The law is a lady, p.1
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       The Law is a Lady, p.1

          
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  To all the experts at R&R Lighting Company

  Chapter 1

  Merle T. Johnson sat on the ripped vinyl seat of a stool in Annie’s Cafe, five miles north of Friendly. He lingered over a lukewarm root beer, half listening to the scratchy country number piping out from Annie’s portable radio. “A woman was born to be hurt” was the lament of Nashville’s latest hopeful. Merle didn’t know enough about women to disagree.

  He was on his way back to Friendly after checking out a complaint on one of the neighboring ranches. Sheep-stealing, he thought as he chugged down more root beer. Might’ve been exciting if there’d been anything to it. Potts was getting too old to know how many sheep he had in the first place. Sheriff knew there was nothing to it, Merle thought glumly. Sitting in the dingy little cafe with the smell of fried hamburgers and onions clinging to the air, Merle bemoaned the injustice of it.

  There was nothing more exciting in Friendly, New Mexico, than hauling in old Silas when he got drunk and disorderly on Saturday nights. Merle T. Johnson had been born too late. If it had been the 1880s instead of the 1980s, he’d have had a chance to face desperados, ride in a posse, face off a gunslinger—the things deputies were supposed to do. And here he was, he told himself fatalistically, nearly twenty-four years old, and the biggest arrest he had made was pulling in the Kramer twins for busting up the local pool hall.

  Merle scratched his upper lip where he was trying, without much success, to grow a respectable mustache. The best part of his life was behind him, he decided, and he’d never be more than a deputy in a forgotten little town, chasing imaginary sheep thieves.

  If just once somebody’d rob the bank. He dreamed over this a minute, picturing himself in a high-speed chase and shoot-out. That would be something, yessiree. He’d have his picture in the paper, maybe a flesh wound in the shoulder. The idea became more appealing. He could wear a sling for a few days. Now, if the sheriff would only let him carry a gun . . .

  “Merle T., you gonna pay for that drink or sit there dreaming all day?”

  Merle snapped back to reality and got hastily to his feet. Annie stood watching him with her hands on her ample hips. She had small, dark eyes, florid skin and an amazing thatch of strawberry-colored hair. Merle was never at his best with women.

  “Gotta get back,” he muttered, fumbling for his wallet. “Sheriff needs my report.”

  Annie gave a quick snort and held out her hand, damp palm up. After she snatched the crumpled bill, Merle headed out without asking for his change.

  The sun was blinding and brilliant. Merle automatically narrowed his eyes against it. It bounced off the road surface in waves that shimmered almost like liquid. But the day was hot and dusty. On both sides of the ribbon of road stretched nothing but rock and sand and a few tough patches of grass. There was no cloud to break the strong, hard blue of the sky or filter the streaming white light of the sun. He pulled the rim of his hat down over his brow as he headed for his car, wishing he’d had the nerve to ask Annie for his change. His shirt was damp and sticky before he reached for the door handle.

  Merle saw the sun radiate off the windshield and chrome of an oncoming car. It was still a mile away, he judged idly as he watched it tool up the long, straight road. He continued to watch its progress with absentminded interest, digging in his pocket for his keys. As it drew closer his hand remained in his pocket. His eyes grew wide.

  That’s some car, he thought in stunned admiration.

  One of the fancy foreign jobs, all red and flashy. It whizzed by without pausing, and Merle’s head whipped around to stare after it. Oo-wee, he thought with a grin. Some car. Must have been doing seventy easy. Probably has one of those fancy dashboards with—Seventy!

  Springing into his car, Merle managed to get the keys out of his pocket and into the ignition. He flipped on his siren and peeled out, spitting gravel and smoking rubber. He was in heaven.

