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Kris Reynolds adjusted her baseball cap, protecting her light brown eyes with the bill, and continued repotting a Great Basin Sage into a larger decorative pot.
She loved working with growing thingsplants that would add character to any garden or household and give their new owners pleasure for years to come. It was part of the reason she'd opened Smiling Cactus Nursery, a place where she'd be sharing gardener's tips instead of survival tactics.
Though she'd served her hitch as a marine in a supposedly noncombat role, she'd seen more than her share of violence. She'd come home eager to find peace, and a healing of those wartime memories, but fate had stepped in and more tragedy had followed. Only a few days after her return, her only sister had been murdered. Death had been waiting by the roadside again just as it had been so often overseas. But there was one big difference. This time it was personal.
Thinking of Tina filled her with a familiar heaviness of spirit, and she swallowed quickly, hoping to stem the tears that usually followed. Tina had been her best friend, not just her sister. Kris could feel her absence every second of the day.
"You're thinking of Tina again, aren't you?" Maria Lucero observed, seeing Kris adjusting the gold four-leaf clover pendant that hung around her neck. On each leaf was a single letterone side spelled Kris, the other, Tina.
Kris sighed. She missed Tina so much. Looking at her assistant, she nodded. "I can't believe she's really gone. What makes it even harder is that I still don't know why Tina died. The police won't tell me anything, except that she was on a courier run and on her way to the Rez from Arizona."
"You'll get the information out of them eventually," Maria said somberly. "It's not in your nature to give up."
Kris smiled. "It's the Marine in me. We never surrender."
"But, remember, you're not in the Corps anymore," Maria said softly.
Kris smiled. "Once you earn the title Marine, it's yours for life."
It was that discipline that would sustain her now. Before she was through, she'd know exactly why her sister had died. And if Tina had left unfinished business, she'd see it done as well. It would be her way of honoring her sister's memory.
Kris looked around her nursery for the umpteenth time. Her heart was home, and through this nursery she'd learn to welcome each new day again. But first there was one more duty to fulfill.
MAX PARKED IN FRONT of the Smiling Cactus Nursery and walked toward the open greenhouse door.As he stepped inside, he suddenly bumped into someone coming out, a woman wearing a baseball cap and shouldering a large plastic bag of potting soil.
As she fell back, the woman lost her grip on her bag and it came crashing down on top of his foot.
"Sorry," she said quickly, bending over to pick up the bag.
Unfortunately, he bent down at the same time and their heads collided with a resounding thud.
"My fault, sir, I'm so sorry! How about a ten-percent discount on anything you buy today?" she added, checking the bag for holes.
Stepping back to avoid another bump and rubbing his forehead, he took a closer look at the woman's face. "It's you, isn't it? Kris Reynolds?"
As her gaze went up to his face, recognition flashed in her eyes. "Max Natoni? I went to see you at the hospital, but you were pretty much out of it at the time. How are you feeling?"
She was his former partner's spitting imageor nearly so. Yet where Tina's honey-brown eyes had been cold and hardthe long-term results of being a police officerKris's were lighter and softer somehow, like the scent of flowers that clung to her. All in all, not what he'd expected from a former marine.
"I'm doing much better, thanks," he said at last.
Max reached to pick up the bag, but she was faster. She grabbed it by the corners with perfectly manicured hands, and swung it into a nearby wheelbarrow before he could help. He'd always liked capable women, and Kris was obviously no exception. Her blend of toughness and femininity was an appealing contradiction.
"I've been hoping for a chance to talk to you," she said. "Why don't we go into my office?"
As she led the way, Max saw the huge smiling cactus on the back of her denim work shirt. Prickly but sweet? As his gaze drifted downward, he observed the way she filled out her jeans. The soft curve of her hips, and the way they swayed with each stride certainly held his attention. Definitely sweeta few thorns never hurt anyone.
THE SECOND THEY ENTERED her small office, Kris stepped around her desk and reached for the bottle of aspirin she kept in her drawer. She offered him two, but he declined.
