The law is a lady, p.15
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       The Law is a Lady, p.15

           Nora Roberts
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  live up to the badge on her shirt, she had to set all that aside.

  She wasn’t physically afraid, not because she was foolishly brave, but because when she saw a blatant injustice, Tory forgot everything but the necessity of making it right. As she took the left fork toward the Swanson ranch, however, she had her first stirring of self-doubt.

  What if she mishandled the situation? she thought in sudden panic. What if her meeting with Swanson only made more trouble for the boy? The memory of Tod’s terrified face brought on a quick queasiness that she fought down. No, she wasn’t going to mishandle it, she told herself firmly as the house came into view. She was going to confront Swanson and at the very least set the wheels in motion for making things right. Tory’s belief that all things could be set right with patience, through the law, had been indoctrinated in childhood. She knew and accepted no other way.

  She pulled up behind Swanson’s battered pickup, then climbed out of the sheriff’s car. Instantly a dog who had been sleeping on the porch sent out angry, warning barks. Tory eyed him a moment, wary, then saw that he came no farther than the edge of the sagging porch. He looked as old and unkempt as the house itself.

  Taking a quick look around, Tory felt a stir of pity for Tod. This was borderline poverty. She, too, had grown up where a tightened belt was often a rule, but between her mother’s penchant for neatness and the hard work of both her parents, their small ranch had always had a homey charm. This place, on the other hand, looked desolate and hopeless. The grass grew wild, long overdue for trimming. There were no brightening spots of color from flowers or potted plants. The house itself was frame, the paint faded down to the wood in places. There was no chair on the porch, no sign that anyone had the time or inclination to sit and appreciate the view.

  No one came to the door in response to the dog’s barking. Tory debated calling out from where she stood or taking a chance with the mangy mutt. A shout came from the rear of the house with a curse and an order to shut up. The dog obeyed, satisfying himself with low growls as Tory headed in the direction of the voice.

  She spotted Swanson working on the fence of an empty corral. The back of his shirt was wet with sweat, while his hat was pulled low to shade his face. He was a short, stocky man with the strong shoulders of a laborer. Thinking of Tod’s build, Tory decided he had inherited it, and perhaps his temperament, from his mother.

  “Mr. Swanson?”

  His head jerked up. He had been replacing a board on the fence; the hand that swung the hammer paused on the downswing. Seeing his face, Tory decided he had the rough, lined face of a man constantly fighting the odds of the elements. He narrowed his eyes; they passed briefly over her badge.

  “Sheriff,” he said briefly, then gave the nail a final whack. He cared little for women who interfered in a man’s work.

  “I’d like to talk to you, Mr. Swanson.”

  “Yeah?” He pulled another nail out of an old coffee can. “What about?”

  “Tod.” Tory waited until he had hammered the nail into the warped board.

  “That boy in trouble?”

  “Apparently,” she said mildly. She told herself to overlook his rudeness as he turned his back to take out another nail.

  “I handle my own,” he said briefly. “What’s he done?”

  “He hasn’t done anything, Mr. Swanson.”

  “Either he’s in trouble or he’s not.” Swanson placed another nail in position and beat it into the wood. The sound echoed in the still air. From somewhere to the right, Tory heard the lazy moo of a cow. “I ain’t got time for conversation, Sheriff.”

  “He’s in trouble, Mr. Swanson,” she returned levelly. “And you’ll talk to me here or in my office.”

  The tone had him taking another look and measuring her again. “What do you want?”

  “I want to talk to you about the bruise on your son’s face.” She glanced down at the meaty hands, noting that the knuckles around the hammer whitened.

  “You’ve got no business with my boy.”

  “Tod’s a minor,” she countered. “He’s very much my business.”

  “I’m his father.”

  “And as such, you are not entitled to physically or emotionally abuse your child.”

  “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” The color in his sun-reddened face deepened angrily. Tory’s eyes remained calm and direct.

  “I’m well aware that you’ve beaten the boy before,” she said coolly. “There are very strict laws to protect a child against this kind of treatment. If they’re unknown to you, you might want to consult an attorney.”

  “I don’t need no damn lawyer,” he began, gesturing at Tory with the hammer as his voice rose.

  “You will if you point that thing at me again,” she told him quietly. “Attempted assault on a peace officer is a very serious crime.”

  Swanson looked down at the hammer, then dropped it disgustedly to the ground. “I don’t assault women,” he muttered.

  “Just children?”

  He sent her a furious glance from eyes that watered against the sun. “I got a right to discipline my own. I got a ranch to run here.” A gesture with his muscular arm took in his pitiful plot of land. “Every time I turn around, that boy’s off somewheres.”

  “Your reasons don’t concern me. The results do.”

  With rage burning on his face, he took a step toward her. Tory held her ground. “You just get back in your car and get out. I don’t need nobody coming out here telling me how to raise my boy.”

  Tory kept her eyes on his, although she was well aware his hands had clenched into fists. “I can start proceedings to make Tod a ward of the court.”

