Authors: Jennifer Crusie
No, her danger lay in an entirely different set of curves.
“Damn,” he cursed as his eyes roamed down her body. He’d gotten several nice glimpses of cleavage before, and had even wondered whether she’d purposefully set free a button or two as he approached. But he’d had no idea she’d been hiding a perfect ass the whole time. He almost cringed at the sight of it. Beautiful and plump and not at all good for his tenuous hold on sanity when it came to her.
And then she dealt another blow. His gaze traveled back up her body just as her eyes moved over the room. They paused on him for a moment, then moved on, no spark of recognition flashing. Not even a hint of it.
She had no idea who he was. He was just another cop when he was in his uniform, and nothing but a stranger in street clothes tonight.
“Perfect,” he murmured, vowing right then that he’d talk to his cousin and then get the hell out of this place before his pride was permanently damaged by his sex drive.
Looking away from Jenny Stone, he caught sight of Luis raising a hand from a back table and headed gratefully in that direction.
“Cousin,” he said as Luis flashed a tense smile and stood to give Nate a quick hug.
Nate had hoped to start off on a positive note, but Luis didn’t look good. “You look like you haven’t slept in a week.”
Luis’s tense smile disappeared in a flash, replaced by a pained grimace that even his goatee couldn’t hide. “Shit, man. I don’t know what to do.”
“Is it James?” Nate asked, his thoughts immediately going to Luis’s fifteen-year-old son. A ripe age for trouble, even for good kids.
“Yes... No!” Luis said. Then his head dropped. “I don’t know. I’m really worried. I don’t think he’s gotten mixed up in it, but...he might have.”
“Mixed up in what? Please tell me you haven’t done anything stupid. I know the concrete business has been slow lately, but—”
“No, it’s not me. It’s... You know Teresa’s cousin Victor came to live with us last year?”
Nate frowned. He’d met the kid once, and had his suspicions, but he’d never said a word. Teresa was a wonderful woman, quiet and strong with a will of steel. If a family member needed help, she wasn’t going to ask more of him than clean language in the house and scrubbed hands when he came to dinner. “I remember,” he finally said carefully.
“Everything seemed fine at first. He wasn’t exactly a hard worker, but he’s nineteen, you know? He took the job I offered and showed up every day. Okay, almost every day. Maybe he was a little lazy, but I kept my mouth shut about it to Teresa, because...”
Nate nodded. Teresa was as traditional a wife and mother as they came, and if she’d taken Victor in as one of her kids, that was that.
“Well, he quit a couple of months ago. Said he’d found other work. He wasn’t specific, but he was paying his rent. Even bought an old car to get around in. Frankly, I was too relieved to ask any questions. I should have, though.”
Nate’s gut tightened in dread. He had a feeling he knew where this was headed, and it was nowhere good.
Running a hand through his hair, Luis met Nate’s gaze for a moment, then let his chin drop. “Teresa let him borrow my truck one day. When I got home, I asked what had happened to it. It was muddy as hell, like it’d gotten stuck somewhere. The kid just smiled and said he’d been helping a friend move. I let it go. Teresa said he’d probably been out joyriding on a trail somewhere, but it felt off to me. He’s been cocky as hell about something lately. Two days ago, I followed him when he was supposed to be going to work. He ended up out at the cabin.”
For a moment, Nate had no idea what he was talking about. “What cabin? The family cabin?”
It was a run-down cabin down near South Park that had been in his dad’s family for years. Forty years ago, when his father had been newly married to Nate’s mom, her brother had come up from Mexico with nothing but a wife and hope for a better life. Nate’s dad had rented them the cabin for a few years, and eventually they’d bought it from him. Nate had spent countless summer days there, playing with Luis and his other cousins. But these days the place was vacant and falling in on itself.
“So he’s getting into trouble down there? Drinking, having sex?” But even as he said it, he knew that wasn’t what had Luis glancing over his shoulder. Nate looked around himself, and caught sight of Jenny, grinning from ear to ear as she set a pitcher down a few tables away, then passed out mugs to the cowboys who smiled back at her.
