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Much as he loved Pine Gulch, Trace Bowman had to admit his town didn't offer its best impression in the middle of a cold, gray rain that leached the color and personality from it.
Even the Christmas decorationswhich still somehow could seem magical and bright to his cynical eye when viewed on a snowy December eveningsomehow came off looking only old and tired in the bleak late-November morning light as he parked his patrol SUV in front of The Gulch, the diner that served as the town's central gathering place.
That sleety rain dripping from the eaves and awnings of the storefronts would be snow by late afternoon, he guessed. Maybe earlier. This time of yearthe week after Thanksgivingin Pine Gulch, Idaho, in the western shadow of the Tetons, snow was more the norm than the exception.
He yawned and rotated his neck to ease some of the tightness and fatigue. After three days of double shifts, he was ready to head for his place a few blocks away, throw a big, thick log on the fire and climb into bed for the next week or so.
Food first. He'd eaten a quick sandwich for dinner around 6:00 p.m. More than twelve hoursand the misery of dealing with a couple of weather-related accidentslater and he was craving one of Lou Archuleta's sumptuous cinnamon rolls. Sleep could wait a half hour for him to fill up his tank.
He walked in and was hit by a welcome warmth and the smell of frying bacon and old coffee. From the tin-stamped ceiling to the row of round swivel seats at the old-fashioned counter, The Gulch fit every stereotype of the perfect small-town diner. The place oozed tradition and constancy. He figured if he moved away for twenty years, The Gulch would seem the same the moment he walked back through the doors.
"Morning, Chief!" Jesse Redbear called out from the booth reserved for the diner's regulars.
Greetings assailed him from the rest of the booth, from Mick Malone and Sal Martinez and Patsy Halli-day. He could probably have squeezed into their corner booth but he still headed for an empty stool at the counter.
He waved at them all and continued his quick scan of the place, an old habit from his days as a military MP that still served him well. He recognized everyone in the room except for a couple he thought might be staying at the hotel and a girl reading a book in the corner. She looked to be his niece, Destry's, age and he had to wonder what a nine-year-old girl was doing by herself at The Gulch at 7:30 a.m. on a school day.
Then he noticed a slender woman standing at one of the back booths with an order pad in her hand. Since when did The Gulch have a new waitress? He'd been busy working double shifts after the wife of one of his men had a baby and he hadn't been in for a week or two, but last he knew, Donna Archuleta, the wife of the owner, seemed to handle the breakfast crowd fine on her own. Maybe she was finally slowing down now that she'd hit seventy.
"Hey, Chief," Lou Archuleta, Donna's husband and the cook, called out from behind the grill before Trace could ask Donna about the solitary girl or the new waitress. "Long night?"
How did Lou know he'd been working all night? Was he wearing a sign or something? Maybe the man just figured it out from his muddy boots and the exhaustion he was pretty sure was probably stamped on his features.
"It was a rough one. That freezing rain always keeps us hopping. I've been helping the state police out on the highway with a couple of weather-related accidents."
"You ought to be home in bed catching up." Donna, skinny and feisty, flipped a cup over and poured coffee into it for him. The last thing he needed was caffeine when he wanted to be asleep in about five minutes from now, but he decided not to make an issue of it.
"That's my plan, but I figured I'd sleep better on a full stomach."
"You want your regular?" she asked in her raspy ex-smoker's voice. "Western omelet and a stack?"
He shook his head. "No stack. I'm in the mood for one of Lou's sweet rolls this morning. Any left?"
"I think I can find one or two for our favorite man in blue."
He eased his tired bones onto a stool and caught a better look at the new waitress. She was pretty and slender with dark hair pulled back in a haphazard sort of ponytail. More curious than he probably should be, he noted her white blouse seemed to be tailored and expensive. The hand holding a coffeepot was soft-looking with manicured nails.
What was someone in designer jeans doing serving coffee at The Gulch?
And not well, he noted as she splattered Maxwell House over the lip of Ronny Haskell's coffee cup. Ronny didn't seem to mind. He just smiled, somewhere in the vicinity of her chest region.
"Do you want something else to drink?" Donna asked him, apparently noticing he hadn't lifted his cup.
He gave her a rueful smile. "To be honest, I need sleep more than caffeine today. A small orange juice will do me."
"I should have thought about that. One OJ coming up."
She headed toward the small grill window to give his order to her husband and returned a minute later with his juice. Her hand shook a little as she set it down and he noted more signs of how Donna and Lou were both growing older. Maybe that's why they'd added a server to help with the breakfast crowd.
"Busy morning," he commented to Donna when she came back with the sweet roll, huge and gooey and warm.
"Let me tell you something. I've survived my share of Pine Gulch winters," she said. "In my experience, gloomy days like this make people either want to hunker down at home by themselves in front of the fire or seek out other people. Guess we've got more of the latter today."
The new waitress eased up to the window and tentatively handed an order to Lou before heading back to take the order of a couple of new arrivals.
"Who's the new blood?" he asked with a little head jerk in her direction.
Donna stopped just short of rolling her eyes. "Name's Parsons. Rebecca Parsons. But heaven forbid you make the mistake of calling her Becky. It's Becca. Apparently she inherited old Wally Taylor's place. His granddaughter, I guess."
That was news to Trace. He narrowed his gaze at the woman, suddenly put off. Wally had never spoken of a granddaughter. She sure hadn't been overflowing with concern for the old man. In his last few years, Trace had just about been his neighbor's only visitor. If he hadn't made a practice of checking on him a couple of times a week, Wally might have gone weeks without seeing another living soul.
