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"Baby, that is one fine ass."
Lori Love ignored the purring voice and gave the mounting bolt on the transmission of the old Ford one last turn, laying all her weight against the wrench.
"Oh, yeah. Work it, darlin'."
When the bolt felt tight enough, Lori wiggled the body part in question and tossed a grin over her shoulder toward the blonde behind her.
Her best friend, Molly, leered, eyebrows raised in suggestive appreciation. "Do fries go with that shake, girl?"
Lori stood and set the wrench on her tool chest. "I had no idea this look got you so hot." She smiled up at Ben Lawson, standing behind Molly and very pointedly looking at the ceiling. "You should get some coveralls, Ben. Molly likes them."
He rolled his eyes. "Are we done talking about Lori's ass yet?"
"Oo, I don't know," Molly cooed. "It's so cute and perky. Doesn't it just make you think about"
"You," Ben interrupted, "are the strangest girlfriend I've ever had."
Lori nodded in agreement. "She's a strange girl, all right, but then you've been sheltered in this small town. Now, Moll, did you come here just to ogle my bottom, or is there something else I can do for you today? Lube job, maybe?"
They both descended into snorting laughter while Ben resumed staring at the ceiling in disgust. He was slightly more mature than the two of them put together. Good thing, considering he was the chief of police.
"I actually stopped by for a different reason," Molly answered. "Quinn's finally acknowledged that he can't fix his backhoe. He needs help. I'm hoping you'll stop by his place."
Thinking of Molly's older brother, Lori frowned. "Quinn's an architect. Why in the world does he own a backhoe? And why would he think he can fix it himself?"
Molly waved a hand. "You know those geniuses. Think they can do anything. I told you he's building a house up on the pass, right? His backhoe won't start and he needs to finish the groundwork before winter. He'll start the real building next spring."
"Wait a minute. You mean he's building it himself? I assumed you meant he was having a house built."
"Nope. He says it helps him relax. Who the hell relaxes by building a whole house? Could he be more of an overachiever?" When Molly looked as though she was going to get riled up, Ben tugged a lock of her blond hair between his fingers.
"Some of us don't have your artistic abilities, Moll." He flashed her a private smile that relaxed her immediately.
Molly wrote erotic fiction for a living, which used to cause stress between the couple, but apparently Ben had come to terms with her job. Very pleasant terms. Lori managed to hide her envy by turning away to straighten up her tool chest. Not that she was interested in Ben. She just wanted some hot sex of her own. Looking down at her striped gray coveralls, she didn't feel very hopeful about her prospects.
"I'll run up to Quinn's this week," she offered. "Where is he, exactly?"
"His driveway's right at the snow gate on the Aspen side. Turn left and the site's about a quarter mile in."
"Nice," Lori breathed. Quinn must have been doing really well with his architectural firm. Only thirty-four and building his own mountain home with the gobs of money he'd made designing mansions for billionaires.
After arranging to meet Molly at The Bar on Friday, Lori got back to work on the Ford. She enjoyed fixing cars, she really did. Her father had put her to work on an engine when she was just six years old, and she'd been doing it ever since. But she'd never planned on working in her dad's garageher garage nowher whole life. No, that hadn't even been a possibility when she'd left for college at eighteen.
But now it was all hers: the garage, the tow truck, the snowplows, the old dump out back. A bounty of unwanted mechanical glory.
Lori sighed and slammed down the hood of the car. Life wasn't fair, but she was a big girl . Well, actually she was way too short for her taste. Five-two and petite, which posed a problem when bossing around drivers and mechanics. But she was her father's daughter, stubborn and realistic and not inclined to whine. So after his accident, she'd left college, painted all the trucks lavender, and taken control of the business.
When Lori turned the key in the ignition, the Ford roared to life, bringing a sad smile to her face. This was her job now, and she was good at it, and that was that.
She backed the car out and parked it in the gravel lot, then noticed that Ben was walking toward her. Alone.
