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Sheriff Rick Santiago paused on his way back from the coffee machine, a filled mug in his hand. He looked thoughtfully at one-third of his team, his only female deputy, Alma Rodriguez. There was an odd expression on her face and she appeared to be at least a million miles away.
She'd been like that since yesterday and it just wasn't her usual, cheerful behavior. He was accustomed to the raven-haired woman smiling and humming to herself.
He wasn't used to seeing sadness in her brown eyes. "You doing okay, Alma?" he asked, his voice low and confidential.
Surprised at being addressed, Alma dragged her mind back to the sheriff's office and tried her best to focus on her boss's voice. It wasn't easy when her mind was going off in three different directions at once. "Sure. I'm fine. Why?"
"I don't know, you look a little off," he finally said for lack of a better word to describe what he'd been witnessing these past two days.
"No, I'm fine," she answered with perhaps a tad too much enthusiasm. "But thanks for asking," she added, hoping that would send Rick back to his broom closet of an office and thus bring an end to further questions.
Ordinarily, she would have loved nothing better than to lean back and talk with the sheriff, a man she not only admired, but liked. Forever being the semi-sleepy little Texas town that it was, there wasn't all that much to do when the town's two alcohol devotees weren't staggering down the street because they'd imbibed just a wee bit too much, or Mrs. Allen's cat didn't once more need coaxing out of the tall front-yard tree.
And as for Miss Elizabeth, she hadn't wandered down Main Street in her nightgown in nearly a year.
Crime, such as it was in Forever, was definitely down, allowing her to have too much time on her hands. And consequently, too much time to think about things she didn't want to think about.
Like Cash Tyler's return, however brief.
She wasn't ready for it.
Harry Monroe had dropped his bombshell on her yesterday, gleefully telling her his grandson, Cash, was coming for the wedding.
Her stomach had been pinched in half ever since.
"Reason I'm asking," Rick went on, leaning his hip against the side of her desk for a moment, "is because, besides that look of preoccupation on your face, the coffee you made this morning is just this side of lethal." He paused to take a sip of the hot, inky brew, as if to show her that he had managed to survive the drink. "Now, I don't mind it that way, and most likely Joe won't, either," he said, referring to his deputy brother-in-law, Joe Lone Wolf. "We like our coffee almost solid. But Larry, well, Larry just might threaten to sue you." Humor curved his mouth as he referred to his third deputy, Larry Conroy, who was not the most mild-mannered man under any circumstances. "After he gets up off the floor and stops sputtering and choking, of course."
It wasn't that Larry was delicate exactly, but the man was downright picky about everything. While nothing ever pleased the man, this would definitely set him off on a marathon complaining session, he thought.
"My thinking is that maybe you put in twice as much coffee this time around," he pointed out kindly, as if her error was the most natural one in the world. "Knowing how meticulous you normally are, I'm thinking that maybe you've got something on your mind."
Rick leveled his dark eyes at her, giving her a look that had been known to make ten-year-old candy thieves confess to their crimes in an instant. It'd worked pretty well on the few suspects he had had to interrogate. Then he got down to what he really wanted to say to his deputy. "Something you'd like to get off your chest, but don't really feel comfortable talking about at home?"
Alma's family was comprised of five brothers and her father. It had been that way for a while now and her home life wasn't really geared toward anything feminine. Normally, that was fine with her, since, for the most part, she'd always been a tomboy. Competitive to a fault, she took great pleasure in beating her brothers at whatever challenge came their way. But there were times, she had to admit, when she longed for another woman to talk to, to confide in. Granted, those times were few and far between, but they did occur.
Like these past couple of days.
Rick had noticed that, for the past two days, his energetic deputy looked anything but. He'd noticed a change, a difference in her demeanor. Her body was here, but her mind was somewhere else. He figured that as her bossand as someone who caredhe wanted to know exactly where that was.
"What I'm saying," Rick continued when she didn't say anything, "is that you can talk to me. Anytime," he stressed. "In or out of the office."
A small smile curved the corners of her mouth. "I know that and I appreciate it." She did her best to look as if she was brightening up. "But there's nothing wrong, really."
He knew resistance when he saw it, so for now he didn't push the matter. "Except for the coffee," he pointed out, raising his semi-filled mug.
"Except for the coffee," she echoed in agreement. "Sorry about that." Pushing her chair away from her desk, Alma rose to her feet. "I'll go water it down before Larry has a chance to drink it."
"Good idea." Rick turned away and headed toward his office. To the best of his recollection, it was the first time that Alma had ever lied to him. But he wasn't about to push her. She'd come around in her own time and he intended to be there for her when she did.
It occurred to him, as he sat down at his desk and looked at the framed photograph of his wife and infant daughter, that Alma might feel better talking to Olivia. Sometimes women opened up to other women.
As he took another sip of the leaden coffee, the sheriff thought about sending his wife to Alma on some pretext and then suggesting that the two of them go out for lunch. Maybe his deputy would feel more inclined to talk outside the office. Something was bothering her and he sure as hell intended to get to the bottom of it one way or another. He didn't like seeing his people troubled.
Alma emptied out the nearly full pot of coffee into the sink in the tiny kitchenette. As she looked at the black mass that she had prepared earlier going down the drain, she had to admit that the coffee could have easily passed for mud. She was surprised that the sheriff was actually drinking it.
She made certain she didn't let her mind wander as she prepared another pot.
That was stupid of her, Alma upbraided herself. To get so lost in her own thoughts that she hadn't paid attention. That just wasn't like her. She was the one who could always multitask, juggling three or four things at once.
