Canadian cop Kieran Fox has fallen from grace after a disastrous romance with the wrong guy--the head of a drug cartel. When Sheriff Dillon DePriest moseys on up north begging Kieran to come to his town of Lone Trail, Texas, to help him deal with a gang of murderous drug dealers, Kieran agrees, if only to get away from the scene of his own crime.
Soon thereafter, Kieran learns that the tough little Texas town is knees-deep in an escalating mystery. There's a cross-dressing Cher impersonator, a killer missing some gold teeth and his...er...dangly bits. And worse, there's Kieran's growing attraction for Lone Trail's sexy U.S. Marshal, Jubilee Mason, that he neither wants nor needs.
"Personally..." The big man leaned forward and lowered his voice as if someone might hear him. "I think you got some pretty important reasons for getting outta Dodge, son. I read about them there Chinese fellas. Your ex-honey was mixed up with some pretty tough characters." He straightened up, stretched his neck. "I don't need ta tell ya, I wouldn't want to be out in the middle of the corral without my pistol if they were gunning for me."
What language is this guy speaking? Since I'd made the error of opening the door of my condo to this heavyset cowboy twenty minutes ago, the man hadn't stopped talking. Worse yet, I wasn't quite sure what in the hell he was talking about.
"You're a quiet one there, young fellow. I s'pose you should tell me what's on your mind." He folded his arms across his massive chest and waited.
I ran my gaze over the man who stood in front of me. He was in his forties with a dollop of rusty brown hair crowning his head. He was almost the same height as me, around six-two, but he was carrying quite a bit of weight around the middle, straining the material of his beige uniform in some strategic places.
He was the first person I'd opened the door to in days. After being hounded by the press, and on guard for assassins lurking around every corner, I'd decided it was time. If Dishi's men were coming for me, I was prepared to take 'em on. I couldn't live the rest of my life, if you could call it one, in fear.
When I heard the door, I dragged myself off the sofa. I'd been lying there for three days. I wrapped my old tattered robe around me and picked my pistol up off the coffee table. I was a crack shot, could have been a sniper if I'd wanted. If something moved, I'd hit it.
"Who is it?" I demanded, keeping left of the door, ducking my head when I passed the window.
The voice on the other side of the door spoke with a deep drawl. "My name is Dillon DePriest, Detective Fox. I'm the police from Lone Trail, Texas."
There wasn't much doubt the guy wasn't from around here the way he said the word POLE...lease.
"Your lieutenant gave me your address."
Actually, I didn't have a lieutenant. I didn't have much of anything anymore. I lowered the gun. "What do you want?"
"I gotta a little fat to chew with you, boy."
Fat to chew?
"Come on, Fox, open up. You're not being very hospitable considerin' I came all the way out here to your neck of the woods just to see ya."
I glanced at myself in the mirror and, for a second, I hardly recognized the man looking back. I had a few days growth of beard and my dark brown hair was hanging around my shoulders, unwashed and uncombed. My green eyes looked bloodshot. I wasn't sure about the last time I'd managed to sleep more than a few hours.
"You there, Detective?"
I cautiously unlocked the door, still holding the gun, and stared at the tall, heavyset man in a police uniform, Stetson in hand. Hell, he even had the cowboy boots. I was a little disappointed to see they didn't wear spurs. This guy would have been right at home in Calgary during the stampede.
"Just Fox. Who in hell are you?" I poked out my head and cautiously glanced around outside the door of my condo.
"Dillon DePriest. There's no one out there. I checked."
"What can I do for you?" I eyed him.
He looked at the gun. "Well, you can put the gun away for starters and invite a fellow in." He met my gaze.
"See a badge?"
The man slowly drew out his badge and flashed it.
I peered at it. "Texas?"
"You got it."
So, I opened the door wider. I figured even the Asian mob didn't have that much imagination. I waited for the man to enter, then closed the door, sliding the bolt into place. The suspense was too much. I wanted to know what in hell some cop from Texas was doing on my doorstep.
Dillon DePriest studied me for a moment. "You don't look much like you did on the news."
"Go figure." I wandered back into the living room area.
"Drink?" I picked up the half-empty bottle of tequila and showed it to the man.
"Wouldn't be fair considering, would it? Looks like you've gotten quite a little head start on me there."
"Um, you mind?" I sank onto the sofa and poured another glass.
"I don't mind. But you're gonna mind plenty in the mornin'. Sobering up hurts worse than chugging it down."
