Before Seth Bryan put the Navigator in park and got out, he could see Melanie’s form where she’d been the night before: seated with her back to the upstairs window. She was, he surmised, behind her desk at work on the manuscript, the joint project that was the only real bequest her husband had left her. Only, Seth suspected, it had become a tremendous burden to her. He could not help her with it. And tonight, he feared, he would add even more to the turmoil of her life. But not right away.
He rang the doorbell. Her steps sounded on the stairs. She peered out at him, her body shielded by the scarcely open door.
“If you have found another body,” she said slowly, “I’m not coming to look at it.”
He laughed. “No body. It’s time for me to make up to you for all the advice and insight you’ve given my department, Melanie. I’ve come to take you out for an early supper.”
“Thank you, Sheriff. I do appreciate the offer. But as it happens I just ate lunch.”
He reached out toward her face. She frowned, but did not pull away as he ran a fingertip along one edge of her mouth.
“A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Miss Gray, does not qualify as a meal.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt. “I want to take you to a nice little eatery—not one you have to dress for. Just a little classier than fast food. And if you’ll come along willingly, you won’t have to eat in handcuffs.”
She laughed. It was more hearty and relaxed than anything he had heard from her.
“Let me get my keys.”
Seth stood by the passenger’s side of his SUV and opened the door when Melanie reappeared. She had slipped a simple jacket over her peasant dress.
They rode through Rubicon Ranch in a comfortable silence. He had no illusion about her having any depth of trust in him, or much attraction for that matter—although he intended to find out if she had any. She did at least accept him. She had figured out how to remain comfortable around him. For some reason he did not really grasp, he had an abiding desire to express and explain himself to her.
The café was called Haute Sauce, and actually did offer continental cuisine. The hostess, a woman in her early thirties who had more than hinted for months that she wanted to add Seth to her list of conquests, ignored Melanie and touched his arm a half dozen times more than necessary as she led them to a corner table. He glared at the menu.
Taking a slow breath, he said, “I have been waiting for someone who speaks French so I could come eat here.”
“I’m pretty sure what she was saying doesn’t need a translator.”
“You know—” He dropped the menu on the table. “—it must be the uniform. If I were in street clothes, if I were anybody but a lawman, girls like that would pay me no attention whatever.”
“If you say so. So you don’t know what to recommend.”
“What do you do, Miss Gray, when literary groupies show too much interest in you? You can’t tell me you haven’t had your share of quasi-stalkers; people who adore your writing so much they feel as if they really know you—and you know them in return; people who are dying to ‘know you as a person’ instead of just a best selling author.”
As he sat watching her, waiting for a response, he suddenly realized she was about to start crying. He leaned forward in dismay.
“Oh my god. I’m sorry. I touched a nerve. I didn’t mean to.”
“No. No.” She dumped the knife and fork out of the table napkin and dabbed her eyes with it. “I told myself I wouldn’t let Mr. Seth Bryan get to me.”
“Honest, I wasn’t—”
“But you really didn’t get to me, Sheriff. It’s just . . . I never had to deal with those people on my own. Until now, Alexander was my buffer. Being so alone when I never anticipated it—that’s what gets to me.”
Seth’s head tipped slightly to one side. “So if I promise to be sensitive, can I ask about him?”
An expression of doubt flashed across her face. “You’re going to be sensitive? Seth Bryan—sensitive male?”
“Okay, so no scalpel is subtle. I understand. How about this—what if I tell you what I know about you and Alexander? If you want to say anything, you can. Fair enough?”
“Why would you know anything about us?”
The server, a tall, thin teenage boy, appeared. “Have you had time to—”
“I’ll have that roast beef sandwich with the au jus,” he said impatiently. “And a glass of tea.”
Melanie smiled. “The Cabernet Salad for me. I’ll just drink water.”
“Excellent choice, ma’am,” the kid said, as if he knew. “I’ll have some bread out for you right away.”
Seth sighed. He leaned forward, his hands in his lap. “Alexander was older than you. By four or five years, I believe. He was a teaching assistant at Boulder in the fine art department. He was already a far better photographer than the professor. He needed someone to write text to accompany his work, someone whose literary ability equaled his artistic ability. And you were just an undergrad, the darling of the English faculty. One of his colleagues had heard about you.” He measured the astonishment and recollection in her eyes and continued. “Right after that came the National Geographic article on wetlands. It was hugely popular. Critically the best received piece in years. The photos and text were perfectly paired. And so were you and Alexander. You adored him. He worshipped you. It was perfect. . . . Well, mostly perfect. Who would have thought that a sophisticate from New England like Alexander would ever hook up with a girl from the western slope of Colorado.”
She started. “What do you know about the western slope?”
“Delta County? Please. I figure that was your motivation to go to the university and become a literary star.”
Melanie studied him in silence. Finally, she spoke. “And who are you, Mr. Sheriff Seth Bryan? Is there any more to you than clever manipulation? ‘Laying behind the law’ so you can surprise people with what you know and use their emotions against them? Do you have a story that’s any less surly and despicable than the little world you live in?”
The waiter appeared with a large platter and deposited their drinks, food and a carafe of bread, bandaged in a napkin. “Is there anything else I can get for you?”
Seth looked across the table.
“I think we’re fine for now. We’ll shout ‘Voila!’ if we need you.” She watched him walk away. “And I thought the French always made you wait.”
Seth stared down at his plate. “Were you serious? Did you mean what you were asking before? Are you really interested in knowing how I got to be this way? Or were you just dope-slapping me?”
