The law is a lady, p.11
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       The Law is a Lady, p.11

           Nora Roberts
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  The tiny office was packed, the window air-conditioning unit spitting hopefully. Eyes turned to her. Tory gave the group a brief scan. Marlie was sitting on the arm of Phil’s chair, dressed in pink slacks and a frilled halter. Her enviable curves were displayed to perfection. Her hair was tousled appealingly around a piquant face accented with mink lashes and candy-pink lipstick. She looked younger than Tory had expected, almost like a high school girl ready to be taken out for an ice-cream soda. Tory met the baby-blue eyes directly, and with an expression that made Phil grin. He thought mistakenly that she might be a bit jealous.

  “Sheriff.” The mayor bustled over to her, prepared to act as host. “This is quite an honor for Friendly,” he began, in his best politician’s voice. “I’m sure you recognize Mr. Dressier.”

  Tory extended her hand to the man who approached her. “Sheriff.” His voice was rich, the cadence mellow as he clasped her hand in both of his. She was a bit surprised to find them callused. “This is unexpected,” he murmured while his eyes roamed her face thoroughly. “And delightful.”

  “Mr. Dressier, I admire your work.” The smile was easy because the words were true.

  “Sam, please.” His brandy voice had only darkened attractively with age, losing none of its resonance. “We get to be a close little family on location shoots. Victoria, isn’t it?”

  “Yes.” She found herself inclined to like him and gave him another smile.

  “Bud, here, is making us all quite comfortable,” he went on, clapping the mayor on the shoulder. “Will you join us in a drink?”

  “Ginger ale’s fine, Bud.”

  “The sheriff’s on duty.” Hearing Phil’s voice, Tory turned her head only, and glanced at him. “You’ll find she takes her work very seriously.” He touched Marlie’s creamy bare shoulder. “Victoria Ashton, Marlie Summers.”

  “Sheriff.” Marlie smiled her dazzling smile. The tiniest hint of a dimple peeked at the corner of her mouth. “Phil said you were unusual. It looks like he’s right again.”

  “Really?” Accepting the cold drink Bud handed her, Tory assessed the actress over the rim. Marlie, accustomed to long looks and feminine coolness, met the stare straight on.

  “Really,” Marlie agreed. “I met your deputy a little while ago.”

  “So I heard.”

  So the wind blows in that direction, Marlie mused as she sipped from her own iced sangria. Sensing tension and wanting to keep things smooth, Bud hurried on with the rest of the introductions.

  The cast ranged from ingenues to veterans—a girl Tory recognized from a few commercials; an ancient-looking man she remembered from the vague black-and-white movies on late-night television; a glitzy actor in his twenties, suited for heartthrobs and posters. Tory managed to be pleasant, stayed long enough to satisfy the mayor, then slipped away. She’d no more than stepped outside when she felt an arm on her shoulder.

  “Don’t you like parties, Sheriff?”

  Taking her time, she turned to face Phil. “Not when I’m on duty.” Though she knew he’d worked in the sun all day, he didn’t look tired but exhilarated. His shirt was streaked with sweat, his hair curling damply over his ears, but there was no sign of fatigue on his face. It’s the pressure that feeds him, she realized. Again she was drawn to him, no less than when they had been alone in his room. “You’ve put in a long day,” she murmured.

  He caught her hair in his hand. “So have you. Why don’t we go for a drive?”

  Tory shook her head. “No, I have things to do.” Wanting to steer away from the subject, she turned to what had been uppermost on her mind. “Your Marlie made quite an impression on Merle.”

  Phil gave a quick laugh. “Marlie usually does.”

  “Not on Merle,” Tory said so seriously that he sobered.

  “He’s a big boy, Tory.”

  “A boy,” she agreed significantly. “He’s never seen anything like your friend in there. I won’t let him get hurt.”

  Phil let out a deep breath. “Your duties as sheriff include advice to the lovelorn? Leave him alone,” he ordered before she could retort. “You treat him as though he were a silly puppy who doesn’t respond to training.”