I didn't need a lecture. "What is it you want, Officer DePriest?"
"Well..." He grinned, leaning on the doorjamb. "I want to offer you a position with the Lone Trail Police Department."
I paused in mid swallow, almost choking on the tequila, then let the rest of it slide down my throat. "Where in the hell is the Lone Trail Police Department and why would I want to work there?" The stuff burned all the way down.
I fell quiet and that's when DePriest started going on about getting out of Dodge and all that stuff. In spite of his strange talk, I understood one thing very clearly; this Texas police officer knew all the sordid details of what had happened to me over the last few months.
"Dang it boy, you haven't said a word. Tell me what's going on in that mixed-up head of yours, besides feeling sorry for yourself?"
His patronizing tone got to me. "I think you better leave before you piss me off, cowboy!"
He shrugged. "Besides the fact you got a loaded pistol, given your present state I'm not feeling too worried about gettin' the shit beat outta me right now."
He had a point there. "I don't know you or your little town." I looked up at him. "I'm not interested in police work anymore."
"Is that so?" He walked over to the easy chair and perched on the edge of it. "Well, that's quite a big declaration there, Kieran. And I hate to rain on your parade, but it's been my experience this kind of job gets under your skin, something like a mosquito does, down by the creek after a rainstorm."
I shook my head. "What does that mean?"
He laughed. "You see, I may look like some kind of a redneck from the backwoods to you, son, but I'm not in the habit of using up all my frequent flyer miles just to come after some boy who is about to give up on life. The missus is going to skin me when she finds out I used those miles."
"Look, they may like to be preached to out where you come from, but I don't."
"Don't know much about preaching except from listening to the good reverend on Sunday morning at the Lone Trail Baptist church. But I do know me one thing for sure; you're a damn good cop. In fact, you're probably among the best when it comes to narcotics."
"How in the hell would you know that?"
"Because I've just about followed every case you've worked on."
That surprised me. "What?"
"You heard me."
"Because we got a drug war going on back in my neck of the woods, one that's getting the dealers and their runners dead, and has 'em shooting anything that gets in their way. Ten-year-old boy got shot in the head a few weeks back. He was just playing in the wrong field."
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that but..." I trailed off. I truly was but it had nothing to do with me. "I'm not your man."
"I beg to differ, Kieran. I'm pretty dang sure you are my man. I wouldn't be here otherwise. Besides, you got some Texas in ya. Your daddy came from Texas."
I sucked in some air. Hearing about my father had a way of cutting off my ability to breathe. "What do you know about my father?"
"I know I won't have no trouble with immigration if I hire you on, not that they couldn't be talked into something anyway," he smiled.
It was true I had dual citizenship, but that didn't mean I was going to run off to Texas to work in some backwater town.
"Well, your daddy would be mighty proud if he knew how you turned out."
"I doubt that. He ran off when I was a baby, never came back."
"Life has a way of kicking some people in the ass, don't it?"
"I guess," I scoffed.
"Just to let you know, you'll have to forget to mention the gay thing when you're in Lone Trail. You see, back where I come from, it's Adam and Eve. They haven't really gotten around to the Adam and Steve thing yet. As for me, couldn't care a damn what you do in the bedroom. I say, live and let live. But in Lone Trail, everyone gets into everyone else's beeswax. To be accepted, you gotta be real queer, you know, girlie boyish. They seem to be accepted...the girlie ones. We got one...really swishy like, named Earl. Townsfolk have adopted him, kind of like a pet."
That left a real bad taste in my mouth. "Always wanted to be someone's monkey. They got a cage for him?"
He laughed. "Oh, the townsfolk don't mean no harm in that. Earl's been kicked around quite a bit and he's not too bright. It's just people don't like the ones who hide. If you bat for a different team, they want to know. A guy like you, all macho and stuff...well...you'd get the shit beaten outta you if they found out that you were hidin' your preference."
"Not a preference really but...that's beside the point. If you're trying to sell me on this job of yours back in your homophobic little paradise, you're not doing so hot."
"Just being honest. Want you to know what you're gettin' into."
"Don't worry. I won't be getting into anything because I won't be working there."
"Look, Kieran, sign on for a year. It will get you off the path of the Asian mob, and give these reporter folk a chance to forget about all this mess you've gotten yourself into."
I glanced down at my hands. I was horrified to feel the tears threaten. WTF. I pushed them back. "Why would you want me anyway? I fucked up big time."