Nate pulled his eyes away and leaned closer to Luis. “Listen, if he’s cooking meth, I can—”
“That’s not it. He’s growing pot. That little bastard has a whole greenhouse set up out back.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No. It’s a shit job, made out of two-by-fours and plastic sheeting. I can’t believe it hasn’t collapsed under the snow yet, but I guess the heaters and lamps are melting it off. It’s full of plants. And he’s clearing out more land, like he plans to expand during the summer. That’s why the truck is so muddy. He was trying to pull stumps out of half-frozen ground, because he apparently doesn’t have even half a brain.”
“Okay, listen. I’m glad you came to me. You’re not responsible for it just because it’s being grown on your land. This happens all the time these days. Somebody picks a secluded area, and—”
“It’s not just on my land,” Luis interrupted. “That damn greenhouse is sitting half on my land and half on federal forest. And that’s not the worst of it.”
Nate took a deep breath. “Do I want to know?”
“I have no idea, but I don’t know who else to turn to. I need your help, Nate. It’s...”
“Shit. Is James involved? Tell me the truth.”
Luis slumped. “I don’t know. He’s a good boy, but he loves his cousin. Looks up to him. And I found out he skipped school last week. The same day Victor borrowed the truck. Regardless of what Teresa wants, if I was sure James wasn’t involved I would’ve just called you and had your guys go out and shut it down and arrest that little shit. But if he’s pulled James into it...”
“Listen. Even if James is marginally involved, he’s a good kid, like you said. He’s only fifteen. He won’t—”
“He’s fifteen, yeah. And he’s almost six feet tall, and he’s got brown skin and the last name Hernandez, just like me. To a lot of people around here, he doesn’t look like a good, harmless kid. He looks like an ad trying to scare people about dangerous illegals.”
“Come on, Luis. People around here know you and your family.”
“Yeah. And some of them probably remember when I was a kid and got up to no good.”
Nate sighed. He’d forgotten about that. Luis had gone through a rebellious stage, and rebelled himself right out of school a couple of times. And into jail once after stealing beer from a local gas station. The same kind of trouble lots of kids got up to, but it was different when you were one of the few brown-skinned kids in the school.
“I’m scared, Nate. If my boy’s involved and it’s on my land, it’s going to look like a whole damn Mexican family operation.”
“You’re as American as I am,” Nate snapped. “I shouldn’t even have to say that. We were both born right here.”
Luis raised an eyebrow, and Nate didn’t bother arguing further. Sure, Nate bore the Hernandez name, as well, but it was his middle name, not his last. And he had his father’s gray eyes and lighter skin than his cousins. He knew it wasn’t the same for him.
He cursed and ran a hand over his jaw. “All right. Listen. Is there anywhere you can send James for a few days? Maybe a week? Doesn’t Teresa’s family live in Colorado?”
“Yeah. Maybe I can arrange something. But I’d have to pull him out of school. Teresa won’t like that at all.”
“You’re going to tell her, though, right?”
Luis’s eyes shifted away.
“Come on, man. You have to tell her.”
“She won’t like it. Better to lie. If I tell her, she’ll want to let—”
A sudden shadow cut off Luis’s words. “Hello, boys! You’re not conspiring to lie to an innocent woman, are you?”
Luis flashed wide, panicked eyes up at Jenny, whose ponytail was still swaying from her abrupt appearance. “What?” he yelped.
She waved off his alarm. “I’m a bartender. Believe me, I see it every day. Just be kind to her, okay?” Smiling, she tipped her head toward Nate to include him in her advice, but still didn’t seem to recognize him. “You gentlemen want a pitcher?”
Luis shook his head, but Nate said, “Sure.”
Her eyes flickered down his body. “Light?”
Nate was suddenly damn glad for all the hours he put in at the gym to keep in shape over the winter. “Bring us the real thing. We’ll indulge.”
She flashed that smile again. Wide and open enough that it shouldn’t have felt intimate, but did. He’d thought that smile was something secret for him. But no. It was just her. She offered it to everyone in the crowd.
Good to know.
Nate laughed at himself as she turned away, already moving toward the bar to get their pitcher. But while he was still shaking his head at his own foolishness, Jenny jerked to a stop, frozen midstep.
Luis was leaning toward him, but Nate held up a hand and kept his eyes on Jenny as she slowly pivoted.
She frowned and cocked her head. Her eyes narrowed at him. And then her face broke into a grin wider than any she’d ever given to him.
“Deputy Hendricks?” she asked.
