Authors: Jennifer Blake
As she remained silent, exasperation crossed the sheriff's face. “Right, let me guess. You just don't know. You've no idea who might care enough about you to dig up a few hundred grand, or maybe more.”
“Sorryâ¦” The catch in her voice was real enough. It was possible no one cared that much.
“Sure you are,” the sheriff answered.
The weary defeat in his voice touched her as nothing had until that moment. She looked at him closely, seeing, finally, the exhaustion that grooved the lean, bronze planes of his face and the creases in his tailored uniform that made it appear he might have slept in it. Doc Watkins had said he'd been at the hospital all night, and it was now almost noon. Had he been near her all that time as she lay sleeping? And was a part of the warm blood that coursed through her veins really his? It made her feel odd to think so, and yet there was a tenuous sense of connection, almost an intimacy, about it.
In defense against useless compassion and obligation, she said, “I might be of more help to you if you hadn't put a hole through me.”
He let out his short, winded breath. The look he sent her was dark with anger and something more she couldn't define. Long seconds passed.
Abruptly, he threw up his hands. “All right,” he said in rasping self-blame. “I'm sorry I shot you, okay? I didn't know you were a woman. I didn't know you wouldn't use the weapon in your hand. I had no idea what I'd done until I saw you lying there with my bullet in you, looking battered and bruised and so roughed up that you might have been pulled through a brier thicket backward. And even then, you were soâ¦”
She stared at him as he stopped in midsentence and swung away from her. An apology was the last thing she'd expected. “Soâ¦what?” She asked, her voice husky.
He squared his shoulders, but didn't turn. “Nothing.”
She lifted her hand to touch the scrape on her cheek, then ran experimental fingertips along the bruise on the line
of her jaw. That damage, added to the knot on her forehead, blood loss, and long days in the back of the van without a bath or hairbrush probably had left her looking like warmed over death. But the simple truth was that it could have been worse. Much worse.
In brittle irony, she said, “You're forgiven. I think.”
This time she had surprised him, or so it seemed. The look he turned on her was assessing, as if he might be rearranging his thoughts. Finally, he said, “I don't make a habit of shooting females, but I didn't have time to check for sex clues and you held your weapon as if you knew what to do with it.”
“Maybe I do,” she said, “but that doesn't make me a crook. Anyway, I doubt I was thinking straight or I wouldn't have pointed it at you. All I had on my mind, to the best of my remembrance wasâgetting away.”
“You were still extremely lucky. I could have killed you, and might have if the light had been better or if you'd been moving even a fraction slower.”
There was no bravado in his words, only a statement of fact impressive in its simplicity. “Yes. I imagine so.”
“I'm glad I didn't.”
She studied the taut contours of his face and the tucked corners of his firm lips, and thought that she needed to adjust her thinking. For him to apologize and take responsibility for what he'd done was a huge concession. Was it out of his personal code? Or did it stem from some Southern gentleman mentality left over from the previous century and kept alive in this Louisiana backcountry?
Regardless, she needed to take advantage of his brief moment of remorse. She couldn't afford to ignore any possible advantage.
Swallowing her reluctance, she reached up to wipe moisture from the corner of her eye in a gesture she was sure
he couldn't miss. “I was just so glad to get away from those creeps,” she said, allowing her voice to turn husky. “I thought I was free. Then to be shot wasâwell, it was a shock.”
“I suppose it must have been.”
“But it was so dark, as you said. I really can't blame you for thinking I might be one of the criminals.”
His eyes narrowed a fraction. “I'm glad to hear it. Especially since there's something I need you to do for me.”
“Oh?” It was possible she had laid it on too thick.
“Nothing major. In fact, it shouldn't hurt a bit.” He tapped the molded black case he'd placed on the foot of the bed.
She glanced at the featureless box, then back up at him again. “I don't think I understand.”
