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The top of his head was about to blow.
His mother had just called himfor the third time this morningto ask if the reporter from the Western Carolina Sun had arrived in Applegate yet.
Undeterred by his increasingly testy responses, Lily had insisted Mack bring the man or woman to supper at the farmhouse one night this week. For a nice down-home mix of business and pleasure, she'd said. That wasn't going to happen. People, his mother chief among them, thought because Mack had joined AA and was back on the force, he was ready to rejoin the human race.
He still struggled to stay sober. Doing his job helped. Period.
To that end, Mack pulled his sheriff's department cruiser to the side of the road behind a battered Yugo. He cast a glance over the wreck of a car. Primer paint in several hues covered all but one fender. The driver's-side taillight was broken. Bumper stickers, some faded beyond legibility, littered the car's sorry backside. Two caught his attention. The facts will set you free and Pray for peace; work for justice. Call him cynical, but it wasn't that easy.
At first he'd thought the car was abandoned. It wasn't unusual in the mountains, valleys and hollows of Colum County, North Carolina, to find stolen cars stripped and ditched by the side of an out-of-the-way road. But this YugoMack doubted it would have appealed to a thief even in its heydayhad a current registration sticker on the plate. From his cruiser, he began a computer check.
As the door of the Yugo opened and the driver got out, Mack stopped mid-routine. Despite the glare of the midday sun, he instinctively ran a visual of the slender woman, whoshaded her eyes with one hand. In the other she clutched a crumpled road map. She wore a button-up sweater that looked as if it had shrunk during washing, a faded ankle-length dress that had "church rummage sale" written all over it and black lace-up boots, the kind his great-granny used to wear. When she finally took her hand from her eyes, Mack saw she was young. And pretty.
He stepped out of the cruiser and approached her. "Can I help you?"
She smiled, and her fresh face framed by tousled strawberry-blond hair, made him think she'd never been disappointed in her entire life. "Is this the road to Applegate?"
"One of them." He gave her car's interior a cursory inspection. Books, notebooks and loose papers filled the back seat. She was probably a student at the college over in Brevard, although she looked too young to be even a freshman.
"One of them? Is that local humor?" Cocking her head to the side, she gazed directly at him. Mack blinked and discovered the proverbial shoe on the other foot. Usually he was the one who made other people uncomfortable because of his size and uniform.
But his presence didn't faze this young woman in the least. She stood almost toe-to-toe with him, so close he could see a dusting of freckles across her nose, and waited patiently, with an air of innocence he found disconcerting.
He scowled. "Humor? No. I'm told I don't have an ounce left in me." To prove the point, he added, "Do you know your car has a broken taillight?"
"You should see the other guy." She grinned wickedly, revealing perfect teeth. "Humor," she explained.
"It's not a laughing matter. I could write you up"
"Oh, please, don't," she said as she might say no, thank you to a second helping of cake. "When I get to Applegate, I'll get it fixed."
Kids. Not a care in the world. Making it on looks and youth alone. Mack felt a jolt of envy. After what he'd seen and done half a world away, carefree would never be a mood ascribed to him again.
He ran his fingers over the broken plastic of the Yugo's taillight. "See that you get this fixed. Take it to Mel's on Main Street." He turned to go. "And afterward, come to the sheriff's office with the receipt. To show me you kept your word."
"Yes, sir. If nothing else, I'm a woman of my word." Was he mistaken or was there a hint of sass under the show of respect? He looked back at her. Her gray eyes revealed nothing but a clear, ingenuous light. A kid. That was what she was. A wet-behind-the-ears kid cut loose from her mama's apron strings.
"And I should ask for whom?" She squinted at his name tag, sounding suspiciously defiant.
"Deputy Sheriff Whittaker." Without wasting any more time, he walked back to his patrol car.
"Deputy Whittaker?" Her voice, clear, high and musical, sailed through the air like birdsong on the spring breeze.
Reluctantly he turned to look at her again. "Yes?"
"You said this was one of the roads to Applegate, but am I headed in the right direction?"
Had he ever, even as a boy, exuded such a wide-eyed innocence?
"You're you're headed in the right direction." He took a step backward and bumped into his car's grille. When she winced, he added hastily, "You can't in gear and headed back to town. If he was going through with this, he needed to be the first on-site for the appointment. He didn't need a member of the press waiting, unsupervised.
THE YUGO BUCKED IN complaint as Chloe drove in second gear down Applegate's Main Street. Squinting against the sunlight, she searched for Mel's repair shop. Ah, there was the domed courthouse and, in its shadow, a two-bay cinder block garage with kudzu creeping up one side. She parked in front, then pulled on the stubborn emergency brake. Reaching into the back seat, she grabbed a pad of paper to jot down a few notes and capture her first impression of Deputy Whittaker.
