by Erica Abbott
The dry, wide plains of the high desert are a mirror to the barren places in Jean McAllister’s heart. With a new home in southern Colorado, and an ideal job as a Deputy County Attorney, she hopes to overcome a painful past.
Jean meets the dedicated yet charming Sheriff Lea Hawkins when she defends the Sheriff’s Office in a lawsuit. Just as Jean begins to wonder if love can thrive in the desert, the murder of a colleague shatters her cautious happiness and casts doubt over everyone, including Lea.
Caught between a scorched past and the dangerous heat that Lea awakens, can Jean find the truth and save their chance for a future together?
GCLS Goldie Awards
Desert Places — Finalist, Lesbian Romantic Suspense/Intrigue/Adventure.
Lesbian Reading Room
Ms Abbott uses her native Colorado to great effect with stunning scenery, moonlight walks and sunset rides. The love of place is evident and adds a depth to the story, where the Hawkins are firmly rooted in the land and the community. Good storytelling, likeable characters and a charming romance… I thoroughly enjoyed this, a light and fast read, perfect for a summers day in the garden.
Jean saw the blood as soon as she opened the door to the house.
She ran down the hall, blood flowing like a warm scarlet river under her feet. When she burst through the open doorway to the master bedroom, she saw Charlotte sitting on the edge of their bed. Jean looked down to see bright red blood pouring out of a hole in the center of her chest where her heart should have been.
With dead eyes, Charlotte looked at Jean and said, “You see what you did to me?”
Jean woke with a jerk and the echo of a sharp cry.
The room was dark, lit only by the pale yellow ghosts of the streetlights two floors below. Jean sat up, heart throbbing in her chest. The T-shirt she slept in was damp with sweat and she plucked it away from her body.
It had been months since the last nightmare. What had brought it back now?
The move, she thought, that must be it. She’d changed everything, her job and her home, moving hundreds of miles away to a new life.
You can’t get away from me. She heard the whisper in her mind.
Jean threw the bedcovers violently aside and got up. The wood floor was cold against the soles of her feet, reminding her that she still had a lot of things to buy for the condominium, including a rug for the bedroom. She padded barefoot into the kitchen, opening three cabinets in the dark before she remembered which one she’d put the glasses in. Groping for the water cooler, she filled the glass and drank it down thirstily. She refilled the glass and took it back into her bedroom.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she pressed the cold glass to her forehead. Accustomed as she was to the humidity of Texas summers, the dry hot air of the high plains in southern Colorado still surprised her. It seemed impossible to drink enough water.
Her air-conditioning unit hummed, fighting to keep the bedroom cool, but Jean wasn’t bothered by the heat. For what had seemed a long time her body was always frozen, as if beneath her skin was a layer of permafrost never touched by the sun.
She drank the rest of the water and got under the covers, hoping that the remainder of the night would bring her respite from the dreams.
“The boss wants to see you right away,” Jean McAllister heard from her office doorway.
She looked up to see Rita Lopez, one of the paralegals in the San Carlos county attorney’s office, waiting for her.
“Okay,” Jean said quickly, turning her eyes back to her computer monitor. “Thanks, Rita.”
Unwilling to be dismissed, Rita added, “He really needs to see you before the public hearing, he said.”
Jean glanced at the time. The San Carlos county commissioners met at ten a.m. every Monday morning, which meant she had less than ten minutes to get down the hall and finish with the county attorney before he had to be in the meeting. With an unhappy sigh, she saved the document on her screen and got up.
“Thanks,” Rita murmured as Jean passed her. “You know how he gets.”
Rita’s expression radiated relief and Jean just managed not to scowl at her, reminding herself that the summons from Del Franklin wasn’t Rita’s fault. Jean had been the deputy county attorney, second in command in the office, for less than a month, but she already knew that her boss could be nasty when those around him didn’t jump when he whistled.
The county attorney’s office represented the board and county officials by providing legal advice and representing the county in court. Her boss had been appointed by the three elected members of the board of county commissioners and keeping them happy took up much of his time.
She thought about Del Franklin as she walked down the carpeted hall toward his office. He had seemed nice enough when she’d interviewed for the job, a bit forceful maybe, but then Jean herself could be more than a little intense. At the time she’d thought they might make a good pairing of co-workers but she was beginning to wonder.
Jean shook off her doubts as she knocked on the frame of Franklin’s door. She was going to make a success of this job because she had to—there was no going back.
“Rita said you needed to see me?” she said when Franklin looked up.
“Where have you been, McAllister?” he demanded.
“In my office, working on the Speedy Auto Sales brief,” Jean answered in a crisp voice.
Franklin had a face that had probably been good-looking when he was in college or law school. Now he had sandy hair that was going thin and large brown eyes that always seemed bloodshot. From this distance Jean saw the flushed cheeks and tiny broken blood vessels in his nose as signs of a man who drank every night. Franklin snapped, “Aren’t you done with that yet? It’s just a Rule 106 appeal.”