He tried not to feel thrilled. “Yes, ma’am.”
She laughed, her blond hair swinging as her chin tipped up. “Oh, my God! I didn’t recognize you without the shades!”
“Yeah, I noticed,” he said dryly.
“It’s not my fault! You look totally different. Not nearly so scary.”
“Still a little scary, though, I gather?”
Instead of answering, she just stood there looking at him for a few long seconds. “My God,” she finally said. “Look at you. You’re a real person.”
“That’s just a rumor.”
“Okay,” she said, still smiling. Then she shook her head. “Okay. Well, the beer’s on the house, Deputy.”
“It’s Nate,” he responded.
Her eyebrows rose. “I like that.”
She liked that. Thank God she finally turned away, because Nate knew he looked far too pleased with her opinion of his name.
“Hey,” his cousin said, the worry in his voice making it clear he’d already dismissed any idea of the cute server. “What the hell am I going to do, man?”
Nate kept his eye on Jenny Stone’s swinging hips until she was swallowed by the crowd at the bar before he gave up the vigil and met Luis’s eyes. “No kidding around, are you asking me as a cousin or a cop?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Both?”
“We’ve got two options, but whichever way we do this, I don’t want James around. If you want me to handle this as your cousin, I’ll do that. We send James away to keep him out of the fight, we tear down the greenhouse, burn the plants and put the fear of God in Victor. But that means he’s got to go. You have to be sure Teresa understands that. I can do this on the quiet, but he has to leave.”
“Okay. Yeah. We could do that.”
“But,” Nate added, letting the word hang there.
Luis gave him a weary look. “But what?”
“Are you sure he’s working alone? If he doesn’t have a truck, how did he get all this set up in the first place? And where did he get the money? The plants, the heaters, the lamps. Do you really think he built that greenhouse and started clearing that land on his own?”
Luis had gone pale. “If James...but he doesn’t have any money, and he’s only missed one day of school!”
“I don’t mean James. But that’s the other reason I want him gone. I want to watch the place. See who’s coming and going. And I don’t want to see James. If Victor isn’t the only one involved, if he’s not the money and the brains, I’m going to have to handle this as a cop, and I can’t have any reason to mention James in the reports.”
Luis looked grimmer than ever.
“How do you want to handle it, Luis?”
“Christ. Victor isn’t a great guy, but he’s not a criminal mastermind, either. He’s working for someone. Some guy who uses kids to do the dirty work, I’m sure. Will you check it out for me?”
“Yeah. You’ll send James away?”
“He’s going to be out of school for a day or two next week for Presidents’ Day, anyway. I’ll tell Teresa that John Lopez needs help with calving over in Casper. She’s always liked that guy and she keeps complaining that James needs to learn how to work harder.”
“Has calving started yet?”
“Hell if I know.”
Jenny arrived with the pitcher, and she paused as if she’d say something, but someone called her name from another table and she flitted away with an apologetic smile.
Nate poured two beers and slid one toward his cousin. “Teresa’s going to find out about all this, you know. You can’t hide it for long.”
“I know.” Luis closed his eyes for moment. “But I don’t want to tell her until I know the extent of it. Otherwise she’ll convince herself it’s nothing and we should sweep it under the rug.”
“It’s big money these days, cousin. People get shot over it. Remember that. You could’ve been killed just going out to the cabin if the wrong person was waiting. There was that case up in Gallatin Forest last year. A hiker ran across a crop in a federal forest and someone shot him to keep him from talking. Luckily, the shooter had bad aim.”
Luis nodded. “Yeah. I know. Damn it. That little shit Victor has put my family and my livelihood in danger. And if he’s involved James...” He took a deep breath. “I can’t just let it go. I’ll call you when James is on his way, all right?”
Luis only drank half his beer before he blew out a deep breath and stood. “I’ve got to get going.”
Nate stood and gave him a tight hug.
“Thank you, man. I don’t know what I would’ve done about this if you weren’t around.”
“Does that mean you’ll stop calling me The Fuzz behind my back?”
Luis slapped his shoulder and stepped away. “Hell, Nate. You know that was because of that mustache you tried to grow to be more like me in high school. I figured you became a cop just to try to live down the nickname.”
“If you want my help, you’ll keep that quiet.”
“Got it.” Luis’s smile faded. “I’ll call you.”