by S. M. Harding
When Win Kirkland left the Marine Corps Intelligence Agency after twenty-five years, she thought she’d left war behind. But a sniper’s shot through her front window soon ends the tranquility she’d been seeking. It also brings Sheriff Sarah Barrow Pitt—her one time best friend—back into her life.
For her part, the Sheriff has fought crime her entire life. But her latest battle seems to be keeping her own job in a deeply conservative area. She and Win were once close, until an unguarded moment profoundly altered their friendship. Now Win is in trouble—and doesn’t want her help.
As evils of the past and present threaten to engulf them both, admitting to their feelings might just pose the most dangerous risk of all.
One kiss can change your life.
A soft brush of lips that flames desire for union with the other. Two lives entwining, growing together. All that in one kiss—that both of us drew back from, as if lips had been hot irons. One kiss.
I’m growing weary of this constant contradiction between feeling delicious expansion and fearsome contraction. I dare not breathe.
When people hear the word sheriff, they conjure up the romantic haze of gunslingers in the Old West or a posse chasing bandits through the Badlands. But to me, sheriff means reams of paperwork to get through every day, a dwindling budget and some sixty people under my command to keep McCrumb County’s fifty thousand residents safe. As a third-generation sheriff, the word also signifies power restrained by the law and one hell of a lot responsibility.
A tap on the doorframe and I looked up to see my chief deputy examining the mess on my desk—tons of paper and a dozen file folders.
“Should I come back later?” Caleb asked.
I motioned him to sit. “I’ve been going over grants—Homeland Security, DOD, the whole damn alphabet of governmental agencies. You think we could use a SWAT team?”
Caleb eased down in the chair, rubbed his jaw. “Honestly, Sarah, we need money to run the department as it is, not military hardware or gung-ho soldiers. Or am I missing something?”
“Grandpa eliminated rank in the department because he didn’t want us confused with the military—that’s not what or who we are. We’re peacekeepers. But we need more deputies on patrol, and the county commissioners aren’t going to give us the money. We need to find outside sources, like the federal government.”
He looked at me glumly, but then a smile cracked his face. “New hires? Who are on patrol most times, not doing SWAT stuff?”
I grinned back. “I think we can swing it. We have to, because after all this snow, we’ll be lucky if the commissioners don’t cut more of our budget and send it to Roads. It damn well better stop snowing or we won’t have the budget to put any deputies on patrol until summer.”
“I think we should take our commissioners on a week of ride-alongs.” He shifted in the chair. “You sure we ain’t making a deal with the devil?”
“No.” I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my neck. “Drugs flood the county, weapons follow. We’re already outgunned. I don’t know, Caleb. We’ll just have to proceed with care.”
“Why don’t you run the SWAT idea by Win Kirkland? Ex-Special Forces, isn’t she? Probably could head the team. At least, might know of some good hires who aren’t rabid.”
“Uh, that’s a thought.” I got busy sorting the files into meaningful stacks.
He brushed his mustache. “You are running for sheriff again?”
I fussed with the files on my desk. “Haven’t really thought about it yet.”
“Sarah, you better start thinking real fast. We’re getting close to the time when you’ll have to declare.” He gave me a hard look. “Mac and his crew are running someone. Not Mac.”
“Hell. After the disaster Mac made this office, does he really think anyone in the county would vote for his candidate?”
Caleb nodded. “’Cause no one’s gonna know he’s backing the candidate. We need to get ahead of them.”
Caleb rose, put a folder on the edge of the desk. “The week’s crime and closure stats. We can’t get a new boat for rescue and those commissioners are considering building a fucking ten mil waterpark!”
What could I say? Everybody in McCrumb County knew the commissioners were a band of nitwits—and kept voting them into office. I watched Caleb weave his way through the bullpen and slam into his small office.
I went through the stacks of paper, stuffed all the SWAT material into one folder, then put all of it in my briefcase. Time to go home.
* * *
I drove with one hand on the steering wheel and half a mind on the road. My headlights were small ripples of light that bounced off five-foot snowbanks and made the road feel like a tunnel to Alaska. Maybe it was and if I just kept going, I could mail my badge and all its weight to Caleb with a note: Run!