  “You can’t take my boy from me.”

  Tory lifted a brow. “Can’t I?”

  “I got rights,” he blustered.

  “So does Tod.”

  He swallowed, then turned back to pick up his hammer and nails. “You ain’t taking my boy.”

  Something in his eyes before he had turned made Tory pause. Justice, she reminded herself, was individual. “He wouldn’t want me to,” she said in a quieter tone. “He told me you were a good man and asked me not to put you in jail. You bruise his face, but he doesn’t stop loving you.”

  She watched Swanson’s back muscles tighten. Abruptly he flung the hammer and the can away. Nails scattered in the wild grass. “I didn’t mean to hit him like that,” he said with a wrench in his voice that kept Tory silent. “Damn boy should’ve fixed this fence like I told him.” He ran his hands over his face. “I didn’t mean to hit him like that. Look at this place,” he muttered, gripping the top rail of the fence. “Takes every minute just to keep it up and scrape by, never amount to anything. But it’s all I got. All I hear from Tod is how he wants to go off to school, how he wants this and that, just like—”

  “His brother?” Tory ventured.

  Swanson turned his head slowly, and his face was set. “I ain’t going to talk about that.”

  “Mr. Swanson, I know something about what it takes to keep up a place like this. But your frustrations and your anger are no excuse for misusing your boy.”

  He turned away again, the muscles in his jaw tightening. “He’s gotta learn.”

  “And your way of teaching him is to use your fists?”

  “I tell you I didn’t mean to hit him.” Furious, he whirled back to her. “I don’t mean to take a fist to him the way my father done to me. I know it ain’t right, but when he pushes me—” He broke off again, angry with himself for telling his business to an outsider. “I ain’t going to hit him anymore,” he muttered.

  “But you’ve told yourself that before, haven’t you?” Tory countered. “And meant it, I’m sure.” She took a deep breath, as he only stared at her. “Mr. Swanson, you’re not the only parent who has a problem with control. There are groups and organizations designed to help you and your family.”

  “I’m not talking to any psychiatrists and do-gooders.”


  “There are ordinary people, exactly like yourself, who talk and help each other.”

  “I ain’t telling strangers my business. I can handle my own.”

  “No, Mr. Swanson, you can’t.” For a moment Tory wished helplessly that there was an easy answer. “You don’t have too many choices. You can drive Tod away, like you did your first boy.” Tory stood firm as he whirled like a bull. “Or,” she continued calmly, “you can seek help, the kind of help that will justify your son’s love for you. Perhaps your first decision is what comes first, your pride or your boy.”

  Swanson stared out over the empty corral. “It would kill his mother if he took off too.”

  “I have a number you can call, Mr. Swanson. Someone who’ll talk to you, who’ll listen. I’ll give it to Tod.”

  His only acknowledgment was a shrug. She waited a moment, praying her judgment was right. “I don’t like ultimatums,” she continued. “But I’ll expect to see Tod daily. If he doesn’t come to town, I’ll come here. Mr. Swanson, if there’s a mark on that boy, I’ll slap a warrant on you and take Tod into custody.”

  He twisted his head to look at her again. Slowly, measuringly, he nodded. “You’ve got a lot of your father in you, Sheriff.”

  Automatically Tory’s hand rose to her badge. She smiled for the first time. “Thanks.” Turning, she walked away. Not until she was out of sight did she allow herself the luxury of wiping her sweaty palms on the thighs of her jeans.

  Chapter 9

  Tory was stopped at the edge of town by a barricade. Killing the engine, she stepped out of the car as one of Phil’s security men approached her.

  “Sorry, Sheriff, you can’t use the main street. They’re filming.”

  With a shrug Tory leaned back on the hood of her car. “It’s all right. I’ll wait.”

  The anger that had driven her out to the Swanson ranch was gone. Now Tory appreciated the time to rest and think. From her vantage point she could see the film crew and the townspeople who were making their debut as extras. She watched Hollister walk across the street in back of two actors exchanging lines in the scene. It made Tory smile, thinking how Hollister would brag about this moment of glory for years to come. There were a dozen people she knew, milling on the streets or waiting for their opportunity to mill. Phil cut the filming, running through take after take. Even with the distance Tory could sense he was frustrated. She frowned, wondering if their next encounter would turn into a battle. She couldn’t back down, knowing that she had done the right thing—essentially the only thing.

  Their time together was to be very brief, she mused. She didn’t want it plagued by arguments and tension. But until he accepted the demands and responsibilities of her job, tension was inevitable. It had already become very important to Tory that the weeks ahead be unmarred. Perhaps, she admitted thoughtfully, too important. It was becoming more difficult for her to be perfectly logical when she thought of Phil. And since the night before, the future had become blurred and distant. There seemed to be only the overwhelming present.

  She couldn’t afford that, Tory reminded herself. That wasn’t what either one of them had bargained for. She shifted her shoulders as her shirt grew hot and damp against her back. There was the summer, and just the summer, before they both went their separate ways. It was, of course, what each of them wanted.