He smiled with a slow curving of his lips that banished the sternness from his sun-bronzed features and lit his eyes with silver glints. “Sorry. I thought you might recognize the drill. It's your basic identification process. You know, fingerprints?”
'm not a criminal.” Tory curled her fingers into fists in a gesture of unconscious protection.
“People are printed for a lot of things that have nothing to do with crime,” Roan answered as he began to lay out his kit. “It's part of the drill for high-risk jobs, plus the state of Louisiana requires it for liquor licensees and people connected to legalized gambling. Men and women have it done as a safety measure, and we go into schools every year to print kids for the same reason.”
“None of which applies to me.”
She looked away. “I think so. Who knows?”
“Exactly. If we run your prints through the computer and come up with a match, we won't have to guess anymore. That makes it worth a try.”
He was so reasonable and so right. She hated that. In stiff tones, she said, “It's the principle of the thing. Besides, computers make mistakes.”
“You have nothing to worry about if you've lived a blameless life.”
“Right,” she drawled in imitation of his dry certainty. She was being manipulated and she knew it. It was possible
there was a reason. “Am I under arrest?” she demanded. “Is that what this is about?”
“I wouldn't say that.”
“And I suppose you didn't stay here all night to make sure I didn't escape, either?”
“Not much chance of that.” A smile creased his lean jaw.
He hadn't denied the charge. He'd just been doing his job then. “That's no answer,” she said sharply.
His smile faded. “You're listed as Donna Doe for the moment, and you're in my custody. You'll be charged, or not, depending on what we turn up in the investigation of your alleged kidnapping.”
Alleged. Nothing she'd said so far had made the least impression on the man beside her bed. The only way to prevent herself from becoming entangled in legal complications was to cooperate fully with him. Yet how could she?
For an instant, she let herself think of telling Roan Benedict everything for the pleasure of seeing his face when the phalanx of her designer-suited lawyers descended on this one-horse town with a veritable snow of writs and a private jet to whisk her away. But her fiancÃ© would be on hand as well, with bushel baskets of flowers and murderous intentions. She might be coddled and petted and her every whim instantly gratified, but she'd be terrified to fall asleep on the journey back to Florida for fear that somehow, some way, Harrell would see to it she never woke up again.
No, she couldn't risk that. Not yet.
There was another possibility. She could explain, then throw herself on Roan Benedict's mercy. But what if he had none?
No, she had been right before. She needed time to get on her feet here in Turn-Coupe under the security that the
sheriff provided. In a week or so, when she was more able to hold her own, she'd conveniently recover her memory. Surely she could put him off until then?
“So what's it to be?” he asked with strained patience. “My way or the hard way?”
She couldn't believe he'd risk reopening her wound by using force, but it was impossible to be sure. In any case, she had never been fingerprinted so no record of her identity should show up on computer. Her reluctance was instinctive rather than reasoned, something to do with the connection between fingerprints and Harrell's betrayal, she thought. It couldn't hurt anything, not really.
With a lift of her chin, she said, “Just get on with it.”
He nodded, and moved his kit closer. At least he had the tact to keep his triumph to himself.
When he reached for the wrist of her good hand, the heat of his touch startled her. She resisted for a second, then surrendered to his control as he covered the back of her hand with his own and isolated her forefinger.
“That's it,” he said quietly. “Don't try to help, just let me do it all.”
It seemed a good plan. His grasp was sure, but gentle, and he avoided the plastic tubing of her IV solutions. She was aware of his palm pressed to the thin skin across the backs of her knuckles. Where their wrists came together, she thought she could feel the steady throb of his pulse and wondered if he could feel hers.
He was so close as he tried for the proper angle to place her finger on the inking pad that his elbow brushed the curve of her breast under her hospital gown. She focused her gaze on the musculature of his arm with its crisp coating of golden hair, letting it slide across the shirt pulled taut across his back and up to where deep, sun-burnished
waves sculpted the back of his head and curled above his shirt collar.