  ***

  Phil had been driving more than eighty miles nonstop. During the early part of the journey, he’d held an involved conversation on the car phone with his producer in L.A. He was annoyed and tired. The dust-colored scenery and endless flat road only annoyed him further. Thus far, the trip had been a total waste. He’d checked out five different towns in southwest New Mexico, and none of them had suited his needs. If his luck didn’t change, they were going to have to use a set after all. It wasn’t his style. When Phillip Kincaid directed a film, he was a stickler for authenticity. Now he was looking for a tough, dusty little town that showed wear around the edges. He wanted peeling paint and some grime. He was looking for the kind of place everyone planned to leave and no one much wanted to come back to.

  Phil had spent three long hot days looking, and nothing had satisfied him. True, he’d found a couple of sand-colored towns, a little faded, a little worse for wear, but they hadn’t had the right feel. As a director—a highly successful director of American films—Phillip Kincaid relied on gut reaction before he settled down to refining angles. He needed a town that gave him a kick in the stomach. And he was running short on time.

  Already Huffman, the producer, was getting antsy, pushing to start the studio scenes. Phil was cursing himself again for not producing the film himself when he cruised by Annie’s Cafe. He had stalled Huffman for another week, but if he didn’t find the right town to represent New Chance, he would have to trust his location manager to find it. Phil scowled down the endless stretch of road. He didn’t trust details to anyone but himself. That, and his undeniable talent, were the reasons for his success at the age of thirty-four. He was tough, critical, and volatile, but he treated each of his films as though it were a child requiring endless care and patience. He wasn’t always so understanding with his actors.

  He heard the wail of the siren with mild curiosity. Glancing in the mirror, Phil saw a dirty, dented police car that might have been white at one time. It was bearing down on him enthusiastically. Phil swore, gave momentary consideration to hitting the gas and leaving the annoyance with his dust, then resignedly pulled over. The blast of heat that greeted him when he let down the window did nothing to improve his mood. Filthy place, he thought, cutting the engine. Grimy dust hole. He wished for his own lagoonlike pool and a long, cold drink.

  Elated, Merle climbed out of his car, ticket book in hand. Yessiree, he thought again, this was some machine. About the fanciest piece he’d seen outside the TV. Mercedes, he noted, turning the sound of it over in his mind. French, he decided with admiration. Holy cow, he’d stopped himself a French car not two miles out of town. He’d have a story to tell over a beer that night.

  The driver disappointed him a bit at first. He didn’t look foreign or even rich. Merle’s glance passed ignorantly over the gold Swiss watch to take in the T-shirt and jeans. Must be one of those eccentrics, he concluded. Or maybe the car was stolen. Merle’s blood began to pound excitedly. He looked at the man’s face.

  It was lean and faintly aristocratic, with well-defined bones and a long, straight nose. The mouth was unsmiling, even bored. He was clean-shaven with the suggestion of creases in his cheeks. His hair seemed a modest brown; it was a bit long and curled over his ears. In the tanned face the eyes were an arresting clear water-blue. They were both bored and annoyed and, if Merle had been able to latch on the word, aloof. He wasn’t Merle’s image of a desperate foreign-car thief.

  “Yes?”

  The single frosty syllable brought Merle back to business. “In a hurry?” he asked, adopting what the sheriff would have called his tough-cop stance.

  “Yes.”

  The answer made Merle shift his feet. “License and registration,” he said briskly, then leaned closer to the window as Phil reached in the glove compartment. “Glory be, look at the dash! It’s got everything and then some. A phone, a phone right there in the car. Those French guys are something.”

  Phil sent him a mild glance. “German,” he corrected, handing Merle the registration.

  “German?” Merle frowned doubtfully. “You sure?”

  “Yes.” Slipping his license out of his wallet, Phil passed it through the open window. The heat was pouring in.

  Merle accepted the registration. He was downright sure Mercedes was a French name. “This your car?” he asked suspiciously.

  “As you can see by the name on the registration,” Phil returned coolly, a sure sign that his temper was frayed around the edges.

  Merle was reading the registration at his usual plodding speed. “You streaked by Annie’s like a bat out of—” He broke off, remembering that the sheriff didn’t hold with swearing on the job. “I stopped you for excessive speed. Clocked you at seventy-two. I bet this baby rides so smooth you never noticed.”