"The way I see it, only mistake you made was in judgment. If that fellow hadda been a woman, don't think it would have been such a story after all."
I looked up in surprise.
"Took a lot of guts to do what you did. As soon as you knew he was a big drug dealer, you brought him in, in spite of your feelings. Sometimes the job and the personal get mixed. That's all it was."
I swallowed hard, still staring at my hands.
"And I figure," he shrugged, standing, "their loss is my gain."
I glanced at him.
"I'm a man who believes in taking advantage of opportunities as they come along. I saw one and I traded in my frequent flyer miles and jumped on a plane. I figure I got a chance to get me a big city, top notch narc."
"Lone Trail, eh?" I swallowed.
"Yep. You know, I like the way you fellows talk up here, with your ehs. You pronounce every damn vowel like the world would just cave in if you didn't."
I actually laughed faintly at that. He wouldn't want to hear what I had to say about the way he spoke.
"I'm staying at that fancy place downtown with all the sails on it. Room twenty-four. Damn pricey. One night is all I can afford to put on the expense account." He slapped an airline ticket on the coffee table. "If you don't use it, you best mail it back to me, care of Lone Trail police station...or I'm gonna come for ya. Once you deduct the air miles, the rest is tax payers' money." He turned on his heel and headed for the door.
"Have a nice trip," I murmured, lying back and taking another gulp of the liquor.
"You know, Fox"--he stopped and glanced over his shoulder--"I'm just thinking you got a choice; you can lie there on that sofa and drink until the cows come home. Or"--he placed his hat firmly on his head--"you can get up off that sofa and start over again. From where I hail, that's what a man with guts does, and from what I know of you, you got a lot of that going on."
I closed my eyes and sighed.
"Plane leaves right after lunch tomorrow for Dallas, one o'clock!" He slid the bolt and opened the door. "Oh, one more thing." He turned again, grinning. "I been meaning to ask you. Are you half as good a shot as I've heard you are?"
"Better." I told him.
DePriest chuckled and walked outside, closing the door behind him.
After he left, I managed to doze off for a few hours. Tequila was a great sleeping pill. It was almost midnight when I got off the sofa again and went to the computer. I thought about what my life had become and I Googled the town of Lone Trail, Texas. That cowboy was right. I couldn't lie on the sofa for the rest of my life. I'd have to pick myself up and start again sometime. I'd done nothing wrong, broken no laws. I'd just fallen for the wrong guy.
I had to forgive myself for that. That's all it was, forgiveness. I knew I'd never make that mistake again. I would never let my guard down again. I'd learned my lesson.
Lone Trail, Texas, was no Vancouver, British Colombia, for sure. For a town of fewer than ten thousand people, the crime rate was double the national average. Sounded like I wouldn't get bored! The same family names seemed to come up again and again. Everyone related? The word inbred came to mind.
There appeared to be two principal families that ran everything, including the drug trade...the Keens and the Masons. Move over Hatfields and McCoys!
However, the crime rate wasn't what terrified me about Lone Trail. It was all the pictures of women in floppy hats and people line dancing in plaid shirts and big boots. They sure had a lot of festivals.
The local town newspaper, the Lone Trail Reporter, covered everything from some garden party held by a Mrs. Tucker, where she served tiny cucumber sandwiches and sweet tea, to the arrest of a gang of toothless, white supremacists that shot an African American in the head in his pickup truck over his barking dog. Wonder if they'd been invited to eat the fancy sandwiches at Mrs. Tucker's.
Two police organizations were mentioned often in connection with the drug trade: the local sheriff's office that to my surprise was headed by Dillon DePriest--guy might have told me he was the sheriff--and the U.S. Marshals office. These two policing agencies seemed to get in each other's way a lot. Although there had been several arrests for assault as well as murder in the town recently, neither agency appeared to be able to get to those who were actually running the drugs.
Yep, Lone Trail was a scary place. People prayed with snakes, and preachers claimed to make the blind see and the lame walk. White supremacists walked around with swastikas tattooed on their necks, shooting people, and women were referred to as belles. And there didn't appear to be a gay bar in sight.
But that last part was a good thing. There was no temptation there, which meant there were probably no beautiful men ready to trick me into bed, then stab me in the heart, at least none that would be brave enough to own up to it in that place. People didn't know me. I could start over. And maybe, just maybe, this was a case I could sink my teeth into and help me forget how much in love I'd allowed myself to get.
