Authors: Jennifer Crusie
sorry ass into the saloon to pick up an extra shift out of pure pitifulness. She’d moped around her apartment for hours, feeling sorry for herself, and furious with Ellis, and hurt by Nate.
Ellis had denied doing anything wrong. He’d even opened one box to show her a jumble of plastic hosing. But his eyes had slid away whenever she’d tried to meet his gaze, so she’d refused to give in. He was in over his head again. In what, she had no idea, but she didn’t want any part of it.
After he’d gone, her apartment had been too small. It had started snowing, and gotten dark, so she couldn’t drive. Couldn’t indulge the awful burning in her muscles telling her to run. Go. Fly.
If only it were summer. She could find a quiet stretch of highway and roll down her windows and forget for a few minutes. Hell, maybe even keep driving. Drive until the pain lost its hold and she felt peaceful enough to stop and start over.
She’d been here too long. She was making mistakes now. Wanting more than she deserved.
That was the reason she’d given in to Ellis. She’d known it was a mistake to allow him anything, but she’d wanted to be forgiven. She’d wanted to forgive herself, and so she’d latched onto the idea of making it up to him. The mistake of marrying him. Of letting them both believe she’d loved him. And then the panic when she’d awoken and realized what she’d done. The terrible way she’d left him, sneaking out in the night.
Ellis hadn’t been a good husband. Hell, he hadn’t even been a man. Just twenty-three years old and as aimless as he’d been sweet.
Jenny wiped down tables in a quiet corner of the saloon. She took her time, scrubbing at chair legs and cleaning the seats. She thought about calling home. It’d been years since she’d checked in. Maybe things were better now. Maybe her mom had finally decided to give up the pills.
But no. Someone would’ve gotten in touch. Her dad. Or maybe even Mom herself. But most likely, it would’ve been her sister, Jess, who took care of all the things that Jenny had walked away from. Who stayed because Jenny hadn’t. Who was stronger in so many ways, and weak only in that she cared too much and too easily.
“Hey there, girl!” Rayleen’s rough voice called. “You lost in thoughts of last night? You’ve been cleaning that table for five minutes.”
“Sorry,” she said, grabbing the spray bottle and heading behind the bar. It wasn’t busy tonight for some reason. The weather was bad, and no one wanted to head over from Teton, probably. She really
wasn’t needed behind the bar, as Benton had it under control, but she didn’t want to go. “Benton, I can take this shift, if you want,” she said as she passed him.
“Nah, I’m saving up for a new board. You go on.”
She edged around the bar to put away the cleaning supplies, but Rayleen stopped her. “So he wore you out, huh?”
Jenny froze. How the hell had Rayleen found out about that? Jackson was a small town, but it wasn’t
small. Had Nate
people? She tried shaking her head, but Rayleen just snorted.
“Don’t bother denying it. I saw that boy follow you home last night.”
Oh, thank God. She had it all wrong.
“Though why you sent that stud home and took up with Rapunzel, I have no idea. Are you playing them against each other in hopes of Valentine’s Day gifts?”
“Valentine’s Day?” God, she’d forgotten about that. But she’d be working, thankfully. Valentine’s Day in a saloon was just like any other night, with maybe a few more desperate hookups. At least she wouldn’t have to look at any happy couples.
“Well?” Rayleen snapped.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I did
sleep with Ellis last night.”
“Like I said, you don’t look like you got much sleep.”
“I slept fine. And alone.”
“Yeah? Then why’s your neck all raw on one side?”
When Jenny slapped a hand to her neck with a guilty gasp, Rayleen cackled.
“Good Lord, girl, your face is as red as a baboon’s ass!”
“Good old Aunt Rayleen!” a new voice said. “Always the most charming woman at the table.”
Jenny spun to flash a grimace of a smile at her friend Grace. “Hey. When did you get here?”