The sheriff had been right, she thought ruefully, measuring out exact amounts of coffee. She'd added twice the amount of coffee per cup when she'd made the coffee this morning. That was completely unacceptable, not because she had made a terrible pot of coffee, but because she'd allowed her mind to wander to that extent.
Okay, so she didn't have to be constantly on her toes the way her counterparts in the major cities had to be. Here, there were no life-and-death scenariosoutside of fire season, she qualified. But that was no excuse. She was letting Cash mess with her mind and he wasn't even here yet. What was she going to be like when he was?
You'll be fine, you hear me? Fine, she told herself fiercely.
It might not actually be fire season yet, she amended, but it sure felt like it to her. Except this was a different kind of fire. It was fire of the heart, she thought with a pang as she mentally counted the number of cups of water she was pouring in. God forbid she wound up doing something else wrong and sending everyone in the office running over to the walk-in clinic run by Dr. Davenport, complaining of stomach cramps.
You've got to get a grip, Alma. He's only a man. Cash Taylor is probably fat and married and nothing like you remember. So snap out of it! she ordered herself.
She just couldn't get his face out of her mind. His face the way he'd looked that last time they had been together. Right before he left Forever. And her. For good.
"You okay, Alma?"
This time it was Joe Lone Wolf asking. He was standing right next to her, she realized with a start. She hadn't heard him come up, but then the man was a Navajo and he had a tendency to make as much noise as a shadow when he walked.
"Yes," she bit off, "I'm fine. Why are you asking?" she demanded.
Joe took a step back, as if her temper had a physical side to it and it had pushed him away from her.
"Well, for one thing, you're frowning," he told her. "I don't think I've ever seen you frown before. From the inside," he emphasized. "It made me think that maybe something was wrong and that I could help." He nodded at the pot. "Is it ready yet?"
"Another couple of minutes," she replied, relieved to have the subject changed.
She had to stop being so defensive. Rick and Joe were only showing concern. They cared about her.
She did her best to smile. "Nothing's wrong," she lied. That made two, she thought, wondering what her limit for lies was.
Two hundred? Just where did she draw the line? It would have been so much better if she just didn't care. But she did. "I'm just thinking about what I was going to bring to the wedding as a gift for Miss Joan."
"Hey, don't want to leave Harry out," Larry, overhearing her, chimed in as he came into the kitchenette. "They're going to be a set now, Miss Joan and Harry."
The young deputy shook his head. "Miss Joan, married. Wow. It's going to be really hard picturing her that way." He helped himself to a cup of coffee. "Wonder if that means she's going to raise her rates after they exchange vows."
"What does one thing have to do with the other?" Alma didn't see the connection.
Larry measured out four tablespoons of sugar. Watching him, it was all Joe could do to keep from shivering at the thought of taking in all that sweetness.
"Well, she's going to be starting a new life as a bride, right? That means she's going to want to have a lot of new things, isn't she? New things cost money and her source of income is that diner of hers. Put two and two together, Alma," Larry said loftily. "Miss Joan's going to raise her rates, just you watch." He frowned. "I'm going to have to start bringing sandwiches from home."
"That means you're going to have to learn how to make sandwiches first," Joe quipped quietly.
Larry appeared not to hear, but he heard Alma's protest loud and clear. Miss Joan had a very special place in her heart. The woman had given her a job at the diner when she was fifteen so that she, along with her brothers, could earn money to help their dad with the overwhelming medical costs that were involved in trying to keep their mother alive for just a little longer. Alma knew for a fact that Miss Joan had paid her more than the usual going rate.
"Miss Joan's not going to do any such thing," Alma insisted. "She's not like that. Besides, that's what the bridal shower is for, so that we can give her all those little extras. She's already got anything she might need," she pointed out to the blond deputy. "This is Miss Joan we're talking about. Anything she needs, she's got either at home or at the diner."
"And Harry hasn't exactly been living in a tree all these years," Joe pointed out, joining the discussion and siding with Alma.
Sampling his coffee, Larry found that there was something missing. He put in more cream. His coffee now resembled light tan milk. "True, he's got that ranch of his. And the house," Larry agreed.
The house where Cash had lived before he'd left for college. Before he'd left her.
The yelp that rose from her lips had been an automatic reaction, happening so quickly she didn't have time to stifle it. The back of her hand had come in contact with the coffeepot. Annoyed with herself, she pressed her lips together as she pulled back her stinging hand.
"Alma, you're going to burn your hand," Larry warned needlessly.
Joe was standing next to her and saw the instant patch of angry red that had popped up. "Hell, she already has," he said. He took her hand, holding on to it by her palm. "C'mon, let's get this under cold water first and then I can make this poultice for you"
She pulled her hand away from him. The last thing she wanted was to be fussed over as if she was some helpless damsel in distress.
Get a grip, damn it! she repeated to herself.
"I'm fine, really," she told Joe. Looking up, she saw that Rick had been drawn back to the kitchenette, most likely because she'd just yelped and made a fool of herself. She'd worked hard to make them all respect her and now she was sacrificing it all in a few minutes. This had to stop. "All of you, stop hovering over me."
"We'll stop hovering," Rick told her patiently, "when you stop acting as if you're expecting to see the ghost of Christmas past at any moment."
He knew, she thought. Most likely, so did Joe. Damn it, she was supposed to keep her feelings to herself, not have them out in plain sight where everyone could see them on her face.
And feel sorry for her.