The law is a lady, p.19
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       The Law is a Lady, p.19

           Nora Roberts
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  “Don’t try that on me,” Sam warned, nursing his lower lip. “She packs a hell of a punch.” He gave her a rueful glance. “Ever heard about pulling right before you make contact?” he asked. “Showbiz, you know.”

  “I got carried away.”

  “I nearly slugged you.”

  “I know.” Laughing, she pushed her hair back with both hands.

  “Okay, let’s take it from there.” Phil moved back to the cameraman. “Places.”

  “Can’t we take it from right before the punch?” Marlie asked with a grin for Sam. “It would sort of give me a roll into the rest of the scene.”

  “Stand-in!” Sam called.

  * * *

  In her office Tory read over with care a long, detailed letter from an opposing attorney. The tone was very clear through the legal terms and flowery style. The case was going through litigation, she thought with a frown. It might take two months or more, she mused, but this suit wasn’t going to be settled out of court. Though normally she would have wanted to come to terms without a trial, she began to feel a tiny flutter of excitement. She’d been away from her own work for too long. She would be back in Albuquerque in a month. Tory discovered she wanted—needed—something complicated and time-consuming on her return.

  Adjustments, she decided as she tried to concentrate on the words in the letter. There were going to be adjustments to be made when she left Friendly this time. When she left Phil. No, she corrected, catching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. He was leaving first—tomorrow, the day after. It was uncomfortably easy to see the hole that was already taking shape in her life. Tory reminded herself that she wasn’t allowed to think of it. The rules had been made plain at the outset—by both of them. If things had begun to change for her, she simply had to backpedal a bit and reaffirm her priorities. Her work, her career, her life. At that moment the singular possessive pronoun never sounded more empty. Shaking her head, Tory began to read the letter from the beginning a second time.

  Merle paced the office, casting quick glances at Tory from time to time. He’d made arrangements for Marlie to meet him there after her work was finished. What he hadn’t expected was for Tory to be glued to her desk all evening. No expert with subtleties, Merle had no idea how to move his boss along and have the office to himself. He peeked out the window, noting that the floodlights up the street were being shut off. Shuffling his feet and clearing his throat, he turned back to Tory.

  “Guess you must be getting tired,” he ventured.

  “Hmmm.”

  “Things are pretty quiet tonight,” he tried again, fussing with the buttons on his shirt.

  “Um-hmm.” Tory began to make notations on her yellow pad.

  Merle lifted his eyes to the ceiling. Maybe the direct approach would do it, he decided. “Why don’t you knock off and go home.”

  Tory continued to write. “Trying to get rid of me, Merle T.?”

  “Well, no, ah . . .” He looked down at the dusty tips of his shoes. Women never got any easier to handle.

  “Got a date?” she asked mildly as she continued to draft out her answer to the letter.

  “Sort of . . . well, yeah,” he said with more confidence.

  “Go ahead, then.”

  “But—” He broke off, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

  Tory looked up and studied him. The mustache, she noted, had grown in respectability. It wasn’t exactly a prizewinner, but it added maturity to a face she’d always thought resembled a teddy bear’s. He still slouched, and even as she studied him, color seeped into his cheeks. But he didn’t look away as he once would have done. His eyes stayed on hers so that she could easily read both frustration and embarrassment. The old affection stirred in her.

  “Marlie?” she asked gently.

  “Yeah.” He straightened his shoulders a bit.

  “How are you going to feel when she leaves?”

  With a shrug Merle glanced toward the window again. “I guess I’ll miss her. She’s a terrific lady.”

  The tone caused Tory to give his profile a puzzled look. There was no misery in it, just casual acceptance. With a light laugh she stared back at her notes. Odd, she thought, it seemed their reactions had gotten reversed somewhere along the line. “You don’t have to stay, Merle,” she said lightly. “If you’d planned to have a late supper or—”

  “We did,” he interrupted. “Here.”

  Tory looked up again. “Oh, I see.” She couldn’t quite control the smile. “Looks like I’m in the way.”

  Uncomfortable, he shuffled again. “Aw, Tory.”

  “It’s okay.” Rising, she exaggerated her accommodating tone. “I know when I’m not wanted. I’ll just go back to my room and work on this all by myself.”

  Merle struggled with loyalty and selfishness while Tory gathered her papers. “You could have supper with us,” he suggested gallantly.

  Letting the papers drop, Tory skirted the desk. With her hands on his shoulders, she kissed both of his cheeks. “Merle T.,” she said softly, “you’re a jewel.”

  Pleased, he grinned as the door opened behind them. “Just like I told you, Phil,” Marlie stated as they entered. “Beautiful women can’t keep away from him. You’ll have to stand in line, Sheriff,” she continued, walking over to hook her arm through Merle’s. “I’ve got first dibs tonight.”

  “Why don’t I get her out of your way?” Phil suggested. “It’s the least I can do after that last scene.”