  She took a step back at that. “No, I don’t,” she disagreed, sincerely shaken by the idea. “He’s a sweet boy who—”

  “Man,” Phil corrected quietly. “He’s a man, Tory. Cut the apron strings.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snapped.

  “You damn well do,” he corrected. “You can’t keep him under your wing the way you do with Tod.”

  “I’ve known Merle all my life,” she said in a low voice. “Just keep Cotton Candy in line, Kincaid.”

  “Always so sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

  Her color drained instantly, alarmingly. For a moment Phil stared at her in speechless wonder. He’d never expected to see that kind of pain in her eyes. Instinctively he reached out for her. “Tory?”

  “No.” She lifted a hand to ward him off. “Just—leave me alone.” Turning away, she walked across the street and climbed into her car. With an oath Phil started to go back into the hotel, then swore again and backtracked. Tory was already on her way north.

  Her thoughts were in turmoil as she drove. Too much was happening. She squeezed her eyes shut briefly. Why should that throw her now? she wondered. She’d always been able to take things in stride, handle them at her own pace. Now she had a deep-seated urge just to keep driving, just to keep going. So many people wanted things from her, expected things. Including, she admitted, herself. It was all closing in suddenly. She needed someone to talk to. But the only one who had ever fit that job was gone.

  God, she wasn’t sure of herself. Why did everyone say so? Sometimes it was so hard to be responsible, to feel responsible. Tod, Merle, the mayor, the Kramers, Mr. Hollister. Her mother. She just wanted peace—enough time to work out what was happening in her own life. Her feelings for Phil were closing in on her. Pulling the car to a halt, Tory realized it was those feelings that were causing her—a woman who had always considered herself calm—to be tense. Piled on top of it were problems that had to come first. She’d learned that from her father.

  Glancing up, she saw she had driven to the cemetery without even being aware of it. She let out a long breath, resting her forehead against the steering wheel. It was time she went there, time she came to terms with what she had closed her mind to since that night in the hospital. Climbing out of the car, Tory walked across the dry grass to her father’s grave.

  Odd that there’d been a breeze here, she mused, looking at the sky, the distant mountains, the long stretches of nothing. She looked at anything but what was at her feet. There should be some shade, she thought, and cupped her elbows in her palms. Someone should plant some trees. I should have brought some flowers, she thought suddenly, then looked down.

  WILLIAM H. ASHTON

  She hadn’t seen the gravestone before—hadn’t been back to the cemetery since the day of the funeral. Now a quiet moan slipped through her lips. “Oh, Dad.”

  It isn’t right, she thought with a furious shake of her head. It just isn’t right. How can he be down there in the dark when he always loved the sun? “Oh, no,” she murmured again. I don’t know what to do, she thought silently, pleading with him. I don’t know how to deal with it all. I still need you. Pressing a palm on her forehead, she fought back tears.

  Phil pulled up behind her car, then got out quietly. She looked very alone and lost standing among the headstones. His first instinct was to go to her, but he suppressed it. This was private for her. Her father, he thought, looking toward the grave at which Tory stared. He stood by a low wrought-iron gate at the edge of the cemetery and waited.

  There was so much she needed to talk about, so much she still needed to say. But there was no more time. He’d been taken too suddenly. Unfair, she thought again on a wave of desolate fury. He had been so young and so good.

  “I miss you so much,”
she whispered. “All those long talks and quiet evenings on the porch. You’d smoke those awful cigars outside so that the smell wouldn’t get in the curtains and irritate Mother. I was always so proud of you. This badge doesn’t suit me,” she continued softly, lifting her hand to it. “It’s the law books and the courtroom that I understand. I don’t want to make a mistake while I’m wearing it, because it’s yours.” Her fingers tightened around it. All at once she felt painfully alone, helpless, empty. Even the anger had slipped away unnoticed. And yet the acceptance she tried to feel was blocked behind a grief she refused to release. If she cried, didn’t it mean she’d taken the first step away?