She took a bite of the dark leaves before her, a pungent aroma saturating the air between them. “Do you have to be twenty-one to order this salad?” She studied him as she ate. “Actually, Sheriff, I have become exceedingly curious as to how you got to be the way you are. I’ve finally decided that it has to do with all the morbid, irrevocably twisted, reprobates you deal with. It happens to police. You get to the point of believing that goodness is only a façade people wear. So when an upstanding citizen reports a death that turns out to be murder, your natural inclination is to assume she had something to do with it.”
He smiled. “I suppose it’s too late now to confess I knew you had absolutely nothing to do with Riley’s death from the instant I saw you. I should acknowledge as well that gigging you, teasing and threatening you have all been, I must say, completely effective ways of getting you to pay attention to me.”
“You know,” she leaned forward, her tone conspiratorial, as if she were agreeing with him, “my cousin once had a little male dog that used to hump my leg every time we went to visit. It certainly got my attention, though I must confess that to this day whenever I think of it I still dream of hitting it in the head with a stick.”
Seth ignored his plate, gazing at her silently. What was it about this woman—so unlike any he had ever been attracted to, so aloof and disinterested in him—that engaged the core of his being?
“I’m from Greene City, California. You’ve heard of it?”
“Of course. That big football game is played there.”
“The Orchard Bowl. I played in that game. Starting outside linebacker for SC.”
“No you’re not. And I’m not trying to impress you.”
“You want the real deal. Here it is. I was the fair-haired boy. I was president of my class in high school. I pledged the best fraternity on campus. I dated a cheerleader and we got married after we graduated.”
Melanie stopped eating. She turned her fork over and over between her fingers. “Sounds like the American dream.”
“I went into law enforcement. They brought me back on in the Greene City Police Department. I became a detective. Got my masters. Went up through the ranks like a shot. Until I became the youngest captain in the history of the force. I was on track to becoming the Greene City Chief of Police.”
“. . . Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but sheriff of this rural county is not on a par with police chief of a major metropolitan city.”
“True. I had an affair. With a woman on the force. A junior officer.”
“Oh. And your wife found out?”
“My wife knew. Long before it came to light. . . . Monica, my wife, was pretty miserable. She was willing to stay with me because I was this favorite son of Greene City. She was a socialite. She was on all sorts of civic committees and boards. Before she was forty, Monica had everything she had signed up for—well, except kids. She really didn’t want kids. I knew I would be a disaster with them, so it wasn’t hard to convince me not to have any. Anyway, Monica wanted for nothing and wanted nothing of what she had. Her escape—this is so ironic—were the books you and Alexander made, especially the forest book. She signed up for an eco-tour and traveled to Costa Rica right after she read that book. That was as happy as I ever saw her.
“. . . Anyway, Lydia Galvin . . . Lieutenant Lydia . . . she and I had an affair. What Lydia wanted was love. And she wanted me. She could not believe I didn’t love her to the extent she loved me. She wanted me to leave Monica. When I wouldn’t, she threatened to tell her. I told Monica first, as a preemptory strike. Lydia had visions of confronting Monica. Boy was she surprised when Monica confronted her. Monica told her to be content with what she had with me, that she was going to mess up all our lives if she kept on.
“Somehow Lydia got the idea that, if she came between me and my career, between me and my marriage, I would magically realize how much I cared for her. Once she told the right people on the force what was happening, the disciplinary procedures couldn’t be stopped. And of course discipline issues on the police force become public record. I had been the beloved, fair-haired boy before. It was so totally different to become the pariah. Lydia came to me—even after I had cleaned out my office and watched them paint over my name on my parking space. She came to where I was standing and said, ‘Can’t you understand how much I love you.’”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘I’m still licensed to carry a sidearm in California and if you come near me again I’m going to shoot you between the eyes.’”
Melanie snorted. She grabbed her glass and took a drink.
“So there I was: dreams lost and dignity in tatters. The thing was, I was still a good lawman. About three months after it all went down, I got a call from Rojo Duro County here. They needed somebody with my skills. And I needed a place out of the public eye, so to speak.”
“What about Monica?”
He looked down. “Monica has what is called ‘separate maintenance.’”
“So you’re not divorced?”
“Nope. Monica still believes that one day I’m going to be a big time chief, maybe in LA or somewhere.”
“And she thinks you’ll just take her back?”
“Oh hell no. That’s all over. She thinks she’ll get my paycheck. Her plan is to wait until I hit it rich and then divorce me. The alimony will be stupendous.”
She nodded slowly. “I think I see where you got the idea that everyone is warped and evil. . . . If you don’t mind me asking, why are you telling me all this?”
He sighed. “I guess I want you to know who I am and how I got this way. I guess I figured, if I spilled it all out there for you, it would make me more of a human to you—warts, adultery and all. So maybe, when I need you to help me, I won’t have to bully you. You’ll cooperate with me because you understand that getting my job done honestly is the most important thing to me.”
“Really,” she said. “All this time I thought you were just trying to seduce me.”
“To be honest, I find you hot. I don’t know why. You’re nothing like the women I go for. And I know you’d rather claw out my eyes and slash my throat than let me touch you. But who knows? Maybe you’ll change your mind about me. We have to solve these murders first.”
“’We?’ Like, I’m really involved?”
Seth sighed. “More than you know, you are involved. Which brings me to another subject, Melanie.”
“. . . Another subject?”
“Yes. I intended to tell you this today. I waited because I knew that, once I brought it up, you wouldn’t pay attention to me any more. I’ve been investigating what happened. Alexander’s car wreck, I mean.”
She sat up straight, completely focused on him.
“Melanie, I’ve looked at the reports. I went to the scene and took the photos with me.” He shook his head. “I’ve come to the conclusion that Alexander did not die in an accident.”