  “The man is totally unselfish,” Marlie confided to Tory. “No sacrifice is too great for his people.”

  With a snort Tory turned back to her desk. “I might let him buy me a drink,” she considered while slipping her papers into a small leather case. When he sat on the corner of her desk, she cast him a look. “And dinner,” she added.

  “I might be able to come up with some cold cuts,” he murmured.

  Tory’s low, appreciative laugh was interrupted by the phone. “Sheriff’s office.” Her sigh was automatic as she listened to the excited voice on the other end. “Yes, Mr. Potts.” Merle groaned, but she ignored him. “I see. What kind of noise?” Tory waited while the old man jabbered in her ear. “Are your doors and windows locked? No, Mr. Potts, I don’t want you going outside with your shotgun. Yes, I realize a man has to protect his property.” A sarcastic sound from Merle earned him a mild glare. “Let me handle it. I’ll be there in ten minutes. No, I’ll be quiet, just sit tight.”

  “Sheep thieves,” Merle muttered as Tory hung up.

  “Burglars,” she corrected, opening the top drawer of her desk.

  “Just what do you think you’re going to do with that?” Phil demanded as he saw Tory pull out the gun.

  “Absolutely nothing, I hope.” Coolly she began to load it.

  “Then why are you—? Wait a minute,” he interrupted himself, rising. “Do you mean that damn thing wasn’t loaded?”

  “Of course not.” Tory slipped in the last bullet. “Nobody with sense keeps a loaded gun in an unlocked drawer.”

  “You got me into that cell with an empty gun?”

  She sent him a lazy smile as she strapped on a holster. “You were so cute, Kincaid.”

  Ignoring amusement, he took a step toward her. “What would you have done if I hadn’t backed down?”

  “The odds were in my favor,” she reminded him. “But I’d have thought of something. Merle, keep an eye on things until I get back.”

  “Wasting your time.”

  “Just part of the job.”

  “If you’re wasting your time,” Phil began as he stopped her at the door, “why are you taking that gun?”

  “It looks so impressive,” Tory told him as she walked outside.

  “Tory, you’re not going out to some sheep ranch with a gun at your hip like some modern-day Belle Starr.”

  “She was on the wrong side,” she reminded him.

  “Tory, I mean it!” Infuriated, Phil stepped in front of the car to block her
way.

  “Look, I said I’d be there in ten minutes. I’m going to have to drive like a maniac as it is.”

  He didn’t budge. “What if there is someone out there?”

  “That’s exactly why I’m going.”

  When she reached for the door handle, he put his hand firmly over hers. “I’m going with you.”

  “Phil, I don’t have time.”

  “I’m going.”

  Narrowing her eyes, she studied his face. There was no arguing with that expression, she concluded. “Okay, you’re temporarily deputized. Get in and do what you’re told.”

  Phil lifted a brow at her tone. The thought of her going out to some secluded ranch with only a gun for company had him swallowing his pride. He slid across to the passenger seat. “Don’t I get a badge?” he asked as Tory started the engine.

  “Use your imagination,” she advised.

  Tory’s speed was sedate until they reached the town limits. Once the buildings were left behind, Phil watched the climbing speedometer with growing trepidation. Her hands were relaxed and competent on the wheel. The open window caused her hair to fly wildly, but her expression was calm.

  She doesn’t think there’s anything to this, he decided as he watched the scenery whiz by. But if she did, his thoughts continued, she’d be doing exactly the same thing. The knowledge gave him a small thrill of fear. The neat black holster at her side hid an ugly, very real weapon. She had no business chasing burglars or carrying guns. She had no business taking the remotest chance with her own well-being. He cursed the phone call that had made it all too clear just how potentially dangerous her position in Friendly was. It had been simpler to think of her as a kind of figurehead, a referee for small-town squabbles. The late-night call and the gun changed everything.

  “What will you do if you have to use that thing?” he demanded suddenly.

  Without turning, Tory knew where his thoughts centered. “I’ll deal with that when the time comes.”

  “When’s your term up here?”

  Tory took her eyes from the road for a brief two seconds. Phil was looking straight ahead. “Three weeks.”

  “You’re better off in Albuquerque,” he muttered. Safer was the word heard but not said. Tory recalled the time a client had nearly strangled her in his cell before the guards had pulled him off. She decided it was best unmentioned. Hardly slackening the car’s speed, she took a right turn onto a narrow, rut-filled dirt road. Phil swore as the jolting threw him against the door.

  “You should have strapped in,” she told him carelessly.

  His response was rude and brief.

  The tiny ranch house had every light blazing. Tory pulled up in front of it with a quick squeal of brakes.

  “Think you missed any?” Phil asked her mildly as he rubbed the shoulder that had collided with the door.

  “I’ll catch them on the way back.” Before he could retort, Tory was out of the car and striding up the porch steps. She knocked briskly, calling out to identify herself. When Phil joined her on the porch, the door opened a crack. “Mr. Potts,” she began.