“A few seconds before my sweet old auntie accused you of getting laid. And having a baboon ass for a face. I’m hoping the two are unrelated. Just how kinky did it get?”
Jenny’s face was so hot she was tempted to stick her head in the ice maker. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Grace smiled. “No?”
“She’s lying,” Rayleen said.
Grace’s smile widened to a grin. “I know.”
“And her ex-husband is in town.”
Jenny groaned at the way Grace’s eyes widened. When she opened her mouth, Jenny held up a hand. “Yes, I have an ex-husband. No, I did not sleep with him last night. Or do anything else!”
“You did something,” Grace insisted. “You look like a girl caught with her fingers in the pot. Or the cookie jar. Or whatever kind of container you’d find penises in.”
Rayleen howled and pounded her table hard enough to make her deck of cards jump. “I always find them in pockets!”
“Oh, good God,” Jenny muttered. She grabbed Grace by the arm and pulled her closer. “The bathroom. Now.”
“Ooo,” Grace cooed mockingly. “So forceful.”
“Yeah, I heard you like that.”
“Ha! Look at Jenny getting her claws out. I think I like you this way, you nasty little thing.”
“Go!” Jenny gave her a gentle shove toward the back of the room. She never would’ve shoved Grace a few months before. Grace looked tough as hell with her edgy hair and smoky eyes and black boots. She
tough as hell. But she’d become one of Jenny’s best friends over the winter, and Jenny assumed that Grace probably wouldn’t punch her over one tiny, little shove.
After ditching her cleaning supplies, Jenny tossed Rayleen a scowl. “It’s slow. I’m clocking out.”
Instead of cursing at her, Jenny grabbed her coat and headed toward the bathroom. She found Grace waiting in the narrow hallway. Grace tipped her head. “There’s already a party of four in there, comforting a girl who ran into her boyfriend on a date with his wife. Poor thing.”
Jenny winced. “We can sit in my car.”
“Sure. I’ll do anything to hear this story. I don’t think you’ve dated anyone since I moved to town.”
“Then let’s go.”
They raced through the snow to Jenny’s car, and Grace was laughing breathlessly by the time they ducked and slammed the doors. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to snow,” she gasped. “I feel like I’m on vacation every time a storm hits. Because this can’t be my real life. It’s like living in a nature documentary.”
“It’s called winter, L.A. girl,” Jenny teased, but she was glad for Grace’s silly affection for snow. Grace’s smile was different than it had been when she’d first moved to Jackson. Everything about her was different, starting with her hair, which was only brown and black now, and missing the vivid purple that had once streaked through it.
“So,” Grace said, tilting her chin toward Jenny. “Who are you doing?”
Jenny took a deep breath. “You know that cute deputy I told you about? The one who keeps pulling me over?”
“Holy crap. No. No! That’s like something out of a porn movie. Please tell me it was a frisk that went bad.”
“Shut up. It wasn’t like that. Well, not really. He pulled me over again, because I’m an idiot, and I maybe mentioned something about buying him a beer, and...he actually showed up.”
“What do you mean, ‘actually’?” Grace shook her head. “Of course he showed up. You’re cute and sexy. He’s probably been plotting a way to ask you out from day one.”
“I don’t know. But it went well, even after my ex showed up and nearly ruined everything.”
“Okay. So why do you look tortured?”
Jenny rubbed the side of her neck that was slightly raw from such vigorous attention. “We had sex. It was... God, it was amazing. Spectacular. And then he started asking about my ex.”
“What do you mean? Like he’s jealous?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Oh, that’s bad news, no matter how good the sex was. If he’s that controlling after one night, you need to think very carefully. No question.”
“I don’t know. It didn’t seem that bad.”
“Jenny. He’s a cop. And he’s already jealous. That could be a bad combination.”
“Maybe,” Jenny conceded, but as she said goodbye to Grace and started the car, she shook her head. It hadn’t felt like jealousy or control. It had felt like genuine worry mixed with a little “Just doing my job, ma’am.”