A night like this, cold with snow, Hugh made a traffic stop on I-65. He ended up on the berm, a bloody mess, still bleeding out when Dad found him. Could it really be fifteen years ago? I’d tunneled everything into work, the only area left I had passion for. Was the passion waning?
I slowed, pulled into the rutted drive of the Barrow family homestead. Family legend had it that this was the fourth incarnation, the others burned down by a renegade band of Shawnee, Morgan’s Raiders and lightning. Built around what was left after the last fire in the 1880s, it was a nightmare to maintain. But it was home, where I’d come when Hugh died and where I’d stayed when Mom got sick. When she died, I thought I’d lose Dad too, through those long nights when he’d paced through the hours.
I pulled into the area Dad had cleared of snow, turned off the engine and sat. I didn’t want to go down this road again, raking through the past to find my present or my future. Screw it all.
When I opened the back door, I was almost knocked off the stoop by the aroma of beef, onions and garlic. I closed the door quickly and got out of my outerwear. I padded into the kitchen in time to see Dad put the lid of the roaster on the counter.
“Smells wonderful. What is it?”
“Oh wow—it’s been ages.”
“Yep,” Micah said. “Since Lizbeth last made it. Finally found her recipe. Hurry up an’ wash up, I’m dishin’ up right now.”
He could say my mother’s name without hesitation, as a familiar landscape of his life, viewed and touched every single day. I still avoided talk of Hugh, as if I inhabited a subterranean chamber that distorted sound. Hell.
After dinner, I handed him the SWAT folder as he popped up his recliner’s footrest. As I built a fire, I could hear him flipping through the pages.
“Is it advice you want, Sarah?”
I told him my plan and watched as his eyebrows inched upward. I settled on the couch with the department’s budget request, but I couldn’t keep the figures in focus. My thoughts kept slipping to Win Kirkland.
I’d known Win since first grade, and as friends do, shared secrets with her. She’d told me she was gay our sophomore year in high school. Win dropped out of college after her freshman year, joined the marines and when she retired from their Intelligence Agency, had come home. She’d also brought the war home in the form of David Paria, who’d tried to kill her. The case had brought us back together.
Last week, she’d invited me to see the new house she’d designed and finally moved into. We’d ended up talking about Hugh. For the first time, I didn’t hear the warp in my voice, the reluctance to say his name or tell his death. Win, in return, had given stories of Afghanistan, Iraq, places all over the Middle East and North Africa. Not adventures, but journeys of understanding.
The warmth of the fire in the fieldstone fireplace against the snow outside, the openness of Win’s face and the way she listened all combined to make me relax. Not think about work, but to say things I’d only thought.
As I took my leave, we stood at the same height by the door.
“What do you want the next chapter of your life to read?” Win asked.
“No idea, I just keep reading word to word. You?”
“To stop ducking at every backfire. Otherwise, it’s a blank page.”
We hugged, but instead of stepping back, she pulled me close and kissed me.
“You run this past Win yet?” Dad asked.
His voice shocked me back from a bewildering cascade of feelings. The budget schedule spilled from my lap. “Uh, no.”
“Do it, Sarah Anne.” He closed the folder. “Got no experience with half of them agencies, you mebbe could pick up a few deputies thanks to the largesse of the United States Government.”
He looked at the papers strewn over the couch and floor. “You okay?”
“Budget time. You know I get twitchy.” I collected the papers, carefully sorting them into the proper order.
He didn’t say anything, just examined my face.
“I’ll call Win, see if she can meet tomorrow.”
He took off his glasses. “Win’s a good woman, smart, big heart. Guess she don’t talk much ’bout what she went through, but I reckon the wounds are slow healin’.”
“Was she shot?”
“Internal injuries, Sarah. Scars of the psyche.” He flicked on the TV. “Be a dang good addition to the constabulary of McCrumb County.”
* * *
Win’s military bearing brought her into Beans aBrewing with easy strides. She acknowledged me with a nod and made for the counter. She wore her blond hair short and spiky, and I had a feeling she could be prickly as her hair. She would be a formidable foe. Or friend? Had been. Could be again? Or had I ended our friendship with my rapid retreat? Did she think it was a slap at who she was?
