Authors: Jennifer Crusie
Nate sank back into his seat and topped off his beer. He wasn’t going to take any unofficial law enforcement action, but he could poke around the cabin a little without stepping too far outside the rules. There might be some personal danger, but Nate was willing to risk a lot for the sake of Luis and his family. Luis was more like a brother than a cousin. Nate had a sister, but she was a few years older and had always been more of a second mother than a playmate. But Luis...if he needed help, Nate would step up any day.
“Hey!” Jenny suddenly appeared, her head tilted toward the front door of the saloon. “I hope your friend’s coming back. I can’t let you drive if you drink that whole pitcher on your own. I’m sure you understand. The cops around here are real uptight.”
Nate raised one eyebrow and refused to meet her smile.
“Right. Ha! So, anyway...” she drawled.
“Luis isn’t coming back, but I promise not to finish the pitcher by myself.”
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“No. I’m on my own.”
“I could...” Her eyes slid to the chair Luis had vacated, but then she just flashed a wide smile. “I’ll check back on you later.”
Nate looked from the chair to her. “I wanted to talk to you, actually. Care for a drink?”
“Yes! I was just about to take my break. I’ll be right back.”
He watched her ponytail bounce as she hurried toward the bar. If someone had asked him an hour before, and if he’d allowed himself to be completely honest, he would’ve said that sitting down for a drink with Jenny Stone was the goal of the evening. But at this point, he had no idea if he should be satisfied or just embarrassed that he was so damn easy for her.
Jenny said to Benton, trying to hide the fact that she was slightly out of breath as she reached past him to grab a clean glass. “Can you survive without me for ten minutes?”
“No problem,” he said, his eye on the pitchers he was filling.
Thank God. Deputy Hendricks was... Wow. He was...making her blush from across the room.
She cleared her throat and glanced at Benton, hoping he couldn’t see her embarrassment. Because Nate Hendricks was so damn hot he made her thighs clench a little.
She’d spent so much time worried that he was hiding close-set bug eyes under his glasses that she hadn’t braced herself against the opposite possibility: that one glance from those icy gray eyes and she’d melt into a pile of awkward mush. She’d almost invited herself to have a drink with him. She kind of had.
Jenny took a deep breath. It didn’t matter. He’d come here to see her. Or maybe not. Maybe he’d come to interrogate her. Or tell her he’d changed his mind and she needed to come down to the station with him.
Oh, Jesus, what if she was about to get arrested?
“No,” she said to herself as she untied her serving apron and laid it on the counter. “Now you’re just being weird.”
“What’s wrong?” Benton called. “You being weird again?”
“Shut up, B.”
“Whatever you say, freak.”
Jenny had always appreciated that Benton was like a pain-in-the-ass little brother to her. That appreciation was being strained tonight. She started away before he could say more, but not quickly enough.
She turned warily back.
He tipped his head in the direction of Nate Hendricks’s table. “I’ve got condoms under the register if you’re making a move on that guy.”
“Shut up!” she repeated. “It’s not like that. He’s my...um...deputy.”
“Ah. Of course he is. That girl over in the corner there is my librarian. I still use condoms when she invites me over, though. When you sleep with one public servant, you sleep with every public servant. Or something like that.”
“I hate you.” Her face felt as if it were the color of the maraschino cherry Benton popped in his mouth. “I really do.”
“Go get ’im, tiger.”
She’d get Benton back somehow, she thought as she made herself walk toward Nate. The problem with Benton was that he was utterly shameless. Even Rayleen, the dirty old woman who owned the saloon, couldn’t embarrass him, not that she ever stopped trying.
Speaking of...Jenny kept her eyes straight ahead and didn’t look toward Rayleen’s table. Hopefully the old lady wouldn’t look up from her game of solitaire long enough to notice anything.
“Hi,” she said stupidly when she reached his table and took a seat.
Nate immediately poured her a beer. “I thought you were the bartender here.”
“I am, but I serve on pitcher night. I’m quick and I like the change of pace.”
“You’re good at it.”
“At what?” she asked.
His eyes locked on hers and pushed her nerves to another level of chaos. “Being charming.”
“Oh?” What did that mean? It sounded as if it could be a compliment, but his voice was faintly cool and his eyes assessing.
“Did you call about the class?”
was what he was here about? “I’ve been really busy, but I’ve got it right here....” She patted the front pocket of her jeans, then stuffed her hands into her back pockets. Nothing there. By the time she patted her breast, thinking maybe her shirt had a pocket, she realized she was doing some obscene sort of macarena. His cool eyes slid down to the hand cupping her boob.