  Wearily she stared down at the name carved into the granite. “I don’t want you to be dead,” she whispered. “And I hate it because I can’t change it.”

  When she turned away from the grave, her face was grim. She walked slowly but was halfway across the small cemetery before she saw Phil. Tory stopped and stared at him. Her mind went blank, leaving her with only feelings. He went to her.

  For a moment they stood face-to-face. He saw her lips tremble open as if she were about to speak, but she only shook her head helplessly. Without a word he gathered her close. The shock of grief that hit her was stronger than anything that had come before. She trembled first, then clutched at him.

  “Oh, Phil, I can’t bear it.” Burying her face against his shoulder, Tory wept for the first time since her father’s death.

  In silence he held her, overwhelmed with a tenderness he’d felt for no one before. Her sobbing was raw and passionate. He stroked her hair, offering comfort without words. Her grief poured out in waves that seemed to stagger her and made him hurt for her to a degree that was oddly intimate. He thought he could feel what she felt, and held her tighter, waiting for the first throes to pass.

  At length her weeping quieted, lessening to trembles that were somehow more poignant than the passion. She kept her face pressed against his shoulder, relying on his strength when her own evaporated. Light-headed and curiously relieved, she allowed him to lead her to a small stone bench. He kept her close to his side when they sat, his arm protectively around her.

  “Can you talk about it?” he asked softly.

  Tory let out a long, shuddering sigh. From where they sat she could see the headstone clearly. “I loved him,” she murmured. “My mother says too much.” Her throat felt dry and abused when she swallowed. “He was everything good. He taught me not just right and wrong but all the shades in between.” Closing her eyes, she let her head rest on Phil’s shoulder. “He always knew the right thing. It was something innate and effortless. People knew they could depend on him, that he’d make it right. I depended on him, even in college, in Albuquerque—I knew he was there if I needed him.”

  He kissed her temple in a gesture of simple understanding. “How did he die?”

  Feeling a shudder run through her, Phil drew her closer still. “He had a massive stroke. There was no warning. He’d never even been sick that I can remember. When I got here, he was in a coma. Everything . . .” She faltered, searching for the strength to continue. With his free hand Phil covered hers. “Everything seemed to go wrong at once. His heart just . . . stopped.” She ended in a whisper, lacing her fingers through his. “They put him on a respirator. For weeks there was nothing but that damn machine. Then my mother told them to turn it off.”

  Phil let the silence grow, following her gaze toward the headstone. “It must have been hard for her.”

  “No.” The word was low and flat. “She never wavered, never cried. My mother’s a very decisive woman,” she added bitterly. “And she made the decision alone. She told me after it was already done.”

  “Tory.” Phil turned her to face him. She looked pale, bright-eyed, and achingly weary. Something seemed to tear inside him. “I can’t tell you the right or wrong of it, because there really isn’t any. But I do know there comes a time when everyone has to face something that seems impossible to accept.”

  “If only I could have seen it was done for love and not . . . expediency.” Shutting her eyes, she shook her head. “Hold me again.” He drew her gently into his arms. “That last night at the hospital was so ugly between my mother and me. He would have hated that. I couldn’t stop it,” she said with a sigh. “I still can’t.”

  “Time.” He kissed the top of her head. “I know how trite that sounds, but there’s nothing else but time.”

  She remained silent, accepting his comfort, drawing strength from it. If she had been able to think logically, Tory would have found it inconsistent with their relationship thus far that she could share her intimate feelings with him. At the moment she trusted Phil implicitly.

  “Once in a while, back there,” she murmured, “I panic.”

  It surprised him enough to draw her back and study her face again. “You?”

  “Everyone thinks because I’m Will Ashton’s daughter, I’ll take care of whatever comes up. There’re so many variables to right and wrong.”

  “You’re very good at your job.”

  “I’m a good lawyer,” she began.

  “And a good sheriff,” he interrupted. Tilting her chin up, he smiled at her. “That’s from someone who’s been on the wrong side of your bars.” Gently he brushed the hair from her cheeks. They were warm and still damp. “And don’t expect to hear me say it in public.”