Had she overreacted? He’d been sweet. And so damn hot. And if she looked at it through his eyes... Heck, aside from all the cop stuff, she’d have been asking some very serious questions of Nate if an ex-wife had shown up in the middle of the night, causing trouble. Add to that the fact that Ellis definitely was acting a little strange, and Jenny lost a little of her hurt. Or a lot of it.
She stared out at the snow racing past the path of her headlights, but she didn’t put the car in gear.
Had Nate done anything so terrible? He’d been awkward, yes. His timing had been unfortunate. But maybe he really had been overwhelmed by...what? Lust? Need?
The snowflakes blurred into a solid white mass, and Jenny closed her eyes against tears. Pitiful to feel so moved to be wanted that way, but it wasn’t gratitude. It was more like an answer to the need she’d felt for him. It struck her, ringing a chord deep inside her body. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a comforting sound.
Jenny pulled out of the parking lot and turned away from home. Storm or no storm, she needed to drive. And she needed to find out what the hell Ellis was up to. For Ellis’s sake, but more than that, for her own.
sure you want me here?” Nate asked.
His sergeant shot him an impatient look. “It’s your bust, isn’t it?”
“Well, I suppose, but the complicating factors make it—”
“Look, we’ve got your eyewitness testimony and that of your cousin. This isn’t going to be a complex case. These guys aren’t usually careful. I’m sure there are fingerprints all over the place. They operate on the principle of nondiscovery, not
“I know, but I...further complicated things by—”
His sergeant seemed to be fighting back a smile. “I’m sure we can try the case without bringing your extracurricular activities into it.”
Jesus, now he wasn’t just a fool; he was a damned amusing one. “Fine.”
“Just hang back, all right? I’ll call you in when it’s clear.”
Nate paced deeper into the woods, following the path of an old camp road into silent trees. There was no wind this morning. The storm had settled all of that, blanketing Jackson in a foot of snow and stilling the bustle of the place.
It hadn’t stilled his mind, though. That still raced and bucked. He tried to calm it. His sergeant seemed amused by any assertion that he’d compromised a drug case by sleeping with Jenny.
“It wouldn’t be a case if you hadn’t brought it to us,” the sergeant had said, shoving aside Nate’s concerns. So why was he so tortured by it? He paced the road and waited.
It was 8:00 a.m. Jenny probably wasn’t even up yet. Not that it mattered. She wouldn’t forgive him once he had her ex-husband thrown in prison. And he probably shouldn’t forgive her for lying. He
shouldn’t. But the thought of letting their connection die...
He was thirty-five years old. He’d dated a lot of women, and slept with more than a few of them. There was lust. There was chemistry. And then there was something that went so deep it nearly hurt. He hadn’t known about that until yesterday, but now he couldn’t go on pretending he didn’t know.
Still, it was more than the physical. It was her sunny smile. The easy way she worked hard and still had a friendly word for everyone around her. He’d already known about her positive attitude, after pulling her over six times. What had surprised him was the glimpse of something more. When she’d lost her temper and revealed too much about why she’d really left home so young. A shitty childhood, she’d said. He wouldn’t have guessed it; she was so carefree.
But maybe that was what had attracted her to a man like Ellis. And maybe the drug stuff was just normal to her. No big deal. Hell, maybe it was a serious part of her life.
He hoped not. Not just for himself, but for her, too.
“Damn.” He tipped his head up to stare at the dove-gray clouds above him. It might snow again, but the storm was gone. Now it was just the sad cold that followed. And all he could do was wait.
* * *
at a distant screech of metal on metal. Her car was cocooned in snow, completely cut off from everything, and for a moment, she had no idea where she was. The world was nothing but white and cold and the mist of her own startled breath. But a few heartbeats later, she remembered. She was parked in a camp parking lot, her car covered in snow.
She’d driven last night. Through the snow and wind. She’d had to do it, to get enough air. Enough oxygen that she could think. She’d driven for miles and miles.