God. “It must be in my apron,” she said weakly as she unclasped her breast. “I’m going to call today.”
“It’s seven p.m.”
“Right. I meant... The afternoon slipped by.”
He reached into his pocket—not cupping any sensitive body parts, she noted—and withdrew...
Not handcuffs, please. Not handcuffs.
“I have the card!” she insisted.
“Just take it.” He sighed.
She took it, noticing the warmth of it seeping into her fingertips before she set it on the table. “I’m going to call. The day just got away from me.”
“Why don’t I believe you, Ms. Stone?”
“It’s Jenny,” she said automatically. “And I’ll call you Nate.”
She glanced up when he didn’t respond. But he couldn’t take it back now. She knew his real name. She’d said it. And it felt surprisingly sweet on her tongue. It was so human. So easy. Nate. The man himself, on the other hand, was so intimidating she felt nervous saying it out loud.
“I’m honestly going to call. I appreciate what you did for me. You didn’t have to. Nobody else would have.”
He sighed. “You’re right about that.”
She started to smile, but in that moment she realized that she
right. No one else would’ve given her so many passes. No other cop would’ve tried to help her out the way he had. So why had he done it? And why was he here?
Warmth washed through her, trailing little sparks that settled under her skin. He liked her. As impossible as that seemed as he watched her with those cool eyes. He didn’t smile. He’d barely even blinked when she’d fondled her own breast in front of him. But he must like her. It was the only explanation.
She took a needed sip of beer. “I’m sorry I drive too fast,” she offered.
“You’re going to have to stop, you know. One of these days someone else will pull you over and that’ll be it.”
“Why can’t you just slow down?”
“I don’t know.”
His head tilted. His eyes narrowed. Finally, he shook his head. “You really don’t know, do you?”
“I don’t! I mean, I obviously know how to drive like a reasonable person. I don’t speed through town. I’m careful when the highway is crowded. I’ve never even had an accident!”
“I know. I checked.”
She looked down into her beer. “But when I’m out there alone, I just...lose myself. It’s not that I think about getting out there and seeing how fast I can go. I’m not racing. At least, I’m not racing anyone else. I just want to
“Where?” he asked, the word just a quiet drop in the river of noise that flowed around them.
“I don’t have any idea,” she answered honestly. “Just away. Somewhere else.” She shook her head. “It feels good. To go as fast as I want to, even knowing I shouldn’t.”
“I get that. It can feel good. Doing something you shouldn’t.”
Jenny felt her cheeks go pink before she even looked at him. His soft words prompted her to peek at his ring finger. She’d checked it out before and knew he didn’t have a ring, but did he have a tan line? She was pretty harmless, so what else could he mean by something you shouldn’t do?
“Yes,” she finally said, raising her gaze to meet his. He was still unreadable, still giving nothing away. “But it’s your job to stop that, right?”
“If it’s illegal, sure.”
“And if it’s not?”
For the very first time in any of their encounters, she saw his mouth soften and almost—almost—smile. His lips weren’t so thin, she saw; he simply held them tight together most of the time. Or most of the time he spent with her.
“If it’s not illegal...” His teeth flashed white against his skin as he spoke. She realized she was staring at his mouth but couldn’t tear her eyes away. “Then it’s every man for himself.”
“And every woman?” she asked.
“Depends on who the man is,” he said. And then...Nate Hendricks smiled. “Hopefully you’d get some help with that.”
The jolt of it went through her like a shock wave before settling into her belly.
was the man named Nate. Charming. Wicked. Utterly adorable. The delicious feeling dipped a little lower in her body.
“Oh, shit,” she breathed.
The smile disappeared. “What?”
“What is it?”
Wow, she really knew how to play a flirtatious moment. He was frowning now, looking both suspicious and a little worried. With the thousands of people she’d watched flirt over the years, Jenny would’ve expected more from herself than a muttered scatological curse. Now he was leaning back, edging away from her.
“I’ve never seen you smile before!” she said quickly.
He frowned harder.
“I mean, usually when I see you, you’re really pissed off.”
“I take my job pretty seriously,” he said gruffly.
“You don’t have to tell me that! Whew. You’re Mr. Serious.” She was babbling and couldn’t stop. “Ha! You kind of scare me, you know.”
“Ah. Well.” He glanced toward the door. “I see.”
“I mean...not in a bad way!”
“I scare you in a good way?”
