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Harley Fowler was staring so hard at his list of chores that he walked right into a young brunette as he headed into the hardware store in Jacobsville, Texas. He looked up, shocked, when she fell back against the open door, glaring at him.
"I've heard of men getting buried in their work, but this is too much," she told him with a speaking look. She smoothed over her short black hair, feeling for a bump where she'd collided with the door. Deep blue eyes glared up into his pale blue ones. She noticed that he had light brown hair and was wearing a baseball cap that seemed to suit him. He was sexy-looking.
"I'm not buried in my work," he said curtly. "I'm trying to get back to work, and shopping chores are keeping me from it."
"Which doesn't explain why you're assaulting women with doors. Does it?" she mused.
His eyes flared. "I didn't assault you with a door. You walked into me."
"I did not. You were staring at that piece of paper so hard that you wouldn't have seen a freight train coming." She peered over his arm at the list. "Pruning shears? Two new rakes?" She pursed her lips, but smiling blue eyes stared at him. "You're obviously somebody's gardener," she said, noting his muddy shoes and baseball cap.
His eyebrows met. "I am not a gardener," he said indignantly. "I'm a cowboy."
"You are not!"
"You don't have a horse, you're not wearing a cowboy hat, and you don't have on any chaps." She glanced at his feet. "You aren't even wearing cowboy boots!"
He gaped at her. "Did you just escape from intense therapy?"
"I have not been in any therapy," she said haughtily. "My idiosyncrasies are so unique that they couldn't classify me even with the latest edition of the DSM-IV, much less attempt to pyschoanalize me!"
She was referring to a classic volume of psychology that was used to diagnose those with mental challenges. He obviously had no idea what she was talking about.
"So, can you sing, then?"
He looked hunted. "Why would I want to sing?"
"Cowboys sing. I read it in a book."
"You can read?" he asked in mock surprise.
"Why would you think I couldn't?" she asked.
He nodded toward the sign on the hardware store's door that clearly said, in large letters, PULL. She was trying to push it.
She let go of the door and shifted her feet. "I saw that," she said defensively. "I just wanted to know if you were paying attention." She cocked her head at him. "Do you have a rope?"
"Why?" he asked. "You planning to hang yourself?"
She sighed with exaggerated patience. "Cowboys carry ropes."
"So they can rope cattle!"
"Don't find many head of cattle wandering around in hardware stores," he murmured, looking more confident now.
"What if you did?" she persisted. "How would you get a cow out of the store?"
"Bull. We run purebred Santa Gertrudis bulls on Mr. Parks's ranch," he corrected.
"And you don't have any cows?" She made a face. "You don't raise calves, then." She nodded.
His face flamed. "We do so raise calves. We do have cows. We just don't carry them into hardware stores and turn them loose!"
"Well, excuse me!" she said in mock apology. "I never said you did."
"Cowboy hats and ropes and cows," he muttered. He opened the door. "You going in or standing out here? I have work to do."
"Doing what? Knocking unsuspecting women in the head with doors?" she asked pleasantly.
His impatient eyes went over her neat slacks and wool jacket, to the bag she was holding. "I said, are you going into the store?" he asked with forced patience, holding the door open.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am," she replied, moving closer. "I need some tape measures and Super Glue and matches and chalk and push pins and colored string and sticky tape."
"Don't tell me," he drawled. "You're a contractor."
"Oh, she's something a little less conventional than that, Harley," Police Chief Cash Grier said as he came up the steps to the store. "How's it going, Jones?" he asked.
"I'm overflowing in DBs, Grier," she replied with a grin. "Want some?"
He held up his hands. "We don't do a big business in homicides here. I'd like to keep it that way." He scowled. "You're out of your territory a bit, aren't you?"
"I am. I was asked down here by your sheriff, Hayes Carson. He actually does have a DB. I'm working the crime scene for him per his request through the Bexar County medical examiner's office, but I didn't bring enough supplies. I hope the hardware store can accommodate me. It's a long drive back to San Antonio when you're on a case."
"On a case?" Harley asked, confused.
"Yes, on a case," she said. "Unlike you, some of us are professionals who have real jobs."
"Do you know him?" Cash asked her.