She felt feverish, as if a flush were burning its way to her hairline. She shifted a little on the mattress, then dragged her gaze back down to where he was rolling her finger against the card that lay ready.
He turned his head to send her a quick glance. “You all right?”
“Iâ¦my head is beginning to hurt again.”
“I'll only be a minute.”
She didn't reply, but kept her gaze on what he was doing as he chose another finger and pressed it to the pad.
“Interesting that you remember the names you gave those two bozos with you when you can't think of your own,” he commented without emphasis.
“The brain is strange like that, I suppose.”
“Zits was one of them, wasn't It? I suppose for obvious reasons?”
She agreed. “The other had big ears like one of the little guys in
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
He did the driving, so I mostly saw the back of his head.”
It had been a protective measure, those names, she thought now, a way to make the pair seem less frightening. They'd been discussing what to do with her at the time, as though she wasn't a person to them but only a thing. Big Ears had wanted to buy a chain saw and cut her up the way he'd seen in some gruesome TV show. Zits, the brains of the two, had appeared to have other plans. Or other instructions.
“They never called each other by name?” Roan Benedict spoke over his shoulder, his manner offhand.
Tory hesitated. She didn't like the idea of those two getting off scot-free, even if it did protect her agenda. Finally,
she said, “I seem to remember Big Ears calling Zits âChris' once, but it's all a littleâ¦”
“Fuzzy. I know,” he supplied with heavy irony. “Zits would be the one with the build on him, while Big Ears was the tall dude, right?”
She gave him a taut glance, wondering if that was a leading question, then she remembered. “The security camera, I suppose?”
“Both men were on the tape. Your Zits character was beefed up, as if he might be a body builder on steroids. The acne could also be a sign.”
“You have a point.”
“Could be he makes a habit of shooting up during weight training. I can check with the Miami police, see if they'll take a photo around to area gyms.”
“A good idea.” The agreement was hollow.
“But it strikes me as odd that they'd let you get awayâstill supposing they kidnapped you. You were their meal ticket, their protection. The last thing they'd want would be to lose you.”
She gave him a tart look. “They didn't lose me. I found a way to grab the pistol and make a dive for it. Anyway, I think Zits meant to use me as a shield. That's why he ripped off the duct tape, so I could be upright and mobile when he faced you.”
“You remember all that?” Roan asked softly, and turned to pin her to the bed with his cool gray gaze.
She transferred her attention to her inked fingertips. “I told you the few minutes before I fell were fairly clear. I thinkâI'm almost sure I got this knot on my head while I was fighting with Zits. Maybe that has something to do with it.”
The sheriff's snort suggested he wasn't convinced. He turned back to his job, completing the printing of one hand
and cleaning her fingers with an alcohol saturated towelette, then beginning on the other. He was carefully rolling her ring finger over the card when he spoke again. “You have any idea where this Zits and Big Ears were headed?”
“Not really. Just away from Florida, I suppose.”
“You don't think they intended to wind up in Turn-Coupe?”
“I can't imagine why they would.”
“It's not a bad place to head for when you're in trouble, especially if you have family here.”
She frowned at his averted face. “Is that possible? I mean, are you just guessing or do you know something?”
“Call it a hunch. The highway through town isn't exactly an interstate or even a main drag. Must be some reason they picked here to land.”
“But that would meanâ¦”
“Exactly. They may still be around somewhere. Of course, other business could have brought them.”
“We're in the process of deciding whether to call a special election, let parish voters say yea or nay to a gambling boat on Horseshoe Lake. Of course, it's a bit early for it to draw petty crooks like those two.”
“I see what you mean,” she said. She also saw she had made the same mistake as Zits, in spite of her caution, of underestimating the sheriff of Turn-Coupe.
He glanced at her set face, but made no other comment. Retaining her left hand, he reached for her right again as he instructed, “Both thumbs at once.”