Kris made herself comfortable in her chair and regarded Max Natoni thoughtfully as he took the seat by the window, shifting it around to face her directly. The dimples that flashed at the corners of his mouth whenever he smiled contrasted with the scar on his left cheek. There was something infinitely masculine about the man and that killer smile . It made her heart beat a little fastersomething a battalion of jarheads had never quite managed to do.
Irritated with herself for getting soft, she glanced down at her desk. Heatstroke. That's why her heart was acting weird. Where was that water bottle? Since leaving the Middle East she'd stopped hydrating enough.
"I've been hoping for the chance to talk to you alone," Max said quietly, slipping his leather jacket off with a shrug and tossing it casually onto the corner coat rack's hook.
Kris knew that if she wanted to find out what had happened to her sister, Max was the key. "Tina respected you," she started, then saw him flinch. "Is that a surprise?" she asked.
He shook his head. "That's not it. Navajos don't speak the name of the dead out loud, particularly this soon after their passing."
Kris nodded. "I'm sorry. I'd forgotten about that. I meant no disrespect. I know how important it is to cling to your own cultureto the things that define you." She paused, organizing her thoughts. "My sister spoke highly of youand often, too, I should add. That's why I'm hoping you'll help me now. I need to know what happened to her. Everyone I've spoken to so far, the sheriff's department, the Farmington police, the Tribal cops, give me the same answer. They're not free to talk about a case under investigation."
"What exactly have they told you so far about the way she died?"
"I know my sister was working with you and another mananother courier named Harris. Your objective was to protect some tribal assets. From the bits and pieces I overheard at the station, those assets were some kind of jewelry. Now I want the rest of the details."
"What led you to think jewelry was involved?" Max asked her.
"I overheard one of the detectives saying that the missing suitcase is worth over a half-million dollars. Then a few days later an investigator working for a company called Jewelry Outlet, a tall redhead by the name of Bruce Talbot, came by," she said. "The man was a pain in the butt. He hung around questioning my employees, and then tried to grill me. From his questions I know he believes that my sisterand Ihad something to do with the robbery."
She met his gaze and saw how his dark brown eyes could change at a moment's notice. Yet it was his air of self-possession that intrigued her most.
"I won't allow that cloud of suspicion to remain over my sister or on me," she continued. "I have every intention of finding out exactly what went down. Then I'm going to prove that my sister's innocent, and that she died doing her job."
"Do you have any background in investigative work?"
"I have a logical mind and I was an intelligence analyst in the Corps. That'll be enough." She paused, then continued.
"Honor is more than just a word to me. It's worth dying for."
"Your sister gave her life to protect tribal assets. Next time Talbot comes around, send him to me."
"I know you work for the tribe. But in what capacity? A courier? Security guard?" Judging from his neutral expression and his questions, he'd come with more than a social visit in mind.
He took out his card and handed it to her.
She studied it for a moment. "Security. Office of the Navajo Tribal President. That doesn't tell me much."
"I work on the President's behalf, carrying out whatever assignments come up," he answered, leaning back in his chair and stretching his long legs. "I'm an investigator who answers only to the tribe."
She held his gaze. The man was holding back. Instinct and training told her that, and much more. Keeping secrets was second nature to him. His body language attested to his ease with them.
While serving in the military, she'd had to do the same thing. She wondered if Max knew what a toll secrets eventually took on those who guarded them.
Almost as quickly as the thought had formed, she focused back on the situation at hand. "Those assets you won't identifylet's just call them jewelry for now. Talbot intimated that I might know where they are, so he's talking conspiracy."
"What did you tell him?"
"Not much. I, shall we say, escorted him off my property?" She watched his gaze skim over her lips, then drop lower, grazing her neck, and taking in the soft swell of her breasts. The look hadn't been insolent or disrespectful. It had been appreciative.