The sun was up before I started to pack my bag. I told no one except my neighbor at the condo, Mary Sousa. She promised to collect my mail and check on things while I was gone. I had no cat, no bird, and no life, so I grabbed the ticket DePriest had left on the coffee table, and called a cab to take me to the airport.
When I passed through customs and walked into the boarding area, I spotted Dillon DePriest right away. He was hard to miss, sitting there with his big hat on his lap. As I walked toward him, I noticed a few more men in cowboy hats and boots. This isn't Oz, Dorothy, I thought. We were headed to Texas!
I sat in one of the hard plastic chairs beside DePriest and put my carryon bag between my feet.
Dillon DePriest didn't look at me but he asked casually, "Hit a lot of traffic on the way here, did ya?"
"Normal amount, I guess."
"Um, so, what took you so long then?"
I looked at him. He met my gaze, then grinned as I shook my head and smiled faintly.
Dillon reached over and slapped his hand on my knee. "Hot damn!" he whooped, causing the other passengers to look over at them. "I got me a real live narc!"
Once we were settled in our seats in the air, Dillon DePriest said, "One thing I didn't mention to you was Jubilee Mason."
"Didn't mention that you were the sheriff either," I commented.
"Oh well, that. Didn't want to brag none."
"So, who's Jubilee Mason? One of the suspects?" I had seen the name Mason come up a few times in the Lone Trail paper.
"Worse! He's a U.S. Marshal, a fed we call 'em down there, a young hot shot, and a hometown boy."
"He related to the Masons who have been arrested lately?"
"Cousins...a lot of cousins."
"He came back to town after doing some policing in Dallas for a spell. Honorable enough. He takes his job real serious. He's daddy to little Philip and Andre now, Peggy's kids, that's his sister."
"Her husband got shot down in Afghanistan."
"That's too bad," I murmured.
"Reason he gave up his job and came home. There's a lot of honor in that. But damn it"--Dillon DePriest punched the armrest--"Jubilee takes the shine right out of my sun."
"He's the curdle in my milk, the fly in my soup."
I stared at him. "Can you give me an example? I don't think I speak Texan."
"He don't trust the local police, though I can't say I blame him. Before I come along, there was a lot of corruption, greasing palms, you know what I mean?"
"Yes. We have that, too."
"So that boy comes back to town and they put him as the key investigator on this drug case. We know it's connected to another syndicate, the big boys. Jubilee is always second-guessing me...like a hound on a blood trail. Checks every damn thing I do. He's as stubborn as a stupid-assed mule, he is. But"--he grinned--"Jube is just about the nicest fellow you're ever going to meet. Give you the shirt right off his back. Handsome brute, ladies love him. And he's smart for someone so young. Can't be much older than you are."
"How can he be both a stupid-assed mule and the nicest guy you'll ever meet at the same time?" I was really confused now. I had a feeling the more the days went by, the more confused I'd become.
Dillon laughed. "Down in Lone Trail, we know when to separate work and socializing."
"Ouch." That stung.
"No offense." He patted my shoulder. "When that boy is not marshaling, we get along like two peas in a pod. Even go hunting together. I mean I've known him since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. His father was even sheriff at one time. But when we're working, well...it's another story. He has a way of rattling my cage. That's why I can't wait until he gets a gander at you!"
"Wait a minute. Why me? I don't want to get in the middle of any type of feud you got going with this marshal."
"Not a feud"--he chuckled--"Just his eyes are going to pop when he knows I got a big city narcotics cop on my team. Hot damn!" He laughed.
Oh brother. I didn't like the sound of that.
"It's all in fun, mind you."
"Right. Ah...Dillon, are there any houses or apartments to rent in your town?"
"We'll get you all fixed up, no worries. Won't need to sleep in anyone's haystack. You'll be snug as a bug in a rug at my place until we move you someplace permanent. You'll stay with the missus and Jesse-Belle until you get settled."
"I can't put you and your family out."
"We got plenty of room. Told the missus last night you'd be coming."
I narrowed my eyes. "Last night?"
He smiled at me. "Never had any doubt."
I sighed. Right. I was that predictable...or that desperate. "That your daughter, this Jesse-Belle?"
"Nope, my two girls are all grown up and gone, live in Dallas they do." He took out his wallet and passed me a photograph. "This here is the oldest, Christine, married a lawyer. She's a photographer." I found myself looking at the picture of a nice-looking young woman with coppery hair. "The other one"--he passed me the next photograph--"is my little Willow." She was blonde and not exactly little, but rather a plump, smiley girl with big blue eyes. "She works in advertising."