Jean tried not to grit her teeth. A landowner who appealed an adverse zoning decision by the county board had to proceed under Civil Rule of Procedure 106 and was required to show that the board had no evidence to deny the rezoning. The standard for the landowner was almost impossible to meet and therefore counties won almost every appeal. In a larger office, such a case would have been assigned to a junior attorney, but Jean understood that she would have a reasonable amount of grunt work to do with only five attorneys in the entire office.
“We still have to file a brief,” Jean reminded him, trying to hide her own flare of annoyance. “And since I wasn’t here when the case was heard, I had to review the entire case file and review the hearing transcript before I could start.”
He snorted, apparently unhappy that he had no logical reason to criticize her further. He switched topics. “Look, I’ve got to get to the meeting with the board. I want you to get the Rosales file from Lopez. The discovery schedule on the case is about to bite us in the ass. We’ve got a deposition scheduled for next week that you need to cover.”
Jean’s eyes narrowed. “Are we taking the depo or defending?” she asked.
He stood impatiently. “Defending. They’re finally getting around to deposing our sheriff and you’ll need to do the prep.”
Thanks for the advance notice. Jean counted to ten silently and then asked, “Is it my case or am I just defending the deposition for you?”
Franklin snatched up his file folder marked Sept. 13 BCC public hearing. He said, “It’s your case now. After discovery closes, you’ll need to do a Motion for Summary Judgment and see if we can beat the defendants down to a reasonable amount for the settlement.”
She walked him into the hallway as she tried to pry a little more information from him. “What’s the lawsuit about?” she asked. Most lawsuits against the county were either land use issues, like the rezoning case she was working on, or personal injury claims from accidents with public vehicles or on public roads. Because the county attorney’s office didn’t prosecute criminal matters, she would only represent the sheriff in a civil lawsuit.
“Some guy died in our jail,” Franklin said. “Read the pleadings, McAllister. I’ve got to go.”
He strutted off and Jean shook her head in irritation. A wrongful death action was a major suit and yet again she was being handed a case already halfway through.
It’s going to be like this for a while, Jean told herself, until I’ve been here long enough to start practicing some preventive law.
She found Rita, who handed her a thick file folder labeled Rosales v. San Carlos sheriff. Jean stood by Rita’s desk and flipped the file open. Everything was in the one file, attached to the folder with a double metal prong that was full. One more sheet of paper and the entire case file would fall apart in her hands.
“Rita, what’s going on?” Jean snapped. “This file is a mess.”
Rita glanced meaningfully toward Franklin’s office then looked back to Jean. “He doesn’t like us to organize his case files,” she said apologetically. “He just puts everything in chronologically.”
Jean looked at her aghast, remembering at the last second not to kill the messenger. “Yes, well he’s assigned the case to me now, so I’d be an idiot not to use my paralegal, wouldn’t I? This needs some serious attention right away. Pleadings in one folder, correspondence in another, discovery in another, you know the system. If you’re not sure where something goes, ask me.” She flipped through the pile of documents rapidly. “Any legal research in here, do you know?”
Rita shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ll reorganize the file myself. Deb hasn’t had a lot of experience with the litigation files.”
“Okay, but I need it as soon as possible. Apparently the plaintiff is deposing our sheriff next week and I’ve got to get him prepped right away.”
“Her,” Rita said.
Jean was already turning back toward her office while mentally organizing her schedule. Finish the Speedy Auto brief by this afternoon, file it electronically and then go through the Rosales file and—
“What?” she said to Rita, finally registering her comment.
“Her,” Rita repeated. “Sheriff Lea Hawkins. Our sheriff is a woman.”
Jean blinked at her. She’d tried to meet as many elected officials as she could, but the sheriff’s office was in another building and she just hadn’t had time yet.
“Okay,” she said, still distracted. “I’ve got to prepare her for the deposition but I’ve got to read the file first, so the sooner you can get it to me the better.”
“I’ll have it for you by the end of the day,” Rita promised.
Jean tried to make an effort. She needed the goodwill of the best paralegal in the office if she expected to get anything done and Rita had always been both pleasant and efficient. She was a pretty woman with dark hair she kept in a long ponytail. “Rita?” she said, managing a smile. “Thanks, I do appreciate it.”
Rita returned a smile of her own. Jean wondered briefly how long it had been since Del Franklin had said something nice to her.
“No problem, Ms. McAllister.”
* * *
Jean was checking her citations to case law as the last step in finishing the Speedy Auto brief when she heard another voice in her doorway.
“Um, Jean? Got a minute?”
Assistant county attorney Todd Moorman hovered in her doorway. Jean suppressed a sigh. Patiently she said, “Come in. I’ve got to finish the cite-checking on this real quick and send
it to Rita and then I’m good.”