  Laughing, she pressed her cheek to his. “Phil, you can be a very nice man.”

  “Surprised?”

  “Maybe,” she murmured. With a sigh she gave him one last squeeze, then drew away. “I’ve got work to do.”

  He stopped her from rising by taking her hands again. “Tory, do you know how little space you give yourself?”

  “Yes.” She disconcerted him by bringing his hand to her lips. “These six months are for him. It’s very important to me.”

  Standing as she did, Phil cupped her face in his hands. She seemed to him very fragile, very vulnerable, suddenly. His need to look out for her was strong. “Let me drive you back. We can send someone for your car.”

  “No, I’m all right. Better.” She brushed her lips over his. “I appreciate this. There hasn’t been anyone I could talk to.”

  His eyes became very intense. “Would you come to me if you needed me?”

  She didn’t answer immediately, knowing the question was more complex than the simple words. “I don’t know,” she said at length.

  Phil let her go, then watched her walk away.

  Chapter 7

  The camera came in tight on Sam and Marlie. Phil wanted the contrast of youth and age, of dissatisfaction and acceptance. It was a key scene, loaded with tension and restrained sexuality. They were using Hernandez’s Bar, where the character Marlie portrayed worked as a waitress. Phil had made almost no alterations in the room. The bar was scarred, the mirror behind it cracked near the bottom. It smelled of sweat and stale liquor. He intended to transmit the scent itself onto film.

  The windows were covered with neutral-density paper to block off the stream of the sun. It trapped the stale air in the room. The lights were almost unbearably hot, so that he needed no assistance from makeup to add beads of sweat to Sam’s face. It was the sixth take, and the mood was growing edgy.

  Sam blew his lines and swore ripely.

  “Cut.” Struggling with his temper, Phil wiped his forearm over his brow. With some actors a few furious words worked wonders. With Dressler, Phil knew, they would only cause more delays.

  “Look, Phil”—Sam tore off the battered Stetson he wore and tossed it aside—“this isn’t working.”

  “I know. Cut the lights,” he ordered. “Get Mr. Dressler a beer.” He addressed this to the man he had hired to see to Sam’s needs on the location shoot. The individual attention had been Phil’s way of handling Dressler and thus far had had its benefits. “Sit down for a while, Sam,” he suggested. “We’ll cool off.” He waited until Sam was seated at a rear table with a portable fan and a beer befor
e he plucked a can from the cooler himself.

  “Hot work,” Marlie commented, leaning against the bar.

  Glancing over, Phil noted the line of sweat that ran down the front of her snug blouse. He passed her the can of beer. “You’re doing fine.”

  “It’s a hell of a part,” she said before she took a deep drink. “I’ve been waiting for one like this for a long time.”

  “The next take,” Phil began, narrowing his eyes, “when you say the bit about sweat and dust, I want you to grab his shirt and pull him to you.”

  Marlie thought it over, then set the can on the bar. “Like this . . . ? There’s nothing,” she spat out, grabbing Phil’s damp shirt, “nothing in this town but sweat and dust.” She put her other hand to his shirt and pulled him closer. “Even the dreams have dust on them.”

  “Good.”

  Marlie flashed a smile before she picked up the beer again. “Better warn Sam,” she suggested, offering Phil the can. “He doesn’t like improvising.”

  “Hey, Phil.” Phil glanced over to see Steve with his hand on the doorknob. “That kid’s outside with the sheriff. Wants to know if they can watch.”

  Phil took a long, slow drink. “They can sit in the back of the room.” His eyes met Tory’s as she entered. It had been two days since their meeting in the cemetery. Since then there had been no opportunity—or she’d seen to it that there’d been none—for any private conversation. She met the look, nodded to him, then urged Tod back to a rear table.

  “The law of the land,” Marlie murmured, causing Phil to look at her in question. “She’s quite a woman, isn’t she?”

  “Yes.”

 
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