Nate truly liked her. She knew he did. She could feel it. He liked her so much that even though she had the baggage of an ex-husband who was possibly an active criminal, he wanted to give her a chance. Or he had wanted to, until she’d lost her shit and thrown him out.
As she’d driven deserted, icy roads, she’d told herself she was willing to answer his questions. But she couldn’t. She had no idea what Ellis was up to. She didn’t even know if she was involved. He’d used her property. She’d agreed. But to what?
An urgency had overtaken her then. A need to resolve this. So she’d turned her car around and driven toward Hoback, where Ellis had rented a place. It was too far away for skiers to drive every day, so likely the only place he’d been able to find a bed.
An hour later, she’d driven slowly through the scattered cabins of the ancient camp where he was staying. It had taken two passes before she’d spotted his van. She’d pulled into the one plowed parking area she could find and raced to his door to knock, but there’d been no answer. Either he was passed out or he was partying at someone else’s place, but Jenny had come too far to give up. She’d retreated to her car to wait, and she’d promptly fallen asleep.
And now she was snowed in.
Jenny slowly cranked her window down, wincing at the ledge of snow that fell onto her arm. But a little discomfort was worth the sight of a slice of the world. Trees beyond a rooftop, and then the corner of a cabin. Ellis’s cabin was across the lot and up the road a little, but his van was no longer there.
“Shit!” she cursed, her eyes rolling wildly. But then she saw the tracks in the snow and followed them quickly up the lane to the highway. There he was, already making the turn. He hadn’t noticed her car because it had been nothing but a big lump in the snow.
She cursed again, using a few of the choicest words she’d ever learned serving beer to working cowboys. Pushing as hard as she could, she forced her door open and scrambled out. Her tall boots kept most of the snow out as she grabbed her snow brush and started frantically cleaning off the hood of her car. When she had all the windows cleared, she grabbed the shovel from the trunk and dug out the tires, too. She skipped the roof. She’d just have to create a snowstorm for the poor driver behind her. She needed to haul ass and catch up to Ellis.
At least she knew which way he’d turned, though she could guess he’d head toward Jackson, regardless. Once she got the car out of the lot, she turned toward town and floored it, praying to God that Nate wasn’t working traffic today.
It took almost fifteen minutes to catch up, but she found Ellis, and fell in behind his truck to follow. She only meant to follow him long enough to park beside him and demand an explanation. But as she drove, she realized she might have the wrong idea. Ellis didn’t want to tell her the truth. Whatever he was up to, he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. If she wanted the real story, she’d have to find it.
She immediately let up on the gas and fell back, as if she could suddenly fade into the background like a bright yellow fog.
Frowning, hunched over her steering wheel, she glared at his white van, taking no note of the beauty around her. Had he spotted her? He hadn’t given any indication of it. The back panels of the van had no window, and his driver’s-side mirror appeared to be aimed at the sky. That left the mirror on the passenger side of the van, but really, if he wasn’t using one mirror, why would he use the other?
She fell back a little bit. Then a little more. She planned to catch up again when he got to town, but she didn’t get the chance. Cresting the rise of a hill about ten minutes before town, she realized she’d lost him.
“Oh, crap,” she gasped, looking everywhere in a panic, even toward the sky, as if he’d pulled a Mary Poppins and floated off above the chimneys of the houses gathered at the side of the road.
The houses. She searched among the driveways and saw nothing. But just before she reached the small group of log cabins, she saw a road and slammed on her brakes to take the turn.
It was the only place he could have turned. The river ran along the other side. He couldn’t have—There. His brake lights flashed ahead of her. Jenny slumped in relief and told herself to calm down. Ellis Stone wasn’t sharp enough to lose a tail, even a really awful tail like her.
Now that she’d found him again, she slowed. Even Ellis might notice someone following him on this narrow, isolated road leading to...somewhere she’d never been.