Thirty-something, he was handsomethe uniform automatically did that for a guy. Strong jaw.A nose that could have been considered classically Roman if the deputy hadn't broken it.An old sports injury? From the barred and bolted look inWhittaker's dark brown eyes, Chloe had an instinctive feeling he'd reveal nothing he didn't want known. Either about his job or himself. If she had anything to do with him this week, he might prove problematic. A difficult lock resisting the pick.
The Colum County Sheriff's Department. Now there lay a potentially rewarding project. Her first feature story. Her first byline. A tiny shiver ran through her as she anticipated the opportunity. Hastily she wrote, "Deputy Whittaker. Humorless.
Stickler for details," before tossing the notepad onto the passenger seat.
She wrestled with the door of the Yugo. "Honestly, you are one more act of resistance away from the scrap heap," she warned the mutinous vehicle when she managed to break free. She kicked the door shut behind her.
At the garage's first bay, she gingerly stepped around a pick up to approach the bottom half of a coverall-clad mechanic leaning well under the truck's raised hood.
"Mr. Mel?" she inquired with well-practiced Southern deference. "Deputy Whittaker sent me."
"Mr. Mel! Now that's a hoot!" The top half of the technician popped into view.
Chloe immediately recognized her error.
The person in the coveralls would never be mistaken for a man. She had wild red hair caught up in a bandanna, a movie-star smile and classically feminine features, not to mention a voluptuous body. But the woman's voice belonged to the racetrack pit or smoke-filled juke joints. Chloe didn't even hazard a guess at her age.
The mechanic stuck her greasy hands on her hips. "So the deputy sent you over to see Mr. Mel. Maybe his sense of humor's finally coming back."
"It was my mistake. He said to pull into Mel's auto repair. I jumped to conclusions. Sorry. That's not my style."
"Well, I'm Mel. Short for Melody. My mama was hoping for a girlie-girl." She rolled her big blue eyes. "But grease monkeys defy gender, honey. Come on in the office. I'm due a break." She wiped her hands on a rag.
Chloe followed the woman into a cramped room no bigger than a utility closet.
"Coffee?" Mel raised a half-full pot from the automatic coffeemaker perched on a packing crate.
"Nectar of the goddess."
"You're new in town." The woman handed Chloe a mug of sludge-black liquid.
"I'm a newspaper reporter for the Western Carolina Sun," she replied, taking a sip of the bitter brew and noting the three-year-old SPCA calendar hanging on the wall.
"A reporter?" Mel paused, coffeepot in midair. The energy in the room shifted from positive to unnervingly negative.
"Sheriff McQuire suggested we do an article on his revamped department," Chloe explained, trying to establish credibility. "I have my first interview with him in a few minutes."
"That'll be difficult, seeing as he's on his honeymoon." Mel's chuckle swelled to a roar. She slapped her thigh, spilling coffee on the cracked linoleum floor. "I bet he did that deliberately."
Chloe clenched her mug in both hands, hoping the heat would defuse her rising irritation. "And the reason would be?"
"Even though, as sheriff, Garrett would recognize the need for positive PR, personally, he and journalists aren't on the best of terms after they hounded his wife." Mel thumped the pot back on the coffeemaker's heating ring. "Made the whole town miserable. You'd have to be living under a rock not to know about it."
Okay. The runaway heiress. But "I wasn't part of that feeding frenzy." No, she'd been stuck on the garden-club beat.
Mel raised one eyebrow. "So" in the face of this woman's disbelief, Chloe forged ahead "who's left to handle my interview?"
"While Garrett's gone, Mack's in charge."
Interesting. The lock in need of a pick.
"The guy who sent you here for what?" Mel prodded.
"Yes. My car's broken taillight. The deputy ran into me outside town. Didn't cite me on condition I see you."
"I gotta say this new department's been good for my business."
"Do you have an arrangement?" Chloe blurted out. She fumbled in her pocket for her notepad, then realized she'd left it in the Yugo. She'd heard of small towns adding to their coffers with overzealous ticketing or costly kick-back repairs that targeted motorists passing through.
Mel dropped a rag on the spilled coffee. As she bent over to wipe it up, she uttered a terse no. When she stood again, the sparkle had gone from her eyes. "I merely meant this particular crew adheres strictly to the law."
"So what's Deputy Whittaker like?" Chloe asked, struggling to reconnect.
Mel tossed the coffee-soaked rag into a bin by the door. "Let's look at that taillight," she said, all business now.
If this was the level of Applegate respect, cooperation and disclosure that Chloe could expect, she had her work cut out for her.