  “Sheriff . . . ah, Sheriff Ashton?”

  Disoriented, Tory shook her head and stared at the man beside her. “What—? Yes?”

  The security guard held out a chilled can of soda. “Thought you could use this.”

  “Oh, yeah, thanks.” She pulled the tab, letting the air out in a hiss. “Do you think they’ll be much longer?”

  “Nah.” He lifted his own can to drink half of it down without a breath. “They’ve been working on this one scene over an hour now.”

  Gratefully, Tory let the icy drink slide down her dry throat. “Tell me, Mr.—”

  “Benson, Chuck Benson, ma’am.”

  “Mr. Benson,” Tory continued, giving him an easy smile. “Have you had any trouble with any of the townspeople?”

  “Nothing to speak of,” he said as he settled beside her against the hood. “Couple of kids—those twins.”

  “Oh, yes,” Tory murmured knowingly.

  “Only tried to con me into letting them on the crane.” He gave an indulgent laugh, rubbing the cold can over his forehead to cool it. “I’ve got a couple teenagers of my own,” he explained.

  “I’m sure you handled them, Mr. Benson.” Tory flashed him a dashing smile that lifted his blood pressure a few degrees. “Still, I’d appreciate hearing about it if anyone in town gets out of line—particularly the Kramer twins.”

  Benson chuckled. “I guess those two keep you busy.”

  “Sometimes they’re a full-time job all by themselves.” Tory rested a foot on the bumper and settled herself more comfortably. “So tell me, how old are your kids?”

  ***

  By the time Phil had finished shooting the scene, he’d had his fill of amateurs for the day. He’d managed, with a good deal of self-control, to hold on to his patience and speak to each one of his extras before he dismissed them. He wanted to shoot one more scene before they wrapped up for the day, so he issued instructions immediately. It would take an hour to set up, and with luck they’d have the film in the can before they lost the light.

  The beeper at his hip sounded, distracting him. Impatiently, Phil drew out the walkie-talkie. “Yeah, Kincaid.”

  “Benson. I’ve got the sheriff here. All right to let her through now?”

  Automatically, Phil looked toward the edge of town. He spotted Tory leaning lazily against the hood, drinking from a can. He felt twin surges of relief and annoyance. “Let her in,” he ordered briefly, then shoved the radio back in place. Now that he knew she was perfectly safe, Phil had a perverse desire to strangle her. He waited until she had parked in front of the sheriff’s office and walked up the street to meet her. Before he was halfway there, Tod burst out of the door.

  “Sheriff!” He teetered at the edge of the sidewalk, as if unsure of whether to advance any farther.

  Tory stepped up and ran a fingertip down the bruise on his cheek. “Everything’s fine, Tod.”

  “You didn’t . . .” He moistened his lips. “You didn’t arrest him?”

  She rested her arms on his shoulders. “No.” Tory felt his shuddering sigh.

  “He didn’t get mad at you or . . .” He trailed off again and looked at her helplessly.

  “No, we just talked. He knows he’s wrong to hurt you, Tod. He wants to stop.”

  “I was scared when you went, but Mr. Kincaid said you knew what you were doing and that everything would be all right.”

  “Did he?” Tory turned her head as Phil stepped beside her. The look held a long and not quite comfortable moment. “Well, he was right.” Turning back to Tod, she gave his shoulders a quick squeeze. “Come inside a minute. There’s a number I want you to give to your father. Want a cup of coffee, Kincaid?”

  “All right.”

  Together, they walked into Tory’s office. She went directly to her desk, pulling out a smart leather-bound address book that looked absurdly out of place. After flipping through it, she wrote a name and phone number on a pad, then ripped off the sheet. “This number is for your whole family,” she said as she handed Tod the paper. “Go home and talk to your father, Tod. He needs to understand that you love him.”

  He folded the sheet before slipping it into his back pocket. Shifting from foot to foot, he stared down at the cluttered surface of her desk. “Thanks. Ah . . . I’m sorry about the things I said before.” Coloring a bit, he glanced at Phil. “You know,” he murmured, lowering his gaze to the desk again.

  “Don’t be sorry, Tod.” She laid a hand over his until he met her eyes. “Okay?” she said, and smiled.

  “Yeah, okay.” He blushed again, but drew up his courage. Giving Tory a swift kiss on the cheek, he darted for the door.<
br />
  With a low laugh she touched the spot where his lips had brushed. “I swear,” she murmured, “if he were fifteen years older . . .” Phil grabbed both her arms.

  “Are you really all right?”

  “Don’t I look all right?” she countered.

  “Damn it, Tory!”

  “Phil.” Taking his face in her hands, she gave him a hard, brief kiss. “You had no reason to worry. Didn’t you tell Tod that I knew what I was doing?”

  “The kid was terrified.” And so was I, he thought as he pulled her into his arms. “What happened out there?” he demanded.

  “We talked,” Tory said simply. “He’s a very troubled man. I wanted to hate him and couldn’t. I’m counting on him calling that number.”

 
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