  “As a matter of fact, I didn’t.” Perhaps if he hadn’t been angry to begin with, perhaps if the heat hadn’t been rolling unmercifully into the car, Phil might have played his hand differently. As Merle began to write up the ticket, Phil narrowed his eyes. “Just how do I know you clocked me at all?”

  “I was just coming out of Annie’s when you breezed by,” Merle said genially. His forehead creased as he formed the letters. “If I’d waited for my change, I wouldn’t have seen you.” He grinned, pleased with the hand of fate. “You just sign this,” he said as he ripped the ticket from the pad. “You can stop off in town and pay the fine.”

  Slowly, Phil climbed out of the car. When the sun hit his hair, deep streaks of red shot through it. Merle was reminded of his mother’s mahogany server. For a moment they stood eye to eye, both tall men. But one was lanky and tended to slouch, the other lean, muscular, and erect.

  “No,” Phil said flatly.

  “No?” Merle blinked against the direct blue gaze. “No what?”

  “No, I’m not signing it.”

  “Not signing?” Merle looked down at the ticket still in his hand. “But you have to.”

  “No, I don’t.” Phil felt a trickle of sweat roll down his back. Inexplicably it infuriated him. “I’m not signing, and I’m not paying a penny to some two-bit judge who’s feeding his bank account from this speed trap.”

  “Speed trap!” Merle was more astonished than insulted. “Mister, you were doing better’n seventy, and the road’s marked clear—fifty-five. Everybody knows you can’t do more than fifty-five.”

  “Who says I was?”

  “I clocked you.”

  “Your word against mine,” Phil returned coolly. “Got a witness?”

  Merle’s mouth fell open. “Well, no, but . . .” He pushed back his hat. “Look, I don’t need no witness, I’m the deputy. Just sign the ticket.”

  It was pure perversity. Phil hadn’t the least idea how fast he’d been going and didn’t particularly care. The road had been long and deserted; his mind had been in L.A. But knowing this wasn’t going to make him take the cracked ballpoint the deputy offered him.

  “No.”

  “Look, mister, I already wrote up the ticket.” Merle read refusal in Phil’s face and set his chin. After all, he was the law. “Then I’m going to have to take you in,” he said dangerously. “The sheriff’s not going to like it.”

  Phil gave him a quick smirk and held out his hands, wrists close. Merle stared at them a moment, then looked helplessly from car to car. Beneath the anger, Phil felt a stir of sympathy.

  “You’ll have to follow me in,” Merle told him as he pocketed Phil’s license.

  “And if I refuse?”

  Merle wasn’t a complete fool. “Well, then,” he said amiably, “I’ll have to take you in and leave this fancy car sitting here. It might be all in one piece when the tow truck gets here. Then again . . .”

  Phil acknowledged the point with a slight nod, then climbed back into his car. Merle sauntered to his, thinking how fine he was going to look bringing in that fancy red machine.

  They drove into Friendly at a sedate pace. Merle nodded occasionally to people who stopped their business to eye the small procession. He stuck his hand out the window to signal a halt, then braked in front of the sheriff’s office.

  “Okay, inside.” Abruptly official, Merle stood straight. “The sheriff’ll want to talk to you.” But the icy gleam in the man’s eye kept Merle from taking his arm. Instead he opened the door and waited for his prisoner to walk through.

  Phil glimpsed a small room with two cells, a bulletin board, a couple of spindly chairs, and a battered desk. An overhead fan churned the steamy air and whined. On the floor lay a large mound of mud-colored fur that turned out to be a dog. The desk was covered with books and papers and two half-filled cups of coffee. A dark-haired woman bent over all this, scratching industriously on a yellow legal pad. She glanced up as they entered.

  Phil forgot his annoyance long enough to cast her in three different films. Her face was classically oval, with a hint of cheekbone under honey-toned skin. Her nose was small and delicate, her mouth just short of wide, with a fullness that was instantly sensual. Her hair was black, left to fall loosely past her shoulders in carelessly sweeping waves. Her brows arched in question. Beneath them her eyes were thickly lashed, darkly green, and faintly amused.