  “Who’s he?” the old man demanded through the crack in the door.

  “New deputy,” Tory said glibly. “We’ll check the grounds and the outside of the house now.”

  Potts opened the door a bit more, revealing an ancient, craggy face and a shiny black shotgun. “I heard them in the bushes.”

  “We’ll take care of it, Mr. Potts.” She put her hands on the butt of his gun. “Why don’t you let me have this for now?”

  Unwilling, Potts held firm. “I gotta have protection.”

  “Yes, but they’re not in the house,” she reminded him gently. “I could really use this out here.”

  He hesitated, then slackened his grip. “Both barrels,” he told her, then slammed the door. Tory heard the triple locks click into place.

  “That is not your average jolly old man,” Phil commented.

  Tory took the two shells out of the shotgun. “Alone too long,” she said simply. “Let’s take a look around.”

  “Go get ’em, big guy.”

  Tory barely controlled a laugh. “Just keep out of the way, Kincaid.”

  Whether she considered it a false alarm or not, Phil noted that Tory was very thorough. With the empty shotgun in one hand and a flashlight in the other, she checked every door and window on the dilapidated ranch house. Watching her, he walked into a pile of empty paint cans, sending them clattering. When he swore, Tory turned her head to look at him.

  “You move like a cat, Kincaid,” she said admiringly.

  “The man’s got junk piled everywhere,” he retorted. “A burglar doesn’t have a chance.”

  Tory smothered a chuckle and moved on. They circled the house, making their way through Potts’s obstacle course of old car parts, warped lumber, and rusted tools. Satisfied that no one had attempted to break into the house for at least twenty-five years, Tory widened her circle to check the ground.

  “Waste of time,” Phil muttered, echoing Merle.

  “Then let’s waste it properly.” Tory shone her light on the uneven grass as they continued to walk. Resigned, Phil kept to her side. There were better ways, he was thinking, to spend a warm summer night. And the moon was full. Pure white, he observed as he gazed up at it. Cool and full and promising. He wanted to make love to her under it, in the still, hot air with nothing and no one around for miles. The desire came suddenly, intensely, washing over him with a wave of possession that left him baffled.

  “Tory,” he murmured, placing a hand on her shoulder.

  “Ssh!”

  The order was sharp. He felt her stiffen under his hand. Her eyes were trained on a dry, dying bush directly in front of them. Even as he opened his mouth to say something impatient, Phil saw the movement. His fingers tightened on Tory’s shoulder as he automatically stepped forward. The protective gesture was instinctive and so natural neither of them noticed it. He never thought: This is my woman, and I’ll do anything to keep her from harm; he simply reacted. With his body as a shield for hers, they watched the bush in silence.

  There was a slight sound, hardly a whisper on the air, but Tory felt the back of her neck prickle. The dry leaves of the bush cracked quietly with some movement. She reached in her pocket for the two shells, then reloaded the shotgun. The moonlight bounced off the oiled metal. Her hands were rock steady. Phil was poised, ready to lunge as Tory aimed the gun at the moon and fired both barrels. The sound split the silence like an axe.

  With a terrified bleat, the sheep that had been grazing lazily behind the bush scrambled for safety. Without a word Phil and Tory watched the dirty white blob run wildly into the night.

  “Another desperate criminal on the run from the law,” Tory said dryly.

  Phil burst into relieved laughter. He felt each separate muscle in his body relax. “I’d say ‘on the lamb.’”

  “I was hoping you wouldn’t.” Because the hand holding the gun was shaking, Tory lowered it to her side. She swallowed; her throat was dry. “Well, let’s go tell Potts his home and hearth are safe. Then we can go have that drink.”

  Phil laid his hands on her shoulders, looking down on her face in the moonlight. “Are you all right?”

  “Sure.”

  “You’re trembling.”

  “That’s you,” she countered, smiling at him.

  Phil slid his hand down to her wrist to feel the race of her pulse. “Scared the hell out of you,” he said softly.

  Tory’s eyes didn’t waver. “Yeah.” She was able to smile again, this time with more feeling. “How about you?”

  “Me too.” Laughing, he gave her a light kiss. “I’m not going to need that badge after all.” And I’m not going to feel safe, he added silently, until you take yours off for the last time.

  “Oh, I don’t know, Kincaid.” Tory led the way back with the beam of her flashlight. “First night on the job and you flushed out a sheep.”

  “Just give the crazy old
man his gun and let’s get out of here.”

  It took ten minutes of Tory’s diplomacy to convince Potts that everything was under control. Mollified more by the fact that Tory had used his gun than the information that his intruder was one of his own flock, he locked himself in again. After contacting Merle on the radio, she headed back to town at an easy speed.

  “I guess I could consider this a fitting climax to my sojourn to Friendly,” Phil commented. “Danger and excitement on the last night in town.”

  Tory’s fingers tightened on the wheel, but she managed to keep the speed steady. “You’re leaving tomorrow.”

 
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