I shook my head to clear it. It wasn’t like I’d been celibate since Hugh. Why the hell had this one brief kiss shaken me to my root cellar?
The other chair at the table scraped back, and I looked up into eyes as blue as mine. And as searching.
“I want to apologize, Sarah. Not only was I out of line, but I’ve thrown you a fastball you never saw coming.” She took a sip of some variety of latte that smelled like fall. “Anyway, I value our friendship. How easy it was to pick up after all these years. How comfortable it was to talk to you. I had to screw it up. It’ll never happen again. Promise.”
“Why did you? Kiss me, I mean.”
Win ran her hand through her hair. “You looked so alone. I just wanted to…” She wrapped both hands around her coffee cup.
“So, you wanted to run an idea by me? About a SWAT team?”
I exhaled and told her my idea. She said she’d go over the material and asked if I wanted her to write up the grant applications.
“Really? You’d do that?”
“Don’t have a lot on the schedule, Sarah. I’ll drop them off at the station when I get them finished.”
“Sure. Great.” I handed her the file folder. “I, uh, I didn’t mean to flee. I mean, I didn’t even say anything.” I remembered my shaky descent of her porch steps, dropping my car keys. I could feel a flush spreading from my neck.
“What would you have said, Sarah?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Then maybe fleeing was the best thing. We’ll keep it business. When I prove true to my word, maybe we can be comfortable again.” Win scraped her chair back. “Besides, I never get involved with straight women. Nothing but a whole heap of trouble.”
She stood, gave me a small salute and left.
What the hell had she meant, “I looked so alone”? Forlorn? Wimpy? Not the picture I had of myself. Did others see her version or mine? Again, she’d left me disturbed.
I took a sip of coffee. Cold. Batting a thousand. Nothing but distance from Win, cold coffee and budget time. Damn.
Jerry, one of the owners, exchanged my cold cup for a fresh one. “Couldn’t figure out if you were going to leave or you just wanted some quiet time before you headed back to work. Sorry to make you wait.”
I pulled the fresh cup toward me. “Day off and I just passed off some work. I can loiter.”
“Do you always carry a gun?”
I pulled my blazer in place over my shoulder holster. “Yep, part of the job.”
“How awful for you because you can never get away from the job.When are you starting your campaign for reelection?”
“Been too busy doing the job to think about it.”
He sat in the chair Win had vacated. “Well, I heard the opposition’s going to run some Navy SEAL who’s going ‘to bring the sheriff’s department into the twenty-first century.’” He closed the air quote and leaned in. “They say it’s pitiful we don’t even have a SWAT team.”
I drew a deep breath, exhaled slowly. “We’re running on a shoestring right now, and until the economy and the weather really turn around, the commissioners have very little to dole out. That’s the reality. SWAT teams consume funds we don’t have unless we can get outside funding.”
“Well, we don’t need SWAT people, do we?”
“If drugs keep flooding into the county, we might.” I took a long sip, then scooted my chair closer. “I haven’t heard about a SEAL running, but I did hear Mac’s behind the candidate.”
“Shhh. That’s for your ears only.”
“That awful man. God help us all! He hates gays.” Jerry stood. “You know me—the soul of discretion. This news will never pass my lips.”
I watched him march back to the counter, the growl from his corduroy trousers increasing with every step. If Mac wanted to play games over law enforcement in McCrumb County, he was going to have to deal with gossip central.
* * *
The completed grant applications landed on my desk two days later. Caleb brought the manila envelope and sat in the visitor’s chair. “Win said to tell you, if you got any questions, here’s her email address.” He handed me a Post-It.
God, she didn’t even want to talk to me. I stuck it on my computer monitor. “You have time to go through these now?”
He nodded, and I pulled out the thick pile of paper and handed him half. We read in silence. After two pages, I knew I could never have produced such compelling and cogent reasons for funds. As I worked through the pages, I realized she’d found several grants I’d missed. Damn. Maybe she should run for sheriff. Or had Mac already tapped her talent?
“DOD should love these,” Caleb said, sliding his stack toward me.