It was a trick that she couldn't quite manage while flat on her back, at least not without pain. As he saw her difficulty, the sheriff reached to support her with a strong arm around her shoulder while guiding her with one hand to complete the imprint.
The semi-embrace was impersonal yet unbearably close. His strength supported her, enveloped her. His breath feathered across her forehead. The warmth of his body was a potent reminder of the evening before. She could feel a fine trembling start deep inside that was not entirely from the weakness of her injury. In an effort to cover it, she asked, “Have you lived here all your life?”
“Right here,” he replied with one corner of his mouth curling in a smile. “And my dad before me, and his dad before him going back seven or eight generations.”
“You have family ties, then.”
“And then some,” he drawled.
“But no wife?”
It was a moment before he spoke, “What makes you think that?”
Something in his face disturbed her, but she ignored it as she quipped, “No ring. Besides, you seem married to the job.”
“Not quite. I have a family life, of a sort.”
“That's why you stay here, family?” She couldn't keep the surprise from her voice. To the best of her remembrance, he hadn't seemed like a married man when he held her in his arms.
He eased her back on the pillow, then cleaned her thumbs. “It gets in your blood, small-town life. It's quiet, laid-back and easy. The pleasures may be simple, but they're realâlong walks down tree-shaded roads, summer evenings listening to crickets and doves, or lying on a blanket sipping on a long neck and watching the moon come up.”
It sounded remarkably like the life she remembered from summers spent with her grandparents in their small Italian village, except a robust Chianti had been the drink of choice. They had lived simply, close to the earth, regardless
of the ancient title. Those long days had been halcyon, rising with the sun, sleeping away the drowsy afternoons, tending the garden behind the crumbling palazzo while eating raw, sun-warmed vegetables off the vine, ambling down dusty lanes to visit friends, listening to the voices of her grandparents falling gentle in the twilight. She'd lived on memories of those days during long, cold New England winters, thought of them even when they journeyed to the warmth of Sanibel.
A lifetime ago.
Tory had thought back then that she wanted to remain in that small town always, had prayed fervently at the altar in the ancient village church that her mother would never come back for her. She always hoped that she wouldn't have to return to being dressed up and paraded about for the amusement of her mother's friends, to hearing her mother's embarrassing secrets, or to be shuttled away to the care of nannies and housekeepers while her mother went out with men Tory despised.
Her mother always did return. That was, until she accepted the man Tory liked least of all as her fourth husband. Soon afterward, there were no more summers in Italy. Thinking of it now, Tory was invaded by longing so strong it was like pain.
The sheriff studied her face an instant, then stepped to the door and called down the hall. Moments later, Doc Watkins returned to restart her medication. He took her hand and told her to ask for him if she needed anything Dr. Hargrove couldn't provide. Then he left her alone once more with Roan Benedict.
The sheriff picked up the fingerprinting kit and tucked it under one arm, then reached for his hat, which sat on the bedside table. Tapping the Stetson against his thigh, he
said, “I have to go, though I'll check back later. In the meantime, I've posted a man outside your door.”
“I'm duly warned,” she said, her tone cool.
His expression didn't change. “He's there for your protection as well as to see that you stay put. No one's allowed in here except the people that I designate, your doctor, and the nurse on duty.”
“I get the idea.” It was not a pleasant one, either, not when she was flat on her back and chained to the bed by medical hardware.
His gray gaze held hers as the seconds stretched. He looked as if he wanted to say something more. Instead, he gave a brief nod. “Right. Good night, then.”
She watched as he let himself out of the room, then lay staring at the door. Almost, she wished she could call him back and start over. What she had just doneâpretending to have amnesiaâwas so extreme and could go wrong in so many ways. She wasn't used to defying authority, nor was she used to dealing with men like the sheriff.
Oh, she knew plenty of men of power and position. Few were so certain of what they were and where they stood, however. Roan Benedict seemed to have no compromise in him. As he'd suggested, things were his way or the hard way. That bothered her. In fact, it scared the hell out of her.