"Nice family," I said politely.
"This is my little darling orange blossom, Elsie." He flashed the next picture at me. "The love of my life. We'll be married twenty-five years this coming June."
I smiled. She was a tall woman with poofy hair and a generous smile. Looked nice. "Congratulations. So, who is Jesse-Belle then?"
"Oh dang, got so caught up in showing off my family, I forgot the question. Jesse-Belle is my wife's niece."
"Oh. You have a picture of her, too?"
"Good gracious, no." He tucked the pictures away again in his overstuffed wallet. "Every picture she's given us, she's wearing dresses up to her neck and necklines plunging down to her waist. Elsie gets so peeved with her, tells her she looks like a ten-dollar whore."
That must go over well, I thought.
"She's been living with us since the divorce. A little ornery, but don't mind her none. She's got the raging hormones, you know, since she's a single woman again."
"A little wild in that girl. Preacher even tried to exorcise her once. Plum ridiculous mumbo jumbo. You can't tame that girl. Anyways, what happened was, she done got his pants down to his knees." He chuckled. "Didn't mean no harm."
My eyes widened even more. "She took the preacher's pants off?"
"Not off, just got them down to his knees."
"Maybe she needs help," I muttered.
"Good heavens, Kieran." He sighed. "She's our harvest queen. We'd have to lock her up to get her that kind of help...can't lock up the harvest queen, can we? She'll settle down eventually."
Although I really didn't have any idea what a harvest queen was, it sounded important.
"Nope"--Dillon sighed heavily--"problem with our Jesse-Belle is she needs a man. See, she up and married one of those Keen boys, a real troublemaker. His family is involved with trafficking up to their necks. He was in and out of jail, always drinking. She divorced him, but she's the type of woman, all out of sorts without a man to be bedding, if you get my drift. Just move the dresser up against the door at night before you go to sleep. You'll be all right."
"Move the...ah...maybe there's a hotel somewhere I can stay?"
"There's Miss Jones's Bed and Breakfast, but I had to arrest her a while back for running a bawdy house, so she's closed, only temporary, mind you. Folks do have to make a living and she's a widow. Husband died of mouth cancer...chewin'."
"Tobacco?" I made a face.
"You got it. Anyway, it was only a few locals she had in there and she charged for the drinks and such, gave all the money to her daughters who do the putting out. Trouble was, Miss Jones bought the liquor on the black market instead of the legal way."
I just stared at him. "What about the prostitution?"
"Oh that ain't no never mind. Minor stuff, really. But it's a dry county, no liquor stores. A few blind pigs but we don't bother with them. If we don't let those guys function, we get a lot more trouble, what with the illegal trade. Anyway, I'll let her operate again if you like, just for you. It's clean enough, no bugs, although you might find a lizard or two, alligator lizards to be exact. But only if it gets too hot."
"They're a cross with the lizards, itty-bitty things, really. Big strapping fellow like you not afraid of lizards and snakes and such, are you?"
I shuddered. I'd never actually seen any lizards, and as for alligators, well...I could do without seeing those, too.
"We got a colony of them down here. We even call them by name."
I closed my eyes. Good Lord. What have I done?
Three hours later, I was riding in the sheriff's pickup that he'd parked at the airport. Once we left the city of Dallas with its various shapes of skyscrapers, I got a bit edgy. The smooth city roads got rough. Soon we were travelling over bumpy terrain and down unpaved back roads.
"Ah, Dillon," I spoke up, "where is this town exactly?"
"Coming up, another thirty miles, or so. You are now officially in East County."
"We are?" I looked around, trying to see through the dust that was kicking up around us. All there seemed to be were fields and trees.
"It said so back there on that sign pinned to the outhouse. Said Welcome to East County."
"Oh, I must have missed the outhouse."
He chuckled. "The sign was blown down during the last cyclone, no one bothered to put it up again. They just tacked it to the outhouse."
"We get those once in a while. Last one I recall was in ninety-eight."
Great. Alligators, cyclones, and a horny niece.
"We'll reach the exit in a little bit. To the left is Lone Trail, to the right, New Trail."
He laughed. "You got what'cha call a dry wit. I like that. Makes me smile. Some people around here didn't go very far in school though. They're not going to catch on. Might think you're uppity."
"That's okay. I can handle that."
"I got a feeling you can handle just about anything this county's got to throw at ya, son."
"One hopes." Although I wasn't so sure about Jesse-Belle.