I handed him my finished reading. “She’s done a much better job than I could’ve.”
He scanned a page, flipped it. “Whoa—two Zodiacs. How’d she know we needed a new boat for Water Rescue?”
“Maybe she heard the groans every time we took our boat out. Caleb, I didn’t find any way to get the money for one. Here she comes up with an application for two, plus scuba gear and more training.”
“When all this snow starts melting, we’ll need Water Rescue at peak performance.” Caleb rubbed his jaw. “Think we ought to leave the forensic lab in the basement?”
“I’ve been thinking about that too.” I massaged the back of my neck. “That warren of small rooms on the third floor? What if we knocked out a few walls and moved the lab up there?”
Caleb did more jaw rubbing, this time with his knuckles. “We have money for it?”
“Volunteer labor and supplies. I could get Dad started on organizing it.”
He grinned. “Let’s go up and show me what you’re thinking.”
I took the rough plans I’d drawn up and rose. “I think Vincente and Leslie should be in on this from the get-go.”
Vincente was out on patrol, but Leslie joined us. We spent the next two hours working through the plan, with Leslie throwing in her suggestions. Since she was half of our CSI team, we listened.
“We’ve gotta get this junk out before we do anything else.” Caleb brushed dust off his black uniform. “Shall we?”
By the time I got home, I was covered in dust and achy. We’d moved a ton of stuff down three flights of stairs to our Dumpster.
“You have a rough collar in a bakery?” Dad asked as I hung up my parka.
“You remember the third floor?”
“Oh my.” He quickly turned back to the stove and began dishing up.
Over dinner, I explained my plans and asked him if he’d be in charge of the project.
“Depends,” he said, beginning to clear the table. “On if you’re plannin’ on bein’ ’round long enough to reap the benefits of such labor.” He put the dishes in the sink with a loud clink of china. “Signatures is all collected, paperwork all filled out. Waitin’ on the dining room table for your signature. All of that paper is goin’ into the fireplace tomorrow. You don’t want the job, you don’t deserve it.”
Rage swept over me, churning my stomach, clenching my jaws shut. Didn’t deserve it? After the years of bone-hard work? The sleepless nights, working or worrying about work? Deserve? The hell with it!
I shoved back my chair, left my plates on the table and stomped into the dining room. Without even turning on a light, I scribbled my signature. Threw the pen down and marched upstairs to bed.
The tears came after I’d tucked myself in. I’d always worked so hard to gain Dad’s approval, not that he’d ever begrudged it. He’d always given it freely, sometimes lavishly. Okay, it was me, not him. Except, he’d hovered a bit when I first took office, but he’d gradually backed off. Which allowed me to seek his advice from time to time. Ah, pride.
I wiped the back of my hand across my face. He’d said if I didn’t want it. Did I? I’d kept pushing that question away the whole past year. I felt the weight of that badge every moment I was awake and a few in dreams. When Dad was sheriff, he made time for us that he didn’t have. I had no family but Dad. So maybe too much of me got funneled into the badge.
Last year, Dory had taken a long up-and-down look at me from her seat at the dispatch console. “When you gonna get yourself a boyfriend?”
“Too old for boys,” I’d replied, blushing.
“Can’t grow nothin’ in a garden ain’t gettin’ watered.”
I’d walked away from the cryptic comment, didn’t ask what she’d meant and didn’t want to know. I kept myself wrapped in the cocoon the badge provided. Everyone was distanced by a sheriff’s need for neutrality and objectivity to maintain the wall against discrimination.
Is that what made me look so alone to Win? I wished I could ask her.
A tap at the door and it opened. The hall light let a slash of light in. “Sarah Anne? You awake?”
“Just wanted to apologize for rilin’ you up so. I surely didn’t mean to offend. But your election committee is gettin’ a tad bit nervous. ’Fraid you won’t run ’cause you got too much sense to suffer ’nother four years of stress an’ bein’ the butt of ever body’s anger and frustration. They wouldn’t blame you, neither would I. You do what fits you, Sarah Anne.”
“We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
“Anytime you want to talk, ’bout anythin’, I’m here to listen. Good night, Sarah Anne.”
The door closed softly and I was left in the dark.