She finished verifying that the citations to legal authority were all correct and then typed a quick email to Rita, asking her to format the brief and file it with the district court. Almost all court filings were done electronically, but the briefs still had to be in the correct format and the paralegals were the experts in e-filing.
Jean sat back and tried not to think about the pile of newly organized file folders on her desk that represented the Rosales case and her next task. She focused on Todd. “How are things going?”
“Um, okay, I think,” Todd said. “I know you’re busy.”
Jean said, “Well, we’re all busy. What’s up?”
He rubbed his hands on the arms of the chair and she mentally tried to hurry him up. Come on, I’ve got stuff to do here! But she knew the harder she pressed him the more indirect he would become. Everything about Todd seemed tentative, from his unpolished brown shoes to his ties, which never looked like he quite knew how to knot them correctly.
Jean had a sudden brief and clear memory of tying Charlotte’s ties for her, when Char was doing front of the house work at her restaurant. Char hated dealing with customers most of the time but she knew how to turn on the charm when called for, Jean remembered. But Char never could figure out a Windsor knot. Many times Jean would stand behind her and tie the black tie perfectly, a skill perfected when she had learned to tie her little brother’s ties before Sunday school years before. Then Jean would kiss Char and tell her how nice she looked.
Will the random pieces of memory ever go away? Jean wondered. Or perhaps they would continue to pinball around her mind haphazardly for the rest of her life.
“I’ve got this case in front of the planning commission,” Todd was saying, and as he talked Jean wondered why he was coming to her with this question. The planning commission was only a recommending body anyway since the board of county commissioners made the final land use decisions for the unincorporated parts of the county. More to the point, Todd had been in the county attorney’s office three years already and Jean had to wonder what he thought she knew that he didn’t.
Technically, of course, she was his supervisor, since Franklin had gladly turned over personnel management to her. It was one of the reasons she’d taken the job. Supervision of other attorneys and the staff was the next logical step in her government career and she was looking forward to the challenges of management. So far, personnel supervision had only been wrangling over time sheets and days off.
Todd was talking about the planning commission case, but she was listening with half her brain, the other part thinking about the Rosales case she’d just received. Defending a deposition, where the other side was asking most of the questions, wasn’t as difficult as taking a depo, but the hard work took place beforehand. The witness had to be carefully prepared for the questions, and given the size of the case file, Jean suspected that the deposition was probably scheduled for a couple of days. She had to read the entire file, probably do some legal research and then spend hours prepping the sheriff. And she had less than a week to do it in. God, I hope she’s at least been deposed before or this is going to take forever.
Todd was finishing with, “So I couldn’t get them to reset the hearing to a date certain because the applicant wasn’t sure when he could get the reports back from the water and sanitation district.”
Jean waited. When he didn’t continue, she asked, “So what’s the issue?”
He fiddled with his tie, which was slightly askew as usual. “We have to republish all the notices, right?”
Oh, for God’s sake. “Yes, Todd, you have to send out new letters to the interested parties and repost the property when the new date is set.” She refrained from adding, And any first-year assistant county attorney would know that.
He nodded as if he really had known the answer all along. Jean stared at him, wondering for the first time if Todd had really meant to ask her something else. “Are you all right, Todd?” she asked.
He stood suddenly, as if he’d made a decision. “Yes, thanks,” he said.
He was out of her office in a couple of seconds, almost trotting as if to escape.
Well, that was weird. The next moment she mentally dismissed Todd Moorman and pulled the pile of folders toward her.
* * *
Jean tossed her glasses on top of the nearest file and stretched her arms above her head. A glance outside told her that the sun had already set. Dusky shadows were darkening the county annex building across the street. The colors here were different than in Texas where she had grown up, or Southern California, where she’d been the last seventeen years. Texas was red clay and a damp heat that turned the sky hazy blue. The Coachella Valley was even hotter but the abundant water made it green and lush in the midst of the desert. San Carlos was warm and dry and every color of the earth, caramel and chocolate and toast.
She smiled to herself. Okay, I’m obviously hungry. She pushed the pile of folders away and reached for her keyboard to check her email.
She’d assigned Rita the task of trying to set a time for her to meet with sheriff Hawkins so she opened that email first.
I talked to Vicki at the SO—she manages the sheriff’s calendar. She just laughed when I said we needed two or three days this week before the deposition. She can’t manage more than an hour on Thursday at 2 pm or Friday after three. You’ll have to talk to the sheriff personally to arrange something more. Vicki wouldn’t give me the sheriff’s cell but I gave her your number for the Sheriff to call you tonight. I hope that was okay.
Jean sighed, unhappy but not surprised. She spared an ungracious thought for her boss, who should have had the sheriff scheduled for deposition preparation weeks ago. She could probably kiss her weekend goodbye, assuming that she could even get the sheriff to agree to meet her.