She gave Harley a studied appraisal. "Not really. He came barreling up the steps and hit me with a door. He says he's a cowboy," she added in a confidential tone. "But just between us, I'm sure he's lying. He doesn't have a horse or a rope, he isn't wearing a cowboy hat or boots, he says he can't sing, and he thinks bulls roam around loose in hardware stores."
Harley stared at her with more mixed emotions than he'd felt in years.
Cash choked back a laugh. "Well, he actually is a cowboy," Cash defended him. "He's Harley Fowler, Cy Parks's foreman on his cattle ranch."
"Imagine that!" she exclaimed. "What a blow to the image of Texas if some tourist walks in and sees him dressed like that!" She indicated Harley's attire with one slender hand. "They can't call us the cowboy capital of the world if we have people working cattle in baseball caps! We'll be disgraced!"
Cash was trying not to laugh. Harley looked as if he might explode.
"Better a horseless cowboy than a contractor with an attitude like yours!" Harley shot back, with glittery eyes. "I'm amazed that anybody around here would hire you to build something for them."
She gave him a superior look. "I don't build things. But I could if I wanted to."
"She really doesn't build things," Cash said. "Harley, this is Alice Mayfield Jones," he introduced. "She's a forensic investigator for the Bexar County medical examiner's office."
"She works with dead people?" Harley exclaimed, and moved back a step.
"Dead bodies," Alice returned, glaring at his obvious distaste. "DBs. And I'm damned good at my job. Ask him," she added, nodding toward Cash.
"She does have a reputation," Cash admitted. His dark eyes twinkled. "And a nickname. Old Jab-'Em-in-the-Liver Alice."
"You've been talking to Marc Brannon," she accused.
"You did help him solve a case, back when he was still a Texas Ranger," he pointed out.
"Now they've got this new guy, transferred up from Houston," she said on a sigh. "He's real hard going. No sense of humor." She gave him a wry look. "Kind of like you used to be, in the old days when you worked out of the San Antonio district attorney's office, Grier," she recalled. "A professional loner with a bad attitude."
"Oh, I've changed." He grinned. "A wife and child can turn the worst of us inside out."
She smiled. "No kidding? If I have time, I'd love to see that little girl everybody's talking about. Is she as pretty as her mama?"
He nodded. "Oh, yes. Every bit."
Harley pulled at his collar. "Could you stop talking about children, please?" he muttered. "I'll break out in hives."
"Allergic to small things, are you?" Alice chided.
"Allergic to the whole subject of marriage," he emphasized with a meaningful stare.
Her eyebrows arched. "I'm sorry, were you hoping I was going to ask you to marry me?" she replied pleasantly. "You're not bad-looking, I guess, but I have a very high standard for prospective bridegrooms. Frankly," she added with a quick appraisal, "if you were on sale in a groom shop, I can assure you that I wouldn't purchase you."
He stared at her as if he doubted his hearing. Cash Grier had to turn away. His face was going purple.
The hardware-store door opened and a tall, black-haired, taciturn man came out it. He frowned. "Jones? What the hell are you doing down here? They asked for Longfellow!"
She glared back. "Longfellow hid in the women's restroom and refused to come out," she said haughtily. "So they sent me. And why are you interested in Sheriff Carson's case? You're a fed."
Kilraven put his finger to his lips and looked around hastily to make sure nobody was listening. "I'm a policeman, working on the city force," he said curtly.
Alice held up both hands defensively. "Sorry! It's so hard to keep up with all these secrets!"
Kilraven glanced at his boss and back at Alice. "What secrets?"
"Well, there's the horseless cowboy there—" she pointed at Harley "—and the DB over on the Little Carmichael River…"
Kilraven's silver eyes widened. "On the river? I thought it was in town. Nobody told me!"
"I just did," Alice said. "But it's really a secret. I'm not supposed to tell anybody."
"I'm local law enforcement," Kilraven insisted. "You can tell me. Who is he?"
Alice gave him a bland look and propped a hand on her hip. "I only looked at him for two minutes before I realized I needed to get more investigative supplies. He's male and dead. He's got no ID, he's naked, and even his mother wouldn't recognize his face."
"Dental records…" Kilraven began.