Trace had been the first to find out that he'd passed away. When Trace hadn't seen him puttering around his yard for a couple of days or out with his grumpy mutt, Grunt, he'd stopped by to check and found him dead in his easy chair with the Game Show Network still on, Grunt whining at his feet.
Apparently his granddaughter had been too busy to come visit him but she hadn't blinked at moving in and taking over his house. It would serve her right if he dropped Grunt off for her. Lord knew he didn't need a grouchy, grieving, hideously ugly dog underfoot.
"That her kid?" he asked Donna.
She cast a quick look toward the booth where the girl was still engrossed in whatever she was reading. "Yeah. Fancy French name. Gabrielle. I told Becca the girl could spend an hour or so here before school starts, long as she behaves. This is her second morning here and she hasn't looked up from her book, not even to say thank-you when I fixed her a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, on the house."
She seemed to take that as a personal affront and he had to smile. "Kids these days."
Donna narrowed her gaze at his cheek. "I'm just saying. Something's not right there."
"Order up," Lou called. "Chief's omelet's ready."
Donna headed back to the window and grabbed his breakfast and slid it expertly onto the counter. "You know where to find the salt and pepper and the salsa. But of course you won't need anything extra."
She headed off to take care of another customer and he dug into his breakfast. In the mirror above the counter, he had a perfect view of the new waitress as she scrambled around the diner. In the time it took him to finish his breakfast, he saw her mess up two orders and pour regular instead of decaf in old Bob Whitley's cup despite his doctor's orders that he had to ease up on the real stuff.
Oddly, she seemed to be going out of her way to avoid even making eye contact with him, though he thought he did intercept a few furtive glances in his direction. He ought to introduce himself. It was the polite thing to do, not to mention that he liked to make sure new arrivals to his town knew the police chief was keeping an eye out. But he wasn't necessarily inclined to be friendly to someone who could let a relative die a lonely death with only his farty, bad-tempered dog for company.
Fate took the decision out of his hands a moment later when the waitress fumbled the tray she was using to bus the table just adjacent to him. A couple of juice glasses slid off the edge and shattered on the floor.
"Oh, drat," the waitress exclaimed under her breath. The wimpy swear word almost made him smile. Only because he was so damn tired, he told himself.
On impulse, he unfolded himself from the barstool. "Need a hand?" he asked.
"Thank you! I " She lifted her gaze from the floor to his jeans and then raised her eyes. When she identified him her hazel eyes turned from grateful to unfriendly and cold, as if he'd somehow thrown the glasses at her head.
He also thought he saw a glimmer of panic in those interesting depths, which instantly stirred his curiosity like cream swirling through coffee.
"I've got it, Officer. Thank you." Her voice was several degrees colder than the whirl of sleet outside the windows.
Despite her protests, he knelt down beside her and began to pick up shards of broken glass. "No problem. Those trays can be slippery."
This close, he picked up the scent of her, something fresh and flowery that made him think of a mountain meadow on a July afternoon. She had a soft, lush mouth and for one brief, insane moment, he wanted to push aside that stray lock of hair slipping from her ponytail and taste her. Apparently he needed to spend a lot less time working and a great deal more time recreating with the opposite sex if he could have sudden random fantasies about a woman he wasn't even inclined to like, pretty or not.
"I'm Trace Bowman. You must be new in town."
She didn't answer immediately and he could almost see the wheels turning in her head. Why the hesitancy? And why that little hint of unease he could see clouding the edges of her gaze? His presence was obviously making her uncomfortable and Trace couldn't help wondering why.
"Yes. We've been here a few weeks," she finally answered.
"I understand your grandfather was Wally Taylor."
"Apparently." She spoke in a voice as terse and cool as the freezing rain.
"Old Wally was an interesting guy. Kept to himself, mostly, but I liked him. You could always count on Wally not to pull any punches. If he had an opinion about something, you found out about it."
"I wouldn't know." She avoided his gaze, her voice low. He angled his head, wondering if he imagined sudden sadness in her eyes. What was the story here? He thought he remembered hearing years ago that Wally had been estranged from his only son. If that was the case, Trace supposed it wasn't really fair to blame the son's daughter for not maintaining a relationship with the old codger.
Maybe he shouldn't be so quick to judge the woman until he knew her side of things. Until he had reason to think otherwise, he should be as friendly to her as he would be to anyone else new in his town.
"Well, I'm just up the road about four lots, in the white house with the cedar shake roof, if you or your daughter need help with anything."
She flashed a quick look toward the girl, still engrossed in her book. "Thank you. Very neighborly of you, Chief. I'll keep that in mind. And thank you for your help with my mess. Eventually I hope to stop feeling like an idiot here."
"You're welcome." He smiled as he picked up the last shard of glass and set it on her tray.
She didn't return his smile but he wanted to think she had lost a little of her wariness as she hurried away to take care of her tray and pick up another order from Lou at the grill window.
Definitely a story there. He just might need to dig a little into her background to find out why someone with fine clothes and nice jewelry who so obviously didn't have experience as a waitress would be here slinging hash at The Gulch. Was she running away from someone? A bad marriage? An abusive husband?
Now that the holidays were in full swing, the uptick in domestic-disturbance calls made that sort of thing a logical possibility. He didn't like to think about it. That young girl looked too bright and innocent to have to face such ugliness in her life. So did the mother, for that matter.
Rebecca Parsons. Becca. Not Becky. An intriguing woman. It had been a long time since one of those had crossed his path here in Pine Gulch.