  “Merle?”

  The single syllable was full-throated, as lazy and sexy as black silk. Phil knew actresses who would kill for a voice like that one. If she didn’t stiffen up in front of a camera, he thought, and if the rest of her went with the face . . . He let his eyes sweep down. Pinned to her left breast was a small tin badge. Fascinated, Phil stared at it.

  “Excess of speed on Seventeen, Sheriff.”

  “Oh?” With a slight smile on her face, she waited for Phil’s eyes to come back to hers. She had recognized the appraisal when he had first walked in, just as she recognized the suspicion now. “Didn’t you have a pen, Merle?”

  “A pen?” Baffled, he checked his pockets.

  “I wouldn’t sign the ticket.” Phil walked to the desk to get a closer look at her face. “Sheriff,” he added. She could be shot from any imaginable angle, he concluded, and still look wonderful. He wanted to hear her speak again.

  She met his assessing stare straight on. “I see. What was his speed, Merle?”

  “Seventy-two. Tory, you should see his car!” Merle exclaimed, forgetting himself.

  “I imagine I will,” she murmured. She held out her hand, her eyes still on Phil’s. Quickly, Merle gave her the paperwork.

  Phil noted that her hands were long, narrow, and elegant. The tips were painted in shell-pink. What the hell is she doing here? he wondered, more easily visualizing her in Beverly Hills.

  “Well, everything seems to be in order, Mr. . . . Kincaid.” Her eyes came back to his. A little mascara, he noticed, a touch of eyeliner. The color’s hers. No powder, no lipstick. He wished fleetingly for a camera and a couple of hand-held lights. “The fine’s forty dollars,” she said lazily. “Cash.”

  “I’m not paying it.”

  Her lips pursed briefly, causing him to speculate on their taste. “Or forty days,” she said without batting an eye. “I think you’d find it less . . . inconvenient to pay the fine. Our accommodations won’t suit you.”

  The cool amusement in her tone irritated him. “I’m not paying any fine.” Placing his palms on the desk, he leaned toward her, catching the faint drift of a subtle, sophisticated scent. “Do you really expect me to believe you’re the sheriff? What kind of scam are you and this character running?”

  Merle opened his mouth to speak, glanced at Tory, then shut it again. She rose slowly. Phil found himself surprised that she was tall and as lean as a whippet. A model’s body, he thought, long and willowy—the kind that made you wonder what was underneath those clothes. This one made jeans and a plaid shirt look like a million dollars.

  “I never argue with beliefs, Mr. Kincaid. You’ll have to empty your pockets.”

  “I will not,” he began furiously.

  “Resisting arrest.” Tory lifted a brow. “We’ll have to make it sixty days.” Phil said something quick and rude. Instead of being offended, Tory smiled. “Lock him up, Merle.”

  “Now, just a damn minute—”

  “You don’t want to make her mad,” Merle whispered, urging Phil back toward the cells. “She can be mean as a cat.”

  “Unless you want us to tow your car . . . and charge you for that as well,” she added, “you’ll give Merle your keys.” She flicked her eyes over his furious face. “Read him his rights, Merle.”

  “I know my rights, damn it.” Contemptuously he shrugged off Merle’s hand. “I want to make a phone call.”

  “Of course.” Tory sent him another charming smile. “As soon as you give Merle your keys.”

  “Now, look”—Phil glanced down at her badge again—“Sheriff,” he added curtly. “You don’t expect me to fall for an old game. This one”—he jerked a thumb at Merle—“waits for an out-of-towner to come by, then tries to hustle him out of a quick forty bucks. There’s a law against speed traps.”

  Tory listened with apparent interest. “Are you going to sign the ticket, Mr. Kincaid?”

  Phil narrowed his eyes. “No.”

  “Then you’ll be our guest for a while.”

  “You can’t sentence me,” Phil began heatedly. “A judge—”

  “Justice of the peace,” Tory interrupted, then tapped a tinted nail against a small framed certificate. Phil saw the name Victoria L. Ashton.

 
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