"For those, you need identifiable teeth," Alice replied sweetly.
Harley was turning white.
She glanced at him. "Are you squeamish?" she asked hopefully. "Listen, I once examined this dead guy whose girlfriend caught him with a hooker. After she offed him, she cut off his… Where are you going?"
Harley was making a beeline for the interior of the hardware store.
"Bathroom, I imagine." Grier grinned at Kilraven, who chuckled.
"He works around cattle and he's squeamish?" Alice asked, delighted. "I'll bet he's a lot of fun when they round up the calves!"
"Not nice," Kilraven chided. "Everybody's got a weak spot, Jones. Even you."
"I have no weak spots," she assured him.
"No social life, either," Grier murmured. "I heard you tried to conduct a postmortem on a turkey in North Carolina during a murder investigation there."
"It met with fowl play," she said, straight-faced.
Both men chuckled.
"I have to get to work," she said, becoming serious. "This is a strange case. Nobody knows who this guy is or where he came from, and there was a serious attempt to make him unidentifiable. Even with DNA, when I can get a profile back from state—and don't hold your breath on the timetable—I don't know if we can identify him. If he has no criminal record, he won't be on file anywhere."
"At least we don't get many of these," Kilraven said quietly.
Jones smiled at him. "When are you coming back up to San Antonio?" she asked. "You solved the Pendle-ton kidnapping and helped wrap up the perps."
"Just a few loose ends to tie up," he said. He nodded at her and his boss. "I'll get back on patrol."
"Brady's wife made potato soup and real corn bread for lunch. Don't miss it."
"Not me, boss."
Alice stared after the handsome officer. "He's a dish. But isn't he overstaying his purpose down here?" she asked Cash.
He leaned down. "Winnie Sinclair works for the 911 center. Local gossip has it that he's sweet on her. That's why he's finding excuses not to leave."
Alice looked worried. "And he's dragging around a whole past that hardly anybody knows about. He's pretending it never happened."
"Maybe he has to."
She nodded. "It was bad. One of the worst cases I ever worked. Poor guy." She frowned. "They never solved it, you know. The perp is still out there, running around loose. It must have driven Kilraven and his brother, Jon Blackhawk, nuts, wondering if it was somebody they arrested, somebody with a grudge."
"Their father was an FBI agent in San Antonio, before he drank himself to death after the murders. Blackhawk still is," Cash replied thoughtfully. "Could have been a case any one of the three men worked, a perp getting even."
"It could," she agreed. "It must haunt the brothers. The guilt would be bad enough, but they wouldn't want to risk it happening again, to someone else they got involved with. They avoid women. Especially Kilraven."
"He wouldn't want to go through it again," Cash said.
"This Sinclair woman, how does she feel about Kilraven?"
Cash gave her a friendly smile. "I am not a gossip."
He laughed. "She's crazy about him. But she's very young."
"Age doesn't matter, in the long run," Alice said with a faraway look in her eyes. "At least, sometimes." She opened the door. "See you around, Grier."
"You, too, Jones."
She walked into the hardware store. There at the counter was Harley, pale and out of sorts. He glared at her.
She held up both hands. "I wasn't even graphic," she said defensively. "And God only knows how you manage to help with branding, with that stomach."
"I ate something that didn't agree with me," he said icily.
"In that case, you must not have a lot of friends…."
The clerk doubled over laughing.
"I do not eat people!" Harley muttered.
"I should hope not," she replied. "I mean, being a cannibal is much worse than being a gardener."
"I am not a gardener!"
Alice gave the clerk a sweet smile. "Do you have chalk and colored string?" she asked. "I also need double-A batteries for my digital camera and some antibacterial hand cleaner."
The clerk looked blank.
Harley grinned. He knew this clerk very well. Sadly, Alice didn't. "Hey, John, this is a real, honest-to-goodness crime scene investigator," he told the young man. "She works out of the medical examiner's office in San Antonio!"
Alice felt her stomach drop as she noted the bright fascination in the clerk's eyes. The clerk's whole face became animated. "You do, really? Hey, I watch all those CSI shows," he exclaimed. "I know about DNA profiles. I even know how to tell how long a body's been dead just by identifying the insects on it…!"