Somewhere far off the highway. When they passed over a cattle grate into free range land, Jenny started to get nervous. Why the hell would Ellis need to be out here? This wasn’t right. He certainly wasn’t the snowshoeing type.
She’d lost sight of him for a few minutes, but she wasn’t concerned. There weren’t any side roads here, or if there were, they weren’t plowed.
As the road snuck through a bare grove of aspen, Jenny finally found a sign of life. A side road, and two cabins, one with smoke tripping from the chimney. But Ellis’s van wasn’t there, and no recent tracks marred the three inches of new snow on the plowed driveway. Jenny drove on. Five minutes later, she found the tracks she’d been expecting and took a right onto a side road. When she eased around the next bend, she had to slam on her brakes so hard that she slid nearly ten feet and skidded along the edge of a ditch for a precarious few seconds.
But it wasn’t Ellis’s van coming toward her. It was a sheriff’s truck. She was so sure that it was Nate that when the deputy got out of the truck and started toward her, she only felt confusion at his blond hair. She didn’t even notice the two other deputies. Or the fact that their guns were drawn. Not until she turned her head and found herself staring into the barrel of a handgun.
For the first time, the thought of running had come too late, and now she was caught in a way she’d never expected.
* * *
in custody, Nate counted himself done. Victor had shown up first, blasting music and so high already that he’d stared stupidly at the arresting officer for a good three minutes before alarm had kicked in.
Ellis had followed fifteen minutes later, and it was done. Nate had expected to feel relief, but he’d only felt tired as he’d trudged down to the cabin and finally gotten a good look inside the greenhouse. “Jesus,” he said as soon as he ducked under the plastic sheeting. “This is the most pitiful pot-growing operation I’ve ever seen.”
The techs had apparently been having the same conversation, because they burst into hysterical laughter. Any worries that this was connected to a big operation were completely assuaged by the sight of the mishmash of random heating lamps and leaking water containers. And the plants themselves looked—
“Good Christ,” his sergeant barked. “That’s the saddest crop of marijuana I’ve ever seen.”
More laughter from the techs, and even Nate felt a smile tug at his mouth. He should’ve taken a closer look yesterday. If he’d seen these two dozen pitiful stalks, he’d have known that he and Luis could’ve quietly taken care of this problem themselves. Hell, they could’ve even made it look like a warning from a real drug operation. Oh, well. It didn’t change the fact that Victor had abused his uncle’s generosity, desecrated a place that meant a lot to the family and endangered his minor cousin. The kid deserved a good scare, not to mention a penalty.
“Got another one, Sergeant,” one of the other deputies said from the makeshift doorway.
Nate’s head jerked up at that. “Who?”
The guy shrugged. “I don’t know. A woman in an old-school Camaro.”
“Pulled up a few minutes after we cuffed Ellis Stone.”
Jenny was here. She’d known exactly what was going on the whole time. Damn. Just...
He could feel his sergeant’s eyes on his face, and Nate hoped he didn’t look as green as he felt.
“I won’t interfere.”
“Good. We’ll sort it out at headquarters.”
“Got it.” His voice sounded remarkably light considering the weight in his chest. “I’ll head over now.”
Nate felt the blankness on his own face as he walked through the trees to his truck and got in. As he pulled off the camping road, he called Luis and listened to the broken ring of a bad connection in his ear. Up ahead was her yellow car, bright against the snow and the dark green horde of sheriff’s vehicles.
“Nate,” his cousin said.
“Luis, it’s done. We’ve arrested Victor and some accomplices. The plants will be destroyed, though the rest of the cleanup will be up to you. We’re not very good at helping out with that kind of thing. But...”
He edged past her car, and he thought the danger was over, but as he passed a marked patrol car, Nate saw her in the backseat, her face shockingly pale against the dark interior. Her head turned toward him just as he turned away.
“But it’s done,” he told his cousin. “It’s done.”