"Hey," she called as she jumped out. "Did you lose your girlfriend?"
"No, she's over at the market. I actually need to speak with you about something, but I can come back tomorrow if you like."
"No, this is fine. No problem. What's up?" Once she'd locked up the car and met his eyes, he tilted his head toward her house.
"Why don't we go inside and sit down?"
"Are you kidding?" she asked with a sharp laugh. Her dad was gone, her mom and grandparents long dead. A cousin lived somewhere in Wyoming, but if Lori was his emergency contact his life was even sadder than hers. She raised her hands in confusion. "Did you find out about that bank I knocked over? Because that was years ago. Childhood high jinks."
Ben pressed his lips together and stared, so Lori just shrugged and walked toward the house. Maybe one of her mechanics had been caught stealing cars or something. When she let him through the front door, Ben gestured toward the couch.
"Oh, come on," Lori scoffed.
"I think you should sit down."
"Ben, this is ridiculous. Just spill it."
He finally gave in. "All right. I've been looking into your dad's case "
Lori's heart flipped over and made an awkward landing. "What case?"
He glanced determinedly toward the ratty couch again, then seemed to shrug into practical mode and plowed straight ahead. "The police station wasn't run with particular efficiency ten years ago when your dad was assaulted. Though the incident report was closed out, no one sent it to records. I've been slowly going through all the old files, trying to get everything where it should be. I ran across your dad's file last week."
Wishing she were at least standing next to the couch so she could lean against it, Lori forced her mouth to work. "And?"
"And I'm not entirely sure about what happened that night."
"It was a bar fight," she said firmly. "Just a bar fight like the other dozen he'd started in his life. And bad luck he hit his head on that rock."
Ben put his fists on his hips and looked down at the scuffed linoleum for a moment before he met her gaze again. "Lori, there's a possibility it may have been deliberate. I'm going to reopen the case. Quietly."
"What? That's ridiculous. Why would you do that?"
"I'm suspicious. That parking lot wasn't exactly littered with big chunks of granite. And if someone picked up a rock and hit your dad in the head, that's assault with a deadly weapon. And now that he's gone, maybe manslaughter or "
Murder. He didn't say it, but Lori heard it anyway. Shaking her head in slow denial, she moved into the kitchen and put her hands carefully on the counter. The cupcakes she'd made yesterday glowed bright pink in the afternoon light, mocking the slow, bad turn her day had taken.
Ben continued, and the hesitation cleared from his voice as he took on his chief of police mien. "If he had died at the time of the injury, there would've been an examination, an autopsy. Careful evidence collection. But the focus was on saving your dad's life. Still, the scene photos don't show any other rocks around. The only object that could've caused the skull fracture is that one piece of granite and we already know it had his blood on it. It seems a bit too pat to me to think he just happened to have fallen square onto that rock.
"There were no defensive wounds on his hands, no evidence of a fistfight. And he wasn't found near his truck or even near the door of the bar. The back of the parking lot is an odd place to have a fistfight. Usually people just stumble out the front door and go at it."
"I suppose," she muttered, but she shook her head all the same.
"His autopsy reports are a bit of a mess with the healed fractures and surgical scar tissue, but I'm going to send the report off to Denver to get a second opinion. Just to see if there's any confirmation of my thoughts."
Lori tried to clear the sudden tears from her throat. "What is it you think happened?"
"I'm not sure." Ben sighed. "But there's a good possibility that someone attacked your dad from behind. Maybe when he was turning away from an argument, or maybe he didn't even know someone was there. But that's not much to go on. No one at the bar admitted to seeing anything after your dad left. He didn't argue with anyone while he was there, at least not according to the notes. I'm going to have to conduct new interviews, but I'd like to keep it quiet as long as possible."
"I Okay. What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing," Ben answered quickly. "You don't need to do anything right now. Like I said, I want to keep this quiet. I'll just be making some inquiries, trying to fit the pieces together. But I didn't want you in the dark about my suspicions."