Kris suppressed the shiver that touched her spine. He was playing her. He knew that nature had given him a certain amount of power over the opposite sex and he'd learned to use it. She wouldn't be taken in.
"Back to my sister what happened?" she pressed again.
"At one point, Talbot had the nerve to suggest that I'd previously met with Harris and that I knew where the stolen merchandise was." She paused. "He's lucky he can still walk upright."
"Harris is dead, but he was the key player. He betrayed the tribe, your sister and me," he said, then taking a breath continued. "We all set out in the same vehicle with our cargo, Harris driving. Our route took us through Four Corners, and you know how desolate that stretch is. Not long after we passed into New Mexico, he insisted on pulling over. He claimed that there was something wrong with the steering and he wanted to stop and take a look. We all got out and he suddenly pulled a gun on us. He shot me, then fired at your sister as she scrambled out of the backseat. I went down, but managed to return fire and force him back, giving your sister the chance to drive away with the cargo. Unfortunately, her only option was to head down a dirt road, not the highway."
She could picture it clearly. Tina would have done everything in her power to keep what had been entrusted to her out of a thief's hands. "What happened to you then?"
"I took a hit to the head, maybe from a second gunman, and passed out. I didn't wake up until the next day. Evidence at the scene suggests that Harris either had another vehicle hidden nearby, or was met shortly thereafter by a partner. We also have reason to believe Harris caught up to your sister after she hid the cargo."
"You found the car she drove off in," Kris commented thoughtfully. "Wasn't there any other evidence in or around it?"
"It had rained that afternoon, so the tracks in the area were almost indistinguishable by the time she was located. But I'm absolutely certain that your sister hid the assets we were protectingand died with honor protecting them. Which brings me to the reason I'm here," he added. "My job now is to find out where she went, who she spoke to or saw, and where those assets ended up."
"So to you, this is mostly a matter of finding the missing cargo," she concluded. "But why do you need me for that? Why don't you just expand the search until you find the stuff?" She paused, suddenly reminded of Talbot. "Or did you come to me because you also think I had something to do with the theft?" Angry, she faced him squarely.
"No, that's not it." He rose to his feet and placed both his hands on her shoulders, capturing her gaze. "I'm here because I remember the way your sister spoke about you. She told me that you were two of a kind. I believe that if anyone can second-guess what she did that day, it'll be you."
Max was telling her the truth. She could feel it. But she was just as sure that there was a lot more he wasn't saying. "You two shared a working relationship," she said at last. "You were partners in the police force at one time, too. That should give you all the edge you need."
"Your sister and I respected each other, and we worked well as partners, but we were never anything more than that."
"My priority isn't finding those precious assets. I want to know exactly what happened to my sister that day and why she was killed. Since we have different goals, I can't see us working together."
"We'll have a better chance of finding answersand staying aliveif we work together," he replied in quiet voice.
She gazed into his eyes, then shook her head and turned away. "I won't work with someone who's holding out on me. If you want us on the same team, then start by telling me what was stolen. I know how to keep things under wraps. If the United States Marine Corps trusted me, so can you."
"It's not that I don't trust you," he began.
"Then stop playing games," she interrupted sharply, bringing forth the bark that had served her so well as a marine. "If you want my help, then put me in the picture, and tell me everything you know. Otherwise, you're on your own."
"We're not overseas now, giving orders, or fighting a war. This type of case isn't part of your training. You're out of your element," he said, his eyes narrowed, his gaze sharp.
Kris was sure that not many people could have stood up to one of those icy looks of his, but she held her ground. "I'm a quick study. I intend to start by examining my sister's personal effects as soon as the police release them. I'll also have a talk with our senator and congresswoman and ask for their help in loosening some lips. I've got it covered, so it looks like we're through here," she added, gesturing to the door. "I've got a long day ahead of me."
"Give me a few more minutes of your time," Max said, slipping his jacket back on and jamming his hands into the pockets. "My pickup is parked right out the side door. Walk with me, and we'll talk. You've got nothing to lose."