That sounded weird, but the words still pulsed through her. He did scare her in a good way. The good way that made her feel nervous and aware and a little too alive. Or just alive enough. It felt like driving fast, flying through the world.
“Yes,” she heard herself say. “In a good way.”
He stopped edging away from her.
When she was little, she’d tried ski jumping once at a tiny resort in Idaho. In retrospect, it had been the very smallest jump for the very smallest kids. No more than five feet high, but she could still remember standing at the top of that slope, trying to trust that gravity didn’t always have to be a brutal lesson. Her heart had beat so hard she’d felt her whole body pulse with it. She felt that now. She’d edged forward too far and there was no way to stop.
His gaze dipped down her body so quickly she almost missed it. “Are you scared right now?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“In a good way?” His pale gray eyes weren’t icy anymore. Now they glinted like metal. Jesus, he looked dangerous. He should ditch the shades and glare criminals into obedience. Criminals like her. She had the sudden, stupid idea that she’d like to speed past his sheriff’s truck again, as soon as possible. Right now. Tonight.
Her nipples tightened, and she was torn between hoping he could tell and praying he couldn’t. This was crazy. Her pulse was thumping so fast she actually felt light-headed.
He leaned a little closer and when he set his hand on the table, she was very aware it was only two inches from hers. Though their hands looked so different it was almost hard to believe they served the same functions. His skin was a deep bronze next to her paleness. His nails were cut so short they didn’t even approach the tips of his fingers.
Instead of his long-sleeved uniform shirt, tonight he wore a blue button-down, the sleeves rolled up to reveal forearms sculpted from tight muscle. Hair glinted along his arm, down to his thick wrist, and she noticed that he still wore a watch. She rarely saw men at the bar with watches anymore, but his looked old and sturdy, as if it had been passed on from his father.
She looked at that hand and she desperately wanted to touch it.
“I’m not really scary, you know,” he said. Was that an invitation? But no. He probably didn’t know that she was staring at his hand and wondering what he’d do if she stroked a thumb over his knuckles. Two scars stood out in pale contrast to his tan. She wanted to touch them. She wanted to touch
The desire enveloped her with sudden, overwhelming completeness. It was just that simple. For the first time in her life, Jenny understood the animal urge that had strangers pairing up every night. She’d watched it a hundred times and always shaken her head at the stupidity of going home with a person you’d just met. But now she got it. The stupidity didn’t matter. It wasn’t a factor. It wasn’t an impediment. It meant nothing, because sometimes it felt good to do something you shouldn’t.
She wanted that. Her nerves tingled with the compulsion. So Jenny slid her hand across the two inches of faux wood that separated their skin, and she stroked her thumb over his knuckles.
His fingers twitched, and she almost jerked her hand away. But that would likely ruin her attempt to be seductive, jumping as if she’d just startled a snake. His hand started to curl into a fist before he flattened it to the table.
Jenny’s heart was tripping over itself, trying to beat faster than was physically possible. She dared to meet his gaze, but looked quickly away as she felt a nervous smile flit over her face. His eyes were just so...intense. “Now you look really scary. Maybe you should smile again.”
“Maybe I should. But I’m worried you won’t take that class if you’re not scared of me.”
“Is that what you’re worried about?” she asked, wondering if he really was. Because at this moment, she wanted him thinking about very different things. “My little driving problem?”
“No. I’m worried that you could be a much bigger problem than I imagined.”
Smiling now, she let herself look up. His mouth was still an intimidatingly flat line, but the edges of his eyes were tight with amusement, as if he were just about to smile and was holding back.
“Jenny...” he said.
She had to look away. She looked too eager already. Grinning at him, letting her pinky finger rest against his as if she’d just happened to set her hand there.
Play it cool,
she ordered herself. Or coolish. Even something that could very generously be thought of as possibly cool by a kind observer.
Was he about to propose something? Ask her when she got off work? Ask if he could see her afterward? He could. He could see as much of her as he wanted, because she’d never felt this kind of lust before.
Her gaze darted over the room, looking for something calm to latch onto, but her eyes caught on something decidedly not calm. That was no surprise on pitcher night. It was a saloon, after all. People came here to let loose and have fun and sometimes even cause trouble. But this was personal.
Her eyes widened at the man standing in the doorway. She shook her head.
“Maybe I could—” Nate started, but she didn’t hear the rest.
“Oh, no,” she breathed, as she watched the guy stop four feet inside the door and nod as if the place pleased him.
She slid her hand away from Nate’s. “Oh, no,” she groaned.