The ragged jeans fit snugly over graceful hips and long legs. Under normal circumstances he'd give this woman a second look on the street, maybe a third and fourth look. She was striking enough to warrant wayward thoughts.
But she wasn't worth knowing.
"Madeline Shay," he said. Her name was dirt in his mouth.
"Chief Cody," she said in return. She sighed. "Is this where it happened?"
He did not want to talk about it. Not now, and not with her. He couldn't fathom why she was here. If he didn't leave he'd do something stupid. He tipped his hat again.
"I am so very sorry," she said.
The words were meaningless, but the undiluted sorrow behind them drained the anger like pulling a plug.
Oh, God, but he was tired. If he lay down and closed his eyes, he might sleep a year. Or ten years. Sleep through all these agonizing anniversaries until the pain dissipated under its own weight. He sank to the ground, facing the creek, and drew up his knees to rest his arms across them. Madeline sat, too, on the grass, with her back to him and hugging her knees. It didn't seem possible she hurt as much as he, but it might be so.
"I'm sorry, too," he said.
"Do you know why he did it?"
Anger flashed again. "Is that why you've come? Morbid curiosity?"
She turned her head. A fine hand had sculpted her profile into strong features and smooth planes. Her skin was more golden than brown and a fine spray of freckles banded her nose. "No."
"Then why are you here? In this place? On this day?"
If his anger affected her, she hid it. "Actually I've been here a few weeks. And I came down because I saw your car on the road." She pointed east, up the mesa. "You live there? I see the lights at night."
A few weeks. It didn't seem possible. Ruff, Arizona, was a small community in the midst of rugged mountains and mesas. Folks paid attention to the comings and goings of locals and tourists. Gossip was the favored pastime. Madeline Shay's presence should make front-page news.
Excerpted from Behind The Shield by Sheryl Lynn Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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