"He's dead now," Lori murmured. "It doesn't matter."
But of course it did.
Lori couldn't sleep that night. She tossed and turned for hours. By four-thirty she felt as if she might implode, as if all the thoughts swirling through her head would finally pull her in on herself andpoof!she'd be gone. Her father, her life, the things she'd wanted for herself She couldn't take it anymore, so she got up, showered and headed for the garage to change out the fuel pump on Mr. Larsen's Chevy.
The air outside was perfect and crisp, but Lori only cracked open the garage door a few inches. She didn't want to take any chances with curious bears. Especially if they were looking for breakfast.
As she worked at wrestling the old pump out, her thoughts became clearer and slightly more painful.
What if Ben Lawson was right? What if her father had been deliberately hurt? His skull fractured, his brain damaged, his life taken away long before he'd died What if someone had done that on purpose?
She grabbed a rag and wiped sweator tearsoff her face, then bent back to her task.
She hadn't complained about the turn her life had taken. Accidents happened. She'd given up on college and travel and dating, but she'd done it for her father, willingly. He would have done as much or more for her. So, no, she hadn't complained about what she'd given up.
But giving up something was very different than having it taken away.
Her teen years had been filled with books and hopes and a steely-eyed determination to get into the college of her dreams. And she'd done it. She'd gone off to Boston College, and her father had been so proud. Then he'd been hurt, and she'd left that behind, but she was beginning to realize she'd left behind a lot more than her education.
Her twenties had revolved around caring for her dad and keeping his business going to pay for it. Her life had been spent in coveralls and boots, T-shirts and jeans. Any love affairs had been brief and unexciting.
But lately, even before Ben's news, she'd been restless. She couldn't just leave Tumble Creek. Couldn't hop on a plane and start college again. There were simply too many bills that had piled up over the years. Caring for a semivegetative relative wasn't cheap.
So she couldn't simply walk away and start over. But she could change her life in smaller ways, and something inside her was calling on her to take action. Perhaps this was just a natural consequence of nearing thirty. But that restless feeling had rapidly grown more intense since Ben had dropped by.
Noticing that the sunlight was now bright yellow instead of pale pink, Lori glanced up at the clock. Seven-thirty. When she raised the garage door the rest of the way, the spectacular clatter echoed through the high-ceilinged garage. She strolled out into the sun and bright birdsong, but the gravel of the lot crunched and popped beneath her boots, distracting her from the beauty of the morning. She thought mournfully of the red polish she'd painted onto her toenails the night before and sighed.
Maybe she should try another fling.
Or maybe she should just order another box of books from Molly's publisher.
Either way, after she stopped by Quinn's lot tonight, she'd come home to take a bath and read a dirty story. Then maybe she'd think about going shopping for a pair of open-toed heels that would click against the ground instead of thud. She jogged back in to call Molly.
As she grabbed the phone, her thoughts were interrupted by a startling chirp from the receiver in her hand.
She nearly dropped it, which would have pissed her off immensely. As it was, she'd had to replace two phones already this year. One had fallen victim to the big, clumsy hands of her least-favorite plow driver. The other had somehow gotten itself mixed up with a big tub of lube, which wasn't nearly as fun as it sounded. Not for a phone anyway.
"Love's Garage," she snapped into the phone.
"Hello! This is Christopher Tipton!" Chris always announced his name as if she'd won a prize.
Lori slumped onto a stool. "Hey, Chris." She'd known him since grade school, but she had a feeling he wasn't calling to reminisce. "What's going on?"
"I was just wondering if you've had time to think over selling that parcel of land we discussed in February."
That parcel of land, he said, as if it hadn't been everything her dad had ever dreamed of. "Look, Chris, I'm sorry. It's only been a few mon" Actually, that wasn't true anymore. It had been a whole year since her dad had died. Jesus. When had that happened?
"I know it's difficult to consider. And I know it hasn't been that long for you, but I think you'll find that Tipton & Tremaine has put together a